IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Coronavirus shows how the 'failure to launch' stereotype is unfair to kids — and their parents

This demeaning formulation stigmatizes these young people and discourages peers who would emulate them.
Image: A mother looks back at her son, as projections of his life as a parent float through the background above a home.
We need to reject the black-or-white thinking that says that young adults who don't move out and become self-sufficient as soon as they graduate are "failures."Solji Lee / for NBC News

On a trip last winter with my two adult sons, I watched them fumble their way through airport security, misplace their boarding passes and almost miss our boarding call because they’d wandered off to find snacks and lost track of time. My boys are no strangers to air travel, but I found myself needing to explain nearly everything about the way airlines work: shoes off, liquids out, line up here, wait for the “fasten seatbelt” light to turn off.

Many other cultures embrace the idea of multiple generations living together, and maybe Americans can come out of this experience more accepting and encouraging of those who choose this path.

After the trip, I realized that Isaac and Jacob were born when I was 20 and 22, and they are now, respectively, aged 20 and 22. When I was the same age as Isaac, I was becoming a mother; when I was the same age as Jacob, I was chasing a toddler and nursing a newborn. I was full of optimism, energy and a fiercely independent streak. But looking back, I recognize that there was just so much I didn't know, so much help I didn't ask for.

I can see that the ultra-American narrative I bought into then — that it’s somehow morally superior for young people to strike out on their own as soon as they’re legally able, without asking for assistance or even advice — made things so much harder than they had to be, ultimately hurting not just me and my kids but also my relationship with my parents, from whom I grew more distant as my desire to prove my independence got in the way of ever asking for their input on, well, anything.

This realization not only got me to thinking about the shortcomings of some of the values I absorbed during my childhood, but also the massive defect in the “failure to launch” stereotype. The negative view of young adults who, immediately upon reaching legal adulthood, “fail” by not “launching” themselves headlong into the adult world of big decisions, career ambition and complete self-reliance does a terrible disservice to those who more cautiously move out on their own.

This demeaning formulation stigmatizes these young people and discourages peers who would emulate them, even though waiting to make big life decisions — or even just putting away some money rather than spending it all on rent — might be a much better approach to entering adulthood in our increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.

And it also might be a better approach to parenting. I fell victim to black-or-white thinking myself when my children were younger, insisting that my kids would be expected to move out and become self-sufficient within a year of graduating high school. But now, with two 20-somethings who ping-pong between worldly and naive, dependent and self-reliant, I see the error of my former opinions. I still want to see them establish independent lives of their own, but my timeline has broadened. I also can’t help but have a very different view of the subtle (and at times not-so-subtle) aspersions cast on parents who “let” their kids live at home after graduation.

It’s not that the parents of my generation were totally neglectful (or crazy) to kick us out of their nests so abruptly, and with such apparent ease. By compelling us to leave home earlier and figure things out on our own when young adult life was less complicated and, let’s face it, less expensive, they may have done us a favor. But when the world changes — as it most assuredly has since the ’80s and ’90s of my youth — parenting needs to change with it.

There is no more powerful illustration of that than how we have responded to the coronavirus pandemic: Countless adult children of parents have made long-term visits or even returned home full-time because they understand the importance of being close to family, nurturing ties with the ones you love and the mutual assistance that can be provided in going through hard times together. Many other cultures embrace the idea of multiple generations living together, and maybe Americans can come out of this experience more accepting and encouraging of those who choose this path.

We’ve already come a long way in recognizing that not all 3-year-olds can kick a ball with the same dexterity and not all 9-year-olds should be reading at the same level. But unfortunately, we haven’t quite accepted that not all 18-year-olds are cut out to be making major life decisions about college and career paths, or that not all 23-year-olds are ready to maintain their own households separate from their parents.

Working hard is one thing, and exceedingly fair to expect of young people. Being able to make major decisions that will affect the rest of one’s life in the context of a complicated, contentious, connected global society is a different matter entirely. Even at 42, I’m not sure I’m getting it right most of the time. I’ll at least always be grateful for the fact that when I first got online in my late teens, it was a mostly anonymous affair. Now, the simple act of existing and making normal, youthful mistakes means your digital presence could be tainted … potentially forever.

It’s not that your average 20-year-old can’t live on their own. After all, Isaac is happily almost entirely independent: He owns his own car, pays his own bills for the rental home he shares with friends, works full-time and boasts a cushier savings account than mine. And it’s not that dependence is to be preferred or enabled. There are benefits to taking on, and occasionally pushing for, that kind of independence; feeling confident, capable and proud of one’s accomplishments are important things for young people to experience and to build on.

But I’d argue that there are ways to give them those opportunities without putting the pressure of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of education on a teenager whose brain is still developing, or using a free-fall, sink-or-swim definition of success when a 24-year-old is struggling to find a good job.

It’s also a good idea for us to give ourselves, as parents, a bit of a break: Some kids don’t “get it” right away, and it’s not necessarily because of anything we did wrong. Nor is providing them with a soft place to land and much-needed guidance and support while they plot their next steps a parenting liability. Raising five kids has shown me that they all develop individually, at their own pace — and that young adulthood is just the same. If anything, it’s the time of life when understanding those differences might make all the difference in the world.