The rate-of-living theory proposes that the slower an organism’s metabolism is, the longer its lifespan will be. Some recently discovered bacteria at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean may exhibit the slowest metabolism of any creature on Earth. Because almost no nutrients descend that far down to the seafloor, these microorganisms have cleverly figured out a way to live pretty much without any nutrients at all by slowing down their physiological processing speed to very close to zero. Sloths are organisms that also operate at extraordinarily low metabolic rates. Their movements are so incremental and glacial that moss actually has the time to grow on their backs, so it is no surprise that their name has become intimately associated with inactivity and laziness.
What does this all of this have to do with young adults who, from a developmental standpoint, also appear as if they are standing still? From my perspective, when people slow down their “rate-of-living”, they are doing so for the same reason that every other creature does—to survive. Mystified parents wonder how their offspring can live without the essential “nutrients” that would seem to define a healthy life—achievement, success, mastery, self-reliance, romance, and relatedness, money-in-your-pocket or in-the-bank—but some young adults, for a variety of reasons that will be addressed in another post, are able to establish a form of subsistence living, eschewing these psychological vitamins and apparently “doing without” just fine.
What I see from my clinical perspective, however, is that they are really not doing well without. Invariably, parents are, perhaps without being aware of this, subsidizing their young adult’s indolence. Sometimes this subsidy takes a fiscal form. Being able to live at home rent-free, having a cell-phone plan covered, free and unlimited Internet access, cash randomly handed over upon request and without any expectation of repayment, clothing allowances, unrestricted use of the family car, a debit or credit card that can be used to keep that car filled with gas (and keep a stomach filled with junk-food)—all of these are the (sometimes invisible) allotments that help to keep an inert young adult in a sloth-like state.
Parents will often insist to me that, “I don’t give him a dime.” But upon closer questioning, it becomes clear that they are underwriting, in numerous ways, their adult child’s under-functioning.
Sometimes these subsidies exist on more of a psychological than financial dimension. Well-meaning parents will continue to try to assist or encourage their young adult in ways that are more congruent with the developmental stage of a ten-year-old than a twenty-year-old. This kind of endowment can take the shape of making medical or dental appointments for them, arranging for them to work with a tutor in college, reminding them that they need to help out with chores, or finding them a lawyer (and perhaps even paying for that lawyer) so that the implications of a legal issue, such as a DUI, are mitigated.
It is natural for caring parents to want to perform these functions—after all, it’s the kind of thing that they may have been doing for years. And if growth towards independence is proceeding apace, then supports of this sort are fine, or at least benign. The problem arises when performing these functions for some young adult children, which can actually help keep them in a child-like state.
The highly-skilled, subsistence-inclined young adult doesn’t need much to continue surviving. And parental allotments—in whatever form they are doled out—may be providing him with just enough nutrient to squelch any motivation to take responsibility and move forward with life. If all of your basic requirements for living are met in an unqualified way—food, water, clothing, shelter—and if some additional privileges are bestowed, as well, such as a car, phone, Internet and infusions of cash—what reason is there to muscle your way through difficult coursework or soldier your way through a mental or under-satisfying job?
In addition, these kinds of allowances are statements of lack-of-faith in an emerging adult’s capacity to succeed and achieve self-reliance. While in the moment he may happily—perhaps even greedily—snatch up the twenty-dollar bill that allows him to fill his tank with gas so that he can enjoy a leisurely evening of driving around with his friends and a couple of energy drinks, those twenty dollars come at the expense of his self-regard: “If my parents are still handing me money like I’m a kid, they probably don’t believe that I’m capable of anything more. And if they don’t believe that I’m capable of anything more, then there’s no reason for me to believe that I’m capable of anything more.”
If an individual chooses to live at a subsistence level, he or she is certainly entitled to do so. But my belief is that most individuals want to savor the deliciousness of accomplishment, freedom, and self-sufficiency, and once they have done so, their appetite is whetted and they want even more. That is why parents need to carefully monitor their munificent tendencies and examine their behavior to ensure that they are not unintentionally hobbling growth by providing entitlements that an under-responsible young adult is not truly entitled to.
In The Book of Hours, poet Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, “We are cradled close in your hands—and lavishly flung forth.”
It is natural for us to want to cradle our children closely, but we have not completed our job as parents if we haven’t done a little “flinging forth”, as well. Sometimes, the most generous and lavish offering we can make is the withdrawal of the tangible and intangible amenities that could be subtly holding our offspring back.