Are We Enabling Our Children?

Years ago, Joyce and I saw a couple who were financially supporting their 31 year old daughter. They were paying for her rent, her college tuition (although she was only taking one class at a time), her insurance premiums, and still she just couldn’t get by, so there were frequent calls for more money, which this couple would immediately send. They understood they were enabling their daughter, but they felt they would be heartless to cut off this financial support. And, to complicate matters further, their daughter blamed them for her problems, adding guilt to the mix.

Some months ago, the front cover of Time Magazine depicted a man in his thirties as a dependent child, and the feature story described a current generation of young adults who are still dependent on their parents, a generation that “refuses to grow up.”

How does this happen? How do we, as parents, enable our children, and actually prevent them from growing up?

It starts quite young. My mother, Helen, an only child, was not allowed to do even the simplest of chores. When she asked her mother to teach her to cook, her mother replied, “You don’t need to learn how to cook. When you’re married, you will have cooks preparing all your food.” Another time, when grandma discovered my mom sweeping the floor, she grabbed the broom away and said, “Let me do that, Chanala. When you’re married, you’ll have servants cleaning your house.” Imagine my grandma’s disappointment when my mom married Michael, the poor boy next door, rather than the prince she was supposed to marry. My mother started her married life handicapped. She describes putting water in a pot, and then eggs in the water, and then asking my dad why nothing was happening. He took one look and sympathetically offered, “You need to light the burner.”

You’d think my mother would have learned her lesson and raised us differently. But no, my sister, brother and I likewise were not encouraged to clean up after ourselves, although I’m sure my mom would not have grabbed a broom out of our hands. And yes, when I married Joyce, I expected her to do all the cooking and cleaning. That didn’t last long. She let me know quite clearly that we were a team.

We have come up with four rules to prevent enabling your children. Here they are.

Rule Number One: Don’t do anything for your children when it can be better for them to do it by themselves. This doesn’t mean be a tyrant, ordering your children around. Rather, make it a delightful game when they’re young. Think of Mary Poppins singing, “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” and the playroom miraculously cleans itself up. Well, the real miracle is not that the room cleans itself up, but that parent and child have fun together doing “work.” And yes, sometimes (or often) you will be better off doing it yourself. As the child gets older, this of course becomes more important.

Rule Number Two: Praise and appreciate your children when they show responsibility. Don’t ever take these acts for granted. Thank them when they do a chore, even one that is expected of them, like bringing their plate to the sink. We recommend to couples that there should be ten appreciations to every one criticism of their partner. The same goes for parents.

Rule Number Three: It’s easy to give too much money, but impossible to give too much love. In fact, giving money is often a cop-out from giving love. It may be easier in the moment, but creates more problems later on. Genuine love never enables.

Rule Number Four is perhaps the most difficult, but may be the most important: Stop blaming yourself for all your children’s problems and idiosyncrasies. That’s right, some of their “problems” are not problems but unique ways they express themselves. And some problems have nothing to do with you. Parents who blame themselves for their children’s problems, feel guilty and then often do too much for their children.

Joyce and I currently have two daughters grown and on their own, and one almost sixteen-year-old son still living at home. All three saved money from quite young to buy their first rather old car at age sixteen. Our son is about to do that. We helped the girls through college, and will do the same for our son. The requirement: that they go full time and keep up their grades. After college graduation, they’re on their own financially. Our kids may make mistakes. We did! We hope to continue loving them through them all.

Now, what about the couple and their 31 year-old daughter? We helped them set up a plan of decreasing financial support, and increasing compassionate support. Every cut-back was met by anger and blame, which we all expected. At times this couple had to withhold their offer of love, since it was too painful to be vulnerable in this way in the face of their daughter’s negativity. It was often “tough love.”

It has been two years since their last payment to her. Last month she called her parents to thank them for their love and wisdom, and yes, even for stopping the money flow. “Mom and dad,” she finally said, “I’m struggling but it feels so good to be on my own.”

Ultimately, all young people want and need to be independent and self-supporting. They want to know that they can make it in the world with the blessing, not the money, of their parents. We, as parents, give our children the greatest gift when we help them not only to be financially self-sufficient, but to learn to receive the highest love in the universe.

Scroll to Top