Question: Dr. Dobson, we have a twenty-one-year-old who is still living at home. He does not want to come under our authority and he breaks all the rules we have set up as minimum standards of behavior. He plays his stereo so loudly that it drives me crazy, and he comes in every night after 1 a.m. I know he needs his freedom, but I worry about our younger children who are trying to get away with the same things their big brother does. How would you balance the rights and privileges of this young adult with our needs as a family?
Answer: It is very difficult for a strong-willed twenty-one-year-old to continue living at home, and it will become even more unsettling with every year that passes. The demand for independence and freedom in such cases is almost always in conflict with the parents' expectations and wishes. Your son's unwillingness to respect your reasonable requests is a sure-fire indication that he needs to face life on his own. Also, the bad modeling he is providing for your younger siblings is a serious matter. I think it is time to help him pack. At the very least, he should be made to understand that his continued residency at home is conditional. Either live with the rules—or live with the YMCA.
I know it's difficult to dislodge a home-bound son or daughter. They are like furry puppies who hang around the back door waiting for a warm saucer of milk. How can you yell "Shoo!" at someone so lost and needy? But to let them stay year after year, especially if they are pursuing no career goals or if they are disrespectful at home, is to cultivate irresponsibility and dependency. That is not love, even though it may feel like it.
We are agreed, then, that independence and freedom must be granted to those who have passed through the far side of adolescence. But how is that accomplished? The Amish have a unique approach to it. Their children are kept under the absolute authority of their parents throughout childhood. Very strict discipline and harsh standards of behavior are imposed from infancy. When they turn sixteen years of age, however, they enter a period called "Rumspringa." Suddenly, all restrictions are lifted. They are free to drink, smoke, date, marry, or behave in ways that horrify their parents. Some do just that. But most don't. They are even granted the right to leave the Amish community if they choose. But if they stay, it must be in accordance with the rules of convention. The majority accept the heritage of their forefathers, not because they must, but because they wish to.
Although I admire the Amish and many of their approaches to child-rearing, I believe the Rumspringa concept is too precipitous. To take a child overnight from total domination to absolute freedom is an invitation to anarchy. Perhaps it works in the controlled environment of Amish country, but it is usually disastrous for the rest of us. I've seen families emulate this "instant adulthood" idea, lifting parental governance overnight. The result has been similar to what occurred in African colonies when European leadership was suddenly withdrawn. Bloody revolutions were often fought in the heady spirit of freedom.
It is better, I believe, to begin releasing your children during the preschool years, granting independence that is consistent with their age and maturity. When a child can tie his shoes, let him—yes, require him—to do it. When he can choose his own clothes within reason, let him make his own selection. When he can walk safely to school, allow him the privilege. Each year, more responsibility and freedom (they are companions) are given to the child so that the final release in early adulthood is merely the final relaxation of authority. That is the theory, at least. Pulling it off is sometimes quite difficult.
However you go about transferring the reins of authority—the rudiments of power—to your children, the task should be completed by 20 and no later than 22 years of age. To hold on longer is to invite revolution.
From Dr. Dobson's book Parenting Isn’t For Cowards.