Empty nest? Now keep it like that

Times Staff Writer

BY now, we’ve all heard about (or lived through) the boomerang experience: kids who finish college and return to their parents’ home to live. A recent survey of more than 6,000 students in the class of 2006 found that 48% said they plan to move back with their parents after graduation.

But wait, the good news: That’s less than the 60% who returned home during the last three years, according to MonsterTRAK, an online career resource for college students.

So what’s the deal? Are some parents just saying no?

There is a slow dawning among parents, some experts say, that despite high rents and typically low-paying entry-level jobs, kids in the past managed to forage for themselves, sharing cramped spaces and eating instant ramen while finding out what life on a shoestring is all about.


Now some of those same experts who once advised that parents offer a sympathetic ear (and a rent-free bed) are advising them to cut the cord, cut their losses and reclaim their lives -- before real damage is done.

“It starts out as a money-related issue,” says Susan Newman, a social psychologist in Metuchen, N.J., and author of “The Book of No -- 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It.” “The kids can’t afford to pay rent, so they come home. But then it blossoms into something else. From the kids’ point of view, it’s nice to have a well-stocked fridge and a free laundromat. But more important, it’s nice to have someone who loves you unconditionally. No one cares more about you than your mom and pop.”

What’s wrong, she says, is that young adults must learn to function in a world that couldn’t care less, among people whose respect or love they have to earn. Living at home does not afford them that chance.

In some cases, parents are the culprits, she says. They are so happy to have the returned prodigal’s companionship -- no matter how limited and argumentative it is -- that they offer too much help, and too little urging that the kid get his or her act together and take it on the road. “That’s a flaw in the parent. It’s their dependence as much as the child’s that keeps him or her from leaving home. But we tend to blame it all on the kids.”

James Myers’ parents were having none of that. Myers, who grew up in La Canada Flintridge and graduated from Brown University in May, says he knew from childhood that his parents would pay for his four-year college education, and that he’d be on his own after that. “They’re very loving and supportive, but I always got the sense from my dad that four years of college was the limit of what he and my mom would do. The rest would be up to me. Grad school, living arrangements -- any of that would be my responsibility.”

Myers, whose major was religious studies, says he planned for that before he left Brown. He arranged with two close friends from Loyola High School of Los Angeles, both of whom graduated last month from USC, to find a place that the three of them could afford. He was home with his parents only two or three nights before the trio moved into their new place, a four-bedroom house near Wilton Place and Venice Boulevard. Each pays $600 toward the $1,800 a month rent. Myers does carpentry and construction work to earn his daily bread.

He and his roomies are painting and fixing up the house. “My mother came down to visit, and that was a kick. A mom from La Canada isn’t exactly used to seeing barbed wire and graffiti. But she was great. She’s helping us furnish the place. It’s actually a good neighborhood,” Myers says, with a relatively low crime rate and the beginnings of gentrification. “We’re thinking we might invest in the area, when we get the chance.”

Social psychologist Jane Adams says Myers’ parents did it right. They’re probably “the kind who give a kid only about 24 hours between arriving home and getting kicked out. That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” she says with a chuckle, but it’s good to prepare your kids early that after college they should live on their own. “Then there are parents who can intuit as soon as a child returns home that he or she has no intention of leaving. Some of them are actually able to kick them out.”

The elder Myerses aren’t hardhearted. Their daughter, 25, who lived on her own in Boston and San Francisco for two years after college, is back living with them now while she attends law school. And Lisa Myers says, “We’re just fine with that.”

Adams says that when many graduates say they can’t afford to live on their own, they really mean they can’t afford to live at the standard they’re accustomed to in their parents’ home.

Too bad. The psychologist says many parents recall having to live in tiny apartments with too many roommates, and taking buses to low-paying starter jobs until they got better jobs and could afford to drive. “This generation of graduates, even when they get a job with halfway decent pay, they drive their salary, wear their salary, vacation their salary away. They’re certainly not saving it to set up households on their own.”

Nick Daze, one of Myers’ roommates, says he grew up in Pasadena knowing that after college he wouldn’t live at home again. “I have three younger siblings, and we were always on top of each other. Bunk beds and all that. My dad always said he wouldn’t throw me out, but that if I came back after college, I’d have to sleep on the couch.”

The English and theater major earns enough from his sales job in a computer store to pay his expenses, and devotes time to a new theater company he’s starting with USC classmates.

The best thing about being on his own, he says, is that his relationship with his parents is much better. “It was never bad, but since I’m out of school and living on my own, I think we’re closer than ever. It’s a different thing. We all have our own space, and we’re out of each other’s hair. So we can appreciate each other more.”

Sometimes a short stay at home works out just fine. Hilary McQuaide, who graduated from Yale in May 2005, returned last June to her parents’ home in Burlingame while she looked for work and tried to save money for graduate school.

McQuaide didn’t stay with them very long. She put her resume on and got a pile of job offers. She quickly signed on with a venture capital firm that pays enough for her to live in her own apartment near her job in Silicon Valley, with a roommate to split the bills.

She now comes home once or twice a week, her mother says. “She brings her laundry, I make a meal. We visit. It’s wonderful. I love it now because she’s not here all the time, so we’re not on top of each other. Now we talk more as equals. It’s much more fun.”

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