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Do You Still Pay Your Grown Kids’ Phone Bills?

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I took a poll at a dinner with 15 of Bottom Line’s experts last week—“How many of you still pay your adult children’s cell-phone bills?” Six people raised their hands. The other nine? They either didn’t have children…or their kids were too young to have cell phones…or their kids were much older and had never been on the parents’ cell-phone plan. This is a running joke in our family and with my friends since all of us still have kids on our phone bills.

Not that it’s really such a big deal. I joke with my husband that perhaps by paying the bill, it will prompt the girls to stay in touch—of course, that’s not true. Our daughters text regularly but typically to ask for pictures and videos of the dog! If we didn’t have the dog… hmmmm…

In all seriousness, though, I wonder if the phone bill is emblematic of a broader problem of independence among our young adults? In 2005, 26% of young adults ages 18 to 34 lived at home with their parents. Ten years later, it was 34%. Everyone knows we are failing to launch our children into independent adulthood…and I don’t believe that is because of the economy or housing costs or the job market.

There was a second interesting conversation from the same dinner—a very prominent financial adviser shared a new trend she is seeing with some of her high-net-worth clients. Rather than waiting to leave a substantial inheritance to their offspring, these one-percenters want to give money to their grown kids now, while they can see and enjoy the impact their wealth can have on their children—kind of like a “pre-inheritance.” A lovely, generous and provocative thought, but from a psychological and emotional standpoint, how will this pre-inheritance impact these young adults who may be struggling to declare their own independence?

We already have a problem with young adults taking responsibility for their actions and lives, so is it wise to prefund their adult years so that traditional work ethics are no longer needed? This could wipe out self-confidence and ambition for two generations—the children of the wealthy and the grandchildren who may be raised with parental role models who don’t have to work. Taking the pressure off children of all ages to be personally responsible for their behaviors—and the outcomes of those behaviors—is doing more harm than good to their self-esteem and emotional well-being.

An interesting irony occurs to me—it’s not the kids who are spoiled and irresponsible. Instead it may be the parents who have smothered their children’s independent spirits. That’s right. The kids wanted to be independent…they wanted to do things on their own. We doused those fires.

Remember the terrible twos? That was the start of the power struggle. What do two-year-olds want? To be independent. They want to walk and run and check things out. They want to wear what they want to wear and eat what they want to eat.

And when they get a little older, they may not want to go potty when you tell them to. But rather than help those children learn to manage their emotions, we beat them into submission. Not literally, but figuratively. No, you can’t wear that T-shirt—you wore it yesterday. No, you can’t touch that. No, you can’t go splash in the water at the beach— you’ll get wet and dirty. Rather than guide them from an early age to learn the impact of their consequences and to support them while they explore their environment, they heard, “No…no…no.”

As they grew up, the battles were about music, karate class, clothing, friends, summer jobs, gassing up the car, curfews. Power struggles every step of the way. They want to be independent thinkers and doers, and we did one of two things…

1) We said no.
2) Or we simply said yes in order to avoid the fight or to gain their approval.

And no, simply saying yes doesn’t support their independence—more often, it just makes them spoiled.

Either way, we didn’t help them learn independent thought and decision-making. It was our way or the highway…or their way or the highway…no alternate routes allowed.

So here we all are—two or three decades later—wondering why today’s young adults are living at home and can’t manage their money. We told them not to. We made it clear that we were in charge, and then we told them not to worry about it because Mommy and Daddy would handle it all for them.

Back to that cell phone. Yes, my husband and I still pay both our daughters’ cell-phone bills—mostly because of the financial economics. It’s simply cheaper to add a line than for them to get contracts of their own. One of our daughters is still in college…the older one has been financially independent since she started working, paying all her own bills, saving aggressively and even negotiating for her first car.

Every step of the way—from toddler to adult—we supported our girls’ independence, providing guardrails to keep them from falling off any cliffs but allowing their own expression and exploration. Sure, when they ran around barefoot, they sometimes got splinters…and then they took the splinters out of their feet. Consequences. Personal responsibility. Pride.

How much should you help your grown children? Give them a foot up if you can. Provide a pre-inheritance? Not for my kids. It’s well-intended but simply not helping them. If you really want to help them, put them on a budget. Cell-phone bill optional.

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