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Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Still Living with Your Parents?

What's with kids who refuse to leave the nest?

For as long as I can remember, the older generation never seemed to think much of the younger generation. Kids today don't respect their elders, they don't work as hard to succeed and they certainly aren't as willing to make the same sacrifices their progenitors least that's what it says in a short essay attributed to Socrates some 2500 years ago in ancient Greece.

But even with all that aside, I have to wonder, what is it with kids living at home into their 20's and 30's? Is it possible that the drive to leave the nest, which was always so much a part of growing up, is now being thwarted by modern methods of child rearing?

The amazing insights that FMRI can provide are just that - amazing. What has now been learned is that the brain goes through a series of expansions and contractions; growing and shrinking. Gray matter, which allows for many speedy responses to stimuli, is replaced by white matter, which allows for slower and fewer (but more focused) reactions that have been learned by exposure to the environment over time. In short, youngsters are continuously learning how to behave not only until puberty but all the way into their late teens and early twenties. Reviewing moving pictures of the thinking brain in action, taken at intervals over a period of years, makes it clear that tendencies stamped out during adolescence may well be lost to the adult.

What does this mean? It means that the tide of hormones that hits pubescent kids, the tide that causes them to want to fly from the nest provided by their parents, has been greatly attenuated by the economics of America in the 21st Century. The rights of passage and the periods of apprenticeship that have always been a part of the teen years and of growing up, have been largely replaced by an additional decade of utter dependence. The 14-year-old who longs for independence, and who would (in earlier times) have been granted the same, is now forced to languish in the nest until 24 and the final year of college. And all during this time, gray matter is being replaced by white matter. The brain is going from an organ looking for challenge to one that's set in its ways.

When I was growing up, the experts of the day pontificated that children should not be allowed (much less encouraged) to read until they were six or seven. Today we know this is nonsense and that children should be learning to read as they are learning to speak. Indeed, waiting until they're six or seven turns out to be counterproductive! In much the same way, forcing young people to wait until their twenties before striking out on their own is not so much a means of providing for a good foundation as it is a means of inhibiting the normal process of maturation.

Look At It This Way
Please understand that I'm neither trying to diminish the sacrifice parents make when they shell out upwards of $100,000 for yet another four years of schooling nor am I unaware of the dearth of opportunities available to kids without that mostly meaningless yet essential sheepskin union card. I'm simply identifying a really weird situation. Increasing numbers of young adults in their 20's and 30's (some with kids of their own) are content to remain dependent and living under their parent's roof because that was the lesson taught and the lesson learned during their formative years. Pretty soon it will be up to Mom & Pop to run away from home.