When my sons, Nate and Will, left for college on the other side of the country, I thought my child-raising days were over. No more family dinners, carpools, or weekends spent cheering at soccer games. But with their first phone calls home (“Should I take Economics 1 or Modern Poetry?” “How do you make lasagna?” “Do I have to separate lights and darks?”) and the hundreds of email exchanges that followed, I realized that I was not quite out of business yet.
Although we were relieved that our sons were still part of the family even as they launched themselves into the world, my husband and I were often confused about how to be good parents at this stage. Their uncertainty about their life paths in turn stirred up our uncertainty about them. We often huddled behind closed doors and wondered, “Are they all right? Will they land on their feet? Is there something we should be doing to help them along?”
At dinner parties we compared notes with friends who had kids the same age. Most were similarly bewildered by their 20-somethings. Some were seriously concerned. One friend’s daughter had opted out of college; without a circle of peers around, she was lonely and depressed. Another’s son had changed his college major so many times that his parents wondered if he would ever graduate. Still another mother bemoaned her daughter’s unemployed, live-in boyfriend and her son’s choice to be a “manny” while writing his Great American Novel. “I could choose such perfect partners for them and such wonderful careers, if they’d just ask,” she said with a sigh, only half joking. As if.
As we fretted about our kids, newly empty-nested parents discussed one more topic with equal passion: our own lives and how they, too, were suddenly full of uncertainty and flux. Raising children had provided pleasure and meaning and structure for eighteen years or more, and now everything was up for grabs. Our marriages and friendships. Our finances and work lives. Our newly quiet households. What we did for fun. “I feel as if I’ve been at the center of the best party for twenty-five years,” one friend said after the last of her three sons left home. “And now it’s over.” It seemed ironic that we parents were asking ourselves the very same question our kids were asking themselves: “What do we do with the rest of our lives?”
As a longtime writer about family issues in books and magazines, I find the best way to explore life’s big questions is to research and write a book about them. I wrote about the challenges of raising young kids in I Swore I’d Never Do That when mine were five and two. This time I paired with Clark University developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnett to explore the lives of 18-29 year olds and create a guidebook for parents to the launching years: looking for work and love, boomeranging home, struggling to become financially independent, and finding a steady path.
Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the lengthened new stage between adolescence and adulthood. We found a lot of good news to tell about how the years of experimenting from 18 to 29 help set the foundation for a happy and successful adult life. Just as the months of crawling prepare babies for a firmer footing when they finally get up and walk, so do the exploring, unstable, fall-down-and-get-back-up emerging adulthood years prepare a young person for the tasks of adulthood.
*Most importantly, the extended years of emerging adulthood enhance the likelihood that young people will make good choices in love and work. With more experience, emotional and cognitive maturity, and a clearer sense of identity, the 28-year-old is a lot better prepared to choose a marriage partner, make a wise decision about a career path, and eventually become a good parent than the 18- or 22-year-old is.
* The twenties-decade gives grown-up kids a window of opportunity to have experiences that may not come around again—take a shot at that musical career, volunteer for a service project in a developing country, or try and reject a path that’s not the right fit. At first glance, parents may not see these adventures as cause for celebration, but we advise you to take the long view. If today’s 20-somethings are likely to live to be at least 80 or 90 years old, why rush into adulthood at 18, 22, or even 25? Making the most of the freedom of emerging adulthood while it lasts will make for fewer middle-age regrets.
*The long transition of emerging adulthood allows parents to enjoy the fruits of all the strenuous, earlier child-raising years. Before long your grown-up kids will fall in love; they’ll find a partner who will become that person they rely on for support and nurturance every day, instead of you. It happens to almost everyone. So, if you’re still seeing a lot of your children in their twenties, enjoy this special closeness one last time, and try to create a foundation of love and mutual trust that will endure in the decades to come.
NEW BOOK TRAILER for Grown-Up Kid
Adapted and excerpted from When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Copyright 2013 by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Elizabeth Fishel.
Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Reunion.