Today’s kids sharing everything with parents


By Brian Goslow


By the age of 18, Teresa Carson was married; by 21, she was pregnant with her son, Robert. “I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and that was what you did,” said Teresa Carson, 50, of Worcester.

Growing up, she didn’t have a close relationship with her parents and entered adulthood without a map. “Basically, they were there to provide a roof over my head, the clothes on my back and the food on my table,” she said of her youth. “The only thing I remember my mother telling me was to find a man with a good trade. It was very awkward; I had to figure it out on my own.”

These days, parents and kids are more apt to have those kind of life talks — on a regular basis — during what’s being called “emerging adulthood” — those years between 18 and 29. The days of “Never trust anyone over 30” seem well past.

A new Generations Study survey conducted by AARP The Magazine found that today’s parents have more daily talks and get more weekly face time with their kids than was the case when they were growing up. Those discussions are “deeper,” with 79 percent of today’s young adults feeling comfortable discussing emotional events with their parents as opposed to 62 percent of boomers when they were young.

According to AARP, some of the reasons for this new “cultural phase” are:

•economic uncertainty in a new political climate;

•cultural response to generational separation of the 1960s and 1970s;

•increasing multicultural landscape causing a cultural shift; and

•fewer strictures on societal ideas such as marriage and sexuality.

When it comes to talking more often, 31 percent of today’s young adults say they talk more than once a day to their parents; 13 percent of boomers said they talked with their parents.

Sixty percent of young adults said they visited their parents at least once a week while only 42 percent of their parents had dropped in on their mom or dad on a weekly basis at the same age.

Doreen Dunlevy, 56, of Tewksbury sees her daughter, Kara Dunlevy, 26, almost daily. And, she works for her father, Stephen, 56, in nearby Andover and normally visits during her lunch break. However, since she spends much of her day on the phone, Kara Dunlevy prefers a salad and TV time during her break, rather than chatting with her mother.

More substantive time for conversation occurs during weekend meals. “It lets down all the walls when you come for a dinner and you spend time with each other and you really talk,” said Kara Dunlevy, who has an apartment in Somerville. She said she feels “very comfortable” talking with her parents. “If I have anything going on in my life, I feel I can talk to them and they’ll give me their honest opinion and be there for me.”

That’s especially true when it comes to financial issues. “They definitely have more experience in that department than I do,” Kara Dunlevy said. “If I make any big purchases, I go to them.”

Similarly, the Dunlevys are “pretty comfortable” keeping their children informed on what’s going on in their lives. That includes son Ryan, 27, who lives in Brighton with his girlfriend. While there isn’t as much face-to-face time, parents and son talk once a week and get reacquainted during ski trips and other family get-togethers.

“Issues of the family, if someone’s having surgery or grandma needs this or that — I keep Ryan and Kara posted,” Doreen Dunlevy said. “We’re a close family.”

That’s the opposite of the experience Doreen Dunlevy had with her own parents. “I knew nothing about their personal finances or anything of that nature,” she said. “Even health and medical stuff, that was very private. They didn’t share that with us.”

This change in relationship is due, in great part, to the gigantic change that has occurred in society and the nuclear family over the past five plus decades, according to Clark University psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett. The author of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult (Workman), which will be published this spring, coined the term “Emerging Adults” in 2000.

While it might be strange to hear about this prolonged adolescence, especially if you grew up at a time when you were expected to be preparing yourself for adulthood during your high school years, it’s been in development since 1960, Arnett said.

“If you look to 1960, that is when you begin to see a steep rise in participation in higher education, especially among young women,” he explained. “In 1960, only about one-third of young people were going to college and most of them were men. Men were twice as likely to be in college then as women were. Now 70 percent of young people get at least some college and there are more women than men who get higher education.”

Fueling the move to more education, the country’s economy slowly moved from being manufacturing-based to being an information and technology services economy. “That put a higher premium on high school education and post-secondary education than ever before and that’s one of the reasons more and more people started getting more and more education,” Arnett said. “That in turn pushed the marriage age later, the age of entering parenthood later and having fewer children. More people are having their children when they’re in their late 20s and their 30s than in their late teens and early 20s.”

The Generation Gap, fueled by the social changes of the 1960s — the sexual revolution, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War — also contributed to today’s closer parent-child relationships.  The era brought heated morality debates at home and divided the generations in an unprecedented way. The end result was lifestyle options that would have been unimaginable to most prior to 1960.

“The parents of today’s emerging adults pioneered a lot of things that their kids today take for granted,” Arnett said. “Things like premarital sex being widely tolerated if not exactly accepted; cohabitation being normative; women, their opportunities and their expectations that they’ll have a career — those things all began in their parents’ generation.”

Carson said one of her proudest moments as a mother was when son Robert returned home for a visit his freshman year in college to ask her about birth control and what the best methods were. “It was all I could do to control myself because I knew I had done something right,” she said. “Something had resonated in him because he was OK talking to me about things.”

Robert Carson, of Quincy, is now 30. He said there are no discussion taboos between him and his mother. “There’s nothing I hide from her,” he said. “We talk about anything from relationships to love to dating or alcohol. I can talk to her about anything.” He isn’t as close with his father who lives out west and who he usually visits once a year.

Though he communicates with his mother every other day through email and calls her once a week; they meet face-to-face each month. “I feel blessed that I’m able to talk with her about things other kids couldn’t talk to their parents about,” Robert Carson said.

That includes finances.

“I feel pretty comfortable telling her if I get a new job offer and if I have a new job, about how much it pays,” Robert Carson said, adding that while he doesn’t necessarily go to his mother for financial advice, “I get advice on what to do with, what to do without and what to watch out for.”

He became engaged last year and will be getting married in August. It is likely that his marriage will be quite different from marriages 50 or more years ago.

“The boomers developed this new ideal that marriage should be a soul mate relationship; you should find someone who is your ideal partner,” Arnett said. “Marriage became more of a partnership between equals, each of whom would earn an income and would contribute to running the household and raising kids.

“Almost all of today’s emerging adults expect to find their soul mate in marriage. That again is a legacy of their parents — it’s an ideal that their parents invented, but they grew up with that expectation. It’s not revolutionary for them, it’s just the way things are and the way things should be.”

While the lives of today’s emerging adults may be closer to that of their parents’ than their parents’ were to their mothers and fathers, that doesn’t necessarily make it more comfortable for boomerang kids who don’t find a job right out of college and have to return home due to financial necessity.

“I don’t think it necessarily promotes greater closeness in the long run because, while there is closeness when they move home, there’s also more conflict,” Arnett said. “There’s a lot of research, including mine, which shows that the farther away they live from their parents, the better everyone gets along because there’s not the daily conflict over who left the towel on the floor or who ate the last donut.”

Regardless of the generation, almost any parent will ask their children the “When are you getting a job?” question when applicable. But a new twist has been added over the years.

“Prior to the boomers, if you look at the World War II generation and every previous generation, work was not considered something that was supposed to be fun,” Arnett said. “People didn’t think of work as a place of self-fulfillment. You went to work because you had to, because you were a man you had to support yourself and you had to support a family. Most work was drudgery and something you did to make a living.

“But the boomers invented the idea that work would be fun and I think that’s partly because the economy expanded in all these ways that resulted in new professions like information, technology and services that actually could be fun — not necessarily in actuality, but it held that potential.”

Because today’s emerging adults want work to be fun, they are facing a shortage of employment options in part because of the economy but compounded by their pickiness about where they’ll work.

“That now frequently drives their parents crazy,” Arnett said. “(They’re asking,) ‘Why are you quitting this good job, you had benefits, you had a pension plan’ — and their kids are saying, ‘Well, I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t feel it was really me.’ They (the parents) did the same thing at that age but now they’re older and wiser, they get a bit exasperated sometimes.”

Not every family has the same warm relationships the Carsons and Dunlevys share; both the Carson and Dunlevy offspring have encouraged their friends to close any gaps — real or perceived — between them and their parents.

“When I talk to my friends, I tell them how we talk about issues and ask them why they don’t talk to their parents (to improve relations between them),” Robert Carson said.

“It’s important to try to be together,” Kara Dunlevy said. “Unfortunately, our generation is always on our cellphone. Always make it a point at dinner — no cellphones. You can bring boyfriends or girlfriends if you want, but it’s just about being with your family. Play a game or something like that — it doesn’t have to be a grand vacation but just having some time together and doing something you all enjoy is very important.”

A good first step, especially for parents whose children aren’t meeting their expectations, is to acknowledge the changes that have occurred and continue to occur. “The proportion of kids going to college is still rising. The marriage age is still rising, the birthrate is still declining and the economy is still moving more and more away from manufacturing and toward information and technology services,” Arnett said.

“These are all changes that are still in progress. I think the emerging adulthood stage is here to stay; people find it very useful, including many parents, to understand it as a new life stage.”