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Kids these days

By Bella English
Globe Staff / February 27, 2010

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A lot of us have what is known as an “adult child.’’ It sounds like an oxymoron, but for those of us with offspring in their late teens and early 20s, the emphasis is more on the “child.’’

During the holidays, when my son (18) and daughter (23) were home, the house was full in most ways but empty in others. Empty tank of gas in the car. Empty roll of toilet paper in the bathroom. Empty pitcher of juice in the fridge. Out of fairness to my daughter, I should note that much of this was her brother’s doing.

Science says an 18-year-old’s brain isn’t fully developed. My own research bears this out. To wit: My son, despite my frequent reminders, forgot his contact lenses on a recent family trip to Peru. When we got there, after flying from Boston to Washington, Washington to Miami, Miami to Lima, and Lima to Arequipa - an 18-hour odyssey - we immediately had to find a drugstore and get the lenses. This was after my husband had contacted our son’s eye doctor, who had to fax a prescription there.

Spaciness, of course, extends to both genders. Take my daughter’s best friend, who was staying with us before flying out to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. About an hour before we were to leave for the airport, I heard a scream. “Oh my God, I’ve forgotten my money!’’

It was Sunday afternoon. No banks were open. Her parents live in another state. Worse, the group organizers in Africa required the money to be in $100 bills, none dated before the year 2000. You do not want to know how my husband managed to solve that dilemma in an hour. I’ll just say it was all legal.

Friends have similar stories. A 21-year-old daughter calls from the road: “Daddy, the oil light went on. What does that mean?’’ A son calls from the campus bookstore: “Mom, how do you write a check?’’

“What do you mean I have to have the car inspected? By whom? Why? I have to pay for it?’’

“What’s a change of address form? Where do you fill them out? Why do I need to do that? I don’t get any mail.’’

“What’s my health insurance card? I don’t know where it is, but the ER says I have to have one to get seen.’’

“Security deposit? And first and last month’s rent? Are they kidding?? Where am I supposed to get that much money??’’ (Just guess.)

One friend tells her son to always carry at least $10 with him, just in case. The son, of course, doesn’t listen. He gets to a toll, has no money, blows through it - and gets a ticket for $50.

That same mom was thrilled when both kids were - finally - away at school. She and her husband enjoyed cooking leisurely dinners, watching movies, going to bed early. Then, both kids moved home. “Now, it’s who’s around for dinner, where did all these filthy socks come from, who didn’t lock the front door, and will they be home tonight?’’ she notes.

It’s not all their fault. We boomer parents, for various reasons, have lined our children’s nests in ultra-feathery comfort. We have steered them through all their money, car, cellphone, travel, computer, insurance, and job issues. Unlike bird parents, we never really kick them out of the nest. (I know parents who speak to their college kids three or more times a day.)

Most of us certainly didn’t grow up this way. My husband is, admittedly, an extreme example. He had to mow the lawn, paint the house, put the trash out, bring the milk in, wash the cars, change the oil, rotate the tires, rake the leaves, fertilize the lawn, shovel the driveway, fix leaky faucets, and balance the washing machine. “I certainly didn’t enjoy it,’’ he says, “but I understand it a little better now.’’

He thought his father was torturing him, which he was. But his dad was also teaching him life skills: how to do things. So many of us have overparented our kids, trying to shield them from disappointment and failure. We don’t even let the kids’ teams keep score, for their “self-esteem.’’

But life is rarely a tie game, and kids need some obstacles in order to learn resilience and independence.

On the other hand, boomer parents have been good role models for our children in other ways, including a strong work ethic and social activism. Our kids tend to be confident achievers, thanks to our obsession with education and, yes, ego. But danged if they can fertilize the lawn.