When Parents Enable Adult Children To Be Moochers

by | Jul 27, 2022 | Family, Parenting Teens | 23 comments

Are Parents Doing too Much for Adult Children?

Adult children can seriously take advantage of their parents–and seriously be moochers.

 

Sheila here!

A few weeks ago I started rerunning an important series I wrote six years ago about handling family dynamics as parents age and require care. 

We’re moving the blog to a new domain in the next few weeks (BareMarriage.com is coming!), and we’re only bringing posts from 2018 forward with us. But there were some older ones I wanted to save, so I’m rerunning some of them now.

Six years ago, when we were discussing caring for senior parents, many comments centered on the fact that what made this difficult was that many parents were spending so much of their limited income supporting kids and grandkids who should be caring for themselves. And it was building resentment in other kids.

Rebecca wrote this observation, as a newly married millennial, and I thought I’d rerun it today.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Rebecca here!

We began our series talking about what it’s reasonable for senior parents to expect from their adult children, because many parents in their golden years are asking far too much of their kids. But then a woman wrote to me with the opposite problem–what about when adult children expect far too much from their parents, and their parents enable it?

 

What do you say about when the older generation continue to do the basic Life Responsibilities for their adult children (things like loaning money for houses, loaning money for cars, buying cars in their name but for the “child” due to bankruptcy problems of the child?) Also, what about expecting things like babysitting and shopping trips and lunches and “partying” at a moments notice – often a VERY short moments notice, even when the child makes much more money than the parents?

That’s a great question, and my mom asked me to jump in since I’m the generation that is often doing this!

I’m at the stage of life where everyone is getting married. 

Seriously–I’ve told my husband Connor that we’ve got to cut it off at three weddings a year pretty soon, because we always seem to be involved in decorating or helping in some way, and it’s getting exhausting!

But because of that, the topics of conversation among all my friends revolve around how to move forward together and pursue your goals. And what I’ve noticed is that the couples who are trying to do it mostly on their own are far stronger than the others.

Helping your kids can sometimes actually set them up for failure.

I know that helping your kids seems like the nice thing to do. But the nice thing and the good thing aren’t always the same thing. Let’s take a look at the “paying for houses” issue for a moment.

There’s a reason banks require a down payment. It’s not because they’re mean–it’s because if you can’t afford a down-payment, you likely aren’t financially ready to be a home-owner. You won’t have savings in place in case the furnace goes or the roof goes.

Homes are expensive. There’s mortgage payments, property taxes, and don’t get me started on upkeep costs and unexpected repairs. Connor and I are currently saving for our first house, but I know we’re nowhere near ready right now to actually buy, even if the down-payment was completely given to us for free.

If you step in and take care of the payment before your child is ready to save up the money his or herself, how can you be sure they’re even ready to be a home-owner? It’s one thing to chip in to help with the down-payment if (a) it doesn’t eat into your retirement fund and (b) you’re topping up what your child has already saved, but when parents pay for these huge purchases for their kids they take away the responsibility from the child.

It’s not a bad thing to have to live in a small apartment for a while. Connor and I are currently in a two-bedroom basement apartment here in Ottawa, and plan to have our first kid here. The first three and a half years of my life were spent in a 2-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto, while Daddy was doing his residency.

Rebecca's living room in her small basement apartment, set up for Christmas this year!

If your kids want to move into a nicer place, they should be the ones to sacrifice and save for it. Not you. 

When parents give money to their adult children, it can set up a really bad dynamic in the family.

Usually what happens is that the irresponsible kid gets all the help, money, and attention from mom and dad and the responsible kid is expected to make it on his or her own.

So you’re in essence punishing the kid who went out and got a good job, saved money, and made responsible decisions because that kid doesn’t get the payout but watches his/her sibling make bad decisions and get fished out of trouble again and again.

This doesn’t only apply to money–it can be babysitting, a place to live, food, really anything. If your actions are enabling a child to make bad decisions, whether it’s to use you as free child care so they can party, not work, or live at your house rent-free–that is really unfair to other children and other family members.

People need to be held accountable to the choices they made

If you scrimped and saved all your life, were a good employee, and made decisions that added value to your life, the consequences are going to be pretty  good!

But if you decided to never work hard at any job, blew all your money on partying or cars and houses you couldn’t afford, and never saved for retirement? Well those consequences aren’t so fun, but are really important to feel. 

What often happens, though, is that parents freak out seeing their kids heading towards doom and destruction and they swoop in to save the day.

But then their kids just do the same thing next week. 

When we swoop in, we “disrupt the law of sowing and reaping”, as the authors of the great book Boundaries explain. God set up the world so that a basic law of human behaviour is that “you reap and what you sow” (Galatians 6:7). That’s how people are supposed to learn. When you disrupt that, then people stop learning. (Mom has more on setting boundaries here).

If you’re always available for babysitting whenever your kids need you last-minute because they want to party or go to a friends’ house, or if you co-sign loans and mortgages with them, or if you give them money to cover spending debt, you are not allowing them to feel the consequences of their actions. In fact, what you’re doing is actually saying, “these are good things to do, because you have mom and dad to help you out.”

Speaking as the kid in the situation, sometimes the best thing parents can do to help their adult children is to back out and say, “Sorry, you got yourself into this mess. We will be there to help you make a plan to get out on your own, but we can’t do the work for you.” 

The reality is, you will feel the consequences of your decisions, as well.

And it’s not selfish to say, “No, I can’t help you because I am saving for retirement.” You worked for 18 years to prepare this kid to be an adult. Now, they’re adults, and it’s their decision if they want to actually grow up or not.

But it is not your responsibility to keep taking care of them like they’re still children.

Helping with that last part of a down-payment they’ve been saving for, babysitting on weekends so they can have a break, or even coming over to help your child with cleaning and cooking when your grand-kids are young can be such a blessing when your kids are responsible and understand the true cost of such acts.

But when your kids aren’t acting like adults or aren’t making responsible decisions, doing things for them can create a sense of entitlement and reinforce negative behaviors.

So many parents sacrifice everything for kids who aren’t willing to lift a finger to help themselves. A close friend works with a bank and is often asked to review loan applications from people who are trying to cosign on a mortgage or line of credit for their children, and often he says no because the parents simply can’t afford it without emptying out their retirement fund.

If you drain your financial and emotional resources to try and keep your kids’ head above water when they aren’t being responsible themselves, that will affect you. You won’t have a retirement fund, you will be exhausted, and you’ll be stressed. No, it’s not fun to leave a kid to face his or her actions–but it is important, and it can end the negative cycle of destructive behaviors. Some family friends of ours found themselves in this position–they never got to enjoy their retirement because their kids kept coming over and taking groceries, money, and whatever else they needed. Their parents had become their personal convenience store/ATM.

Enabling your adult child’s irresponsible behavior is not the way to help your grandchildren

When I was growing up, I had a friend whose parents never once took her to a doctor’s appointment. She went, but it was always her grandparents who took her. Her parents worked normal hours, had plenty of time to hang out with friends or coworkers after work, but somehow never brought their daughter to her yearly check up.

This started when she was a baby, and for the rest of her life I don’t think her mom (parents eventually divorced and the mom raised her) ever brought her to a check up. And my friend grew up feeling like she never really belonged. Her mom loved her as much as she ever had to, but the grandparents took care of everything so she never had to actually think about her kid. And she just stayed selfish instead of learning how to be a good mom.

At heart, you either think your child is a fit parent who is just lazy and a little selfish, or you think that your child is an unfit parent. In my friend’s case, it truly was the former. Her grandparents didn’t help matters by doing basic parenting tasks that were really her mom’s job. If your child is seriously unfit to be a parent, then it’s time to get child protective services involved. But if they aren’t dangerous, just a bit immature, it’s time to let them feel the weight of being a parent and let them grow up.

Child protective services will often place a child who is being neglected with you. And it’s often less stressful to raise a child yourself than to constantly be worrying about that child if they’re living with an unfit parent. So if your child is unfit, tell your child, “I am raising my grandchild for a year while you get your life sorted out, and if you don’t agree, I’ll just call child protective services. But right now you aren’t coping without me, and that’s not right.” In other words, go all in, or don’t do it all. But don’t enable your child.

Being told “no” is never fun. Telling your kids you’re no longer their ATM machine likely won’t be fun for them to hear, either. But even though it might be uncomfortable, it is so important in the big picture.

People get away with whatever they can get away with! So why not stop the cycle? Why not start creating boundaries that encourage responsible behavior instead of mooching? The long-term effects will be worth it.

Thanks, Rebecca!

I just want to echo what she said about setting up this dynamic where all the focus, money, and time in the family goes to the adult child who is irresponsible, rather than the ones who are doing the right thing. I’ve seen this again and again, and it breeds serious resentment and a really bad dynamic. And it often starts when the kids are teens. So be careful! Love your children who don’t seem to need you as much, too. They deserve it.

And what if you’re the good kid, and your parents are pouring money and energy they don’t have into another kid? The hardest thing is that you may not be able to change this dynamic. But talk to them about it. Ask if this is best for the long-term, for everyone involved. And make sure that they’re not bleeding their bank accounts dry. 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

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When Parents Allow Adult Children to Be Moochers

Have you had any problems with adult children mooching? How did you handle it? What if it’s a sibling? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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23 Comments

  1. Noel

    We have friends who have done this- bought a house and a car for their daughter and the father of her child. They are supposed to be making the payments now, based on his “job” working for the father. The girl works a few days a week as a beautician and her mom babysits the baby. In this situation, though, the parents have tried to use their help as a way to force the young couple to marry and make the baby legitimate, as well as push a conversion from the young man. The parents also talk about “their” baby and complain about how the couple cares for her. It is a very unhealthy situation!

    Reply
    • Cynthia

      Boundaries – EVERYONE in that scenario needs them!

      Reply
  2. Jess

    There are also the parent who feel guilty for not raising their children right, and it is somewhat accurate that they are responsible for their child’s irresponsibility. It still does not help them long-term however and no amount ever satisfies like repentance and parental acceptance. Like the workaholic father using gifts to compensate for being uninvolved, it is avoiding the vulnerability and intimacy that may heal the past.

    Reply
  3. Char

    My situation is that I want to help our two adult children (19 & 24) who still live with us be more independent but my husband has no desire to do this. He has even said he doesn’t care if they live with us till they’re 30 or so. I want to help both of them become more responsible, set goals and work toward moving out but how do I do this without my husband’s support or cooperation? Sometimes I am tempted to move out so I’m not participating in this dynamic, but I own the house. They both work for their dad (my husband), but it is not steady work, so it’s not really a “real” job for either of them.

    Reply
  4. Sarah

    Mmm. There is nuance to this. In my own life, I became a homeowner three years ago when my parents sold a car of theirs to fund a house deposit for me. Three of my other siblings had bought houses by this point. Am I just my parents’ golden girl? No – my second youngest brother had recently had a psychotic break and run away to another country to attempt suicide. We got him back, long story short, but my parents lived and worked in China at the time and were tied into their contract there. Once the dust settled, it became apparent that he would need to move in with family to recover and that fell to me, as the oldest working sibling who didn’t have a partner. My brother almost definitely has inherited my granddad’s schizophrenia (80% genetic link!) plus he is dyspraxic and I think he very likely has Asperger’s too. So living on his own wasn’t going to work out (he’s tried a few times now, with disastrous consequences). He did have a fit of anger at me two years into living together, so I asked him to leave, and he lived alone in my parents’ empty house in the country for a few weeks until they got back from China. They took him with them to their next contract in Germany. Another couple years down the line and he is currently teaching ESL in South Korea, but we’re all kind of waiting with bated breath and praying that this job sticks, as when he comes back my parents will likely be divorced, so there wouldn’t be the same safetynet. I’m aware I haven’t explained everything coherently but suffice to say, life can get complicated fast and while your principles are great if they work for your family situation, sometimes what needs to happen isn’t the ideal thing, but there’s no other alternative.

    Reply
  5. Mandy

    Wow. How I can relate to this post!! I have two younger brothers who use my mother terribly. One lives with her when he has his daughter for visitation. He and his girlfriend (on non visit weeks they stay at her parents) come to my moms house, take over her bed while she moves to the couch, and enjoy the weekend while mom cooks, cleans and babysits the entire weekend, not to mention she is footing the bill for all of them o. A very limited income. It makes me sick. The other, who has a severe drug habit, only comes when he needs something and regularly steals from her to feed his habit. The ironic part is that my mom can see other people doing stuff like this and calls them an enabler while she sees absolutely nothing wrong with what she is doing. It is always easier to point fingers. The really twisted part is that According to them I am the one who is the bad person. I’m married with four kids and pay my own bills and have my own home. I don’t buy into their lies and don’t put up with them stealing and using people but it is my fault that we aren’t the big happy family. It definitely causes problems. For my own sanity I have pulled back from my extended family and have to do what is best for my own immediate family.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I understand, Mandy. I know so many who have this same experience. I’m sorry.

      Reply
  6. Angharad

    If you want your kids to be independent adults, start encouraging them to be independent while they are still kids.

    I remember when I was about 3 or 4 being encouraged to ‘help’ by taking my own plate to the kitchen (it was a non breakable one!!!) By the time I was 11, I was responsible for keeping my own room tidy, getting my own lunch and doing my own laundry. I could also clean anything in the house and cook a meal for the whole family when needed. Leaving home held no fears for me because I already had years of experience running a house.

    By contrast, I have friends who are still running round after their 18-year-old children, doing everything for them. These kids may hold down a part-time job, but all their cleaning, laundry, cooking, shopping etc is done for them. If they don’t even know how to operate a washing machine or an iron, how on earth are they going to cope when they leave home?

    Reply
  7. Mary

    That part about taking over for a year raising the grandchild. Yikes, way more context is necessary to give that advice. If the child is in danger or truly neglected, involve CPS. Full stop. Child’s interests first, and grandparents can’t fix that themselves. I see you are trying to convey those principles but the specifics there are… too specific and beyond the scope of this post IMHO.

    Doing things for other people that they ought to be doing for themselves, so often that it gets to be an expectation or entitlement, is where kindness becomes enabling. Sometimes it’s hard to realize you’re crossing the line until it’s become an entrenched pattern. Good boundaries are key! And it’s best to start young, but if you didn’t best to do the best you can with where you are now, not act from a place of trying to push down your shame at having not done what you ought. Your kids are going to suffer from that coddling sooner or later.

    I come from a severely disordered family where I was not permitted to learn to do things for myself like laundry or cooking without severe micromanaging and criticism, so I just didn’t try until I got to college. It was rough, but after the first year I got the hang of things and it really wasn’t as hard as I was led to believe!

    Reply
  8. Laura

    And there are lots of people raising their grandchildren. One of my best friends adopted her now 2-year-old grandson for his safety. Her daughter just cannot stay away from drugs and has not shown signs of making changes in her life. My friend has kept the grandson since he came home from the hospital at birth. Thankfully, my friend had set boundaries with her daughter before she became an adult. When the daughter returned home a year after running away at 17, my friend informed her of the rules such as get a job, help out around the house, get a GED, and be respectful. If the daughter did not abide by those rules, she was not allowed to stay with my friend. I admire my friend for not enabling her daughter and sticking to her guns. It has been heartbreaking to see my friend struggle as a single parent for many years. Thankfully, she got married to a wonderful man around the time she took in her grandson. Still, she deals with her daughter’s drama and their relationship is strained.

    Reply
  9. Tiffany

    I do understand where you’re coming from and agree with the sentiment. I’ve seen the dynamic your talking about, however given the difficult situations many young families face (expensive healthcare, heavy inflation, no paid parental leave, etc) this post kinda has entitlement vibes too. There are plenty of extremely responsible couples that wouldn’t survive without help and it’s not their fault that 2 teachers with masters degrees (example) can’t afford things. The system is kinda failing. I’ve heard too many “well they chose to have kids” from more well off Christians in this situation and it’s very off putting. Again not what your doing I don’t think, but close enough there should maybe be a bit more compassion in the updated version.

    Reply
    • Sarah

      Thank you. I agree.

      Reply
    • Laura

      I can relate because of expensive healthcare. During my 20s, I was living on my own and worked for a company who discontinued my benefits so I had to get on COBRA which was very expensive. It was nearly $400/month and due to pre-existing conditions I could not get individual insurance. My parents, who lived in another state, helped me out a bit by giving me grocery store gift cards. I worked hard to live frugally and tried to avoid dipping in my savings account as much as I could. That was a hard financial season in my life, but it is very unfortunate how expensive the cost of living has become. Especially, when you are single and/or have children.

      Reply
    • Amy

      I agree! I’ve definitely seen parents bail their adult children out instead of letting them face the financial consequences of bad decisions. But I don’t think all aspects in this economy are possible. My monthly mortgage combined with all my upkeep costs (condo fees, insurance, property tax, utilities, etc) costs LESS than it would for me to rent a smaller place monthly. What am I supposed to do with that? If not for parents gifting us 20,000 dollars towards a down payment, letting us live in their studio apartment for cheap rent and helping with renos, we never could have gotten our foot in the housing market and we would be paying more to a landlord and retaining zero value for any of us. If we hadn’t gotten into the housing market then with the aid of that gift, we wouldn’t even be on sqaure one, we’d be on square negative 2. If that makes me a moocher than guilty I guess, but without that generosity we wouldn’t have learned some financial lesson to magic our way out of rising house prices in that time. Instead, we would just never start a family, or afford for me to go back to school and instead put those extra dollars into a landlords pocket (with rent continuously rising on us.) We would continue to save for that initial downpayment with a minimum entry price that’s growing faster than we could ever catch up to as the housing market continues to be out of control. I know some very financially responsible people my age that are independent adults – none of them own property without parents help and those whose parents can’t help them spend more in rent than I do for all my housing costs combined. I know the intent of the article is to stop bailing out “bad” decisions but those lines get murky – what’s being irresponsible and what’s just unrealistic?

      Reply
      • Rebecca

        Amen! My husband’s parents divorced when he was 17; he did all his college decisions on his own, and frankly he needed more guidance than was available to him. So when we married at 23, he had $24k in loans and a degree that left him with very few job options. We both worked and paid for his master’s in cash, replaced cars with cash, and eventually paid off that debt by running ourselves into the ground and then needing extensive counseling at the end of it. We purchased a house almost two years ago (at age 35) with a generous pitch-in from my parents — literally the only way that would have been possible before our kids were ready for college. Part of the deal was renovating a good chunk of the house into an in-law apartment for them; a win-win for sure. But it’s not like every millennial who can’t afford a down payment is lazy or irresponsible. It’s just much more complicated than that. If his parents hadn’t saddled him with so much debt, our financial situation would have been enormously different and we likely would have been able to do a down payment on our own. But it just wasn’t in the cards, and our story for sure is not unique in that way.

        Reply
        • Sarah

          Thanks for sharing, Amy and Rebecca. Times are tough! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with families pulling together.

          Just to add as well that this individualist way of doing family that’s common in the West is culturally bound; many other cultures do not operate this way. I loved the film Encanto for highlighting an intergenerational family living together under one roof. And this culture of kicking kids out to fend for themselves at 18 is seen as unloving and irresponsible by many Chinese friends of mine. Not saying it is, but that’s their perspective.

          Reply
    • Lin

      Yes, I (sadly) agree. I guess my family would be considered a moocher by this article’s standards, but I don’t think we are. We just bought a duplex with my mom; she lives down and we live up. She furnished the down payment and initial investment, while we are funding a lot of the renovations. Once she retires in a few years and is on a fixed income, we’ll swap and pay the larger share, and her smaller share will contribute to renovations instead of the mortgage. Now she helps with babysitting; in a few years we’ll be helping her with daily tasks.

      Considering the rapid housing price rise over the last few years, I have no idea how most people are managing to buy a house. A LOT of people I know are getting help with their down payment!

      Reply
  10. Kya

    This isn’t related to the current article at all (though it does make me grateful that my own family has healthy dynamics in this area!), but Sheila, I loved some of your parenting articles about when Rebecca and Katie were little. Will those make the jump?

    Reply
  11. The in-law

    I feel this so strongly as my SIL takes advantage of my MIL. In fact, she is quite abusive to her mother and still drops her kids off for nearly endless free childcare. Everyone sees this and it has torn the family apart largely because of my MIL failing to have any sort of boundary

    Reply
  12. Amy

    Something that is missing from this discussion is when your adult child truly needs some temporary help. When I was 32 I left an abusive marriage. I was a stay-at-home-mom at the time, so I didn’t have my own income. My at the time one-year-old daughter and I lived with my parents for 13 months until I had found a job and my life was stable enough for me to find a place to rent. My parents had the financial means to help me when I really needed it and I am very thankful for that. Hopefully my siblings understood the desperate situation I was in and weren’t resentful of the help our parents were providing me.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I hope they were too! That’s a totally different situation. It’s like what Galatians says–we should carry our own load, but carry each other’s burdens. A load is something a person can manage on their own; a burden is something you can’t. The problem comes when we’re carrying each other’s loads–the things they should do for themselves. Then when someone genuinely has a burden we’re already busy. But we should always have time to carry each other’s burdens! I’m glad your parents were there for you.

      Reply
  13. Felicity

    It’s all relative though. Different cultures have different standards. Intergenerational living works very well for many families in many cultures. I think that as long as everyone contributes, how families live their lives is no one else’s business. Adult children working in a family business might be thought dependent when they never spread their wings and get out into the working world. There are different ways of living life.

    Reply

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