Arts, Culture & Humanities

The stuck-at-home generation

Christine Carter

As a child and young adult, I was given lots of opportunities to develop independence. I went to a boarding school at age 14 that taught self-reliance by regularly sending me into the wilderness with only a scantily-filled backpack (no tents or fleece in those days). I was raised in California, but I went to college in New Hampshire, and after graduation, I moved to Chicago.

All of this was somewhat heart-breaking for my parents: They wanted me at home. My parents lobbied hard for local schools, and my father made me sign a contract (albeit on a napkin) saying I would not fall in love on the East Coast and marry and never return to California. (After my first New Hampshire winter, I reassured him that love couldn’t be that strong.)

My early independence worked out for me, and it didn’t cost our family anything in closeness, as we all live near each other now and see each other regularly.

I’d like to foster the same independence in my own children, too. But a recent article in The New York Times, “ The Go-Nowhere Generation,” made me realize that independence may no longer be stereotypically American. Consider these trends, pointed out by the article’s authors, Todd and Victoria Buchholz:

-Young adults are now 40 percent less likely to move to a new state than they were in the 1980s.

-The percentage of 20-somethings living at home doubled between 1980 and 2008. (It has increased further since the Great Recession hit.)

-Here’s my favorite: “In the most startling behavioral change among young people since James Dean and Marlon Brando started mumbling, an increasing number of teenagers are not even bothering to get their driver’s licences.” Only 65 percent of teens get their licences now; back in my day, 80 percent of us did.

While it is easy to blame the economy for all of these trends, young people stopped getting their driver’s licences in droves and started getting stuck at home before the recession hit. So the economy doesn’t explain everything.

Research is clear that strong connections to loved ones — the kind of closeness I’ve tried to maintain with my family — are key to long-term happiness. But that doesn’t require that kids be tethered to their parents.

Self-sufficiency can also be a huge part of happiness, and it doesn’t need to be at odds with a strong community. I don’t think most parents want their children to be stuck at home; generally, I think we want our kids to grow up and find their own path. Here are some things we can do to make sure our kids aren’t afraid to leave the nest:

(1) Foster the growth-mindset, or the belief that people are successful because of their hard work and effort rather than their innate talents.

When kids believe that their success comes from raw talent, they become risk-averse and generally they don’t try as hard. If I tell my daughter that she has “a natural gift” for math, for example, she’ll likely try to make sure she doesn’t lose that special label. She might become less apt to practice problems at home, because practicing isn’t something you need to do if you’re “gifted.” And she’ll become less likely to do the extra-credit “challenge” problems in her homework, because if she doesn’t get them correct, she might no longer seem super smart at math.

One hypothesis about why our kids have become home-bodies is that our culture has become so achievement-oriented that we are teaching kids to fear challenge and risk. If they aren’t instantly good at something, they assume they must not be talented at it. And if they are good at something, we tell them they are talented, which also tends to make them fear challenge. When kids avoid challenge and risk, they get stuck in place.

When we foster the growth-mindset, instead, kids embrace challenge with less fear.

(2) Teach kids to make their own luck. Kids raised during recessions are more likely to believe that luck plays a larger role in their success, which means that they tend not to try as hard. “Young people raised during recessions end up less entrepreneurial and less willing to leave home because they believe that luck counts more than effort,” Paola Guiliano, an economist at UCLA, says in that New York Times article.

In addition to emphasizing how important effort is for success, we can actively teach kids that they can increase their own luck with a little effort and know-how.  This series details the science of making your own luck.

(3) Send kids to a sleep-away camp for a week or two over the summer. You read that right: Let them practice being away from you in a safe environment.

Camp is good for kids for many reasons. They get a break from their often high-pressure and high-stress academic lives; they get a chance to commune with the great outdoors, without the influence of the media or the distraction of electronics; they build social skills and long-lasting social connections.

But I think the greatest value of summercamp may be that it allows kids to gain valuable independence and confidence in their ability to solve their own problems—without mom or dad. (Camp isn’t just for the wealthy, by the way: Girl Scouts runs very affordable overnight camps during the summertime.)

While our children are learning how to deal with their homesickness at summercamp, many parents in our generation also need to practice coping with “kid-sickness,” those intense feelings of separation anxiety parents get when they are away from their children. (As far as I know, the term was only coined in 2010 by Audrey Monke, who runs Gold Arrow Camp). Gripped by those feelings, many parents inadvertently stunt their children’s growth, condemning them to become the “stuck-at-home generation.”

Let me again stress an important caveat: While independence is a part of happiness, so is connectedness. I think past generations may have gone too far, making oh-so-independent Americans less connected to friends and family than people are in other cultures.

So as with everything, we need to strike a balance. But kids who are afraid to leave the nest will make different decisions than they would if they weren’t distracted or held back by fear. Their lives will likely be less meaningful, less fulfilling, and, probably, less happy. As Andre Gide once said, our children “cannot discover new oceans unless [they have] the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

Cross-posted from Christine Carter’s blog, Raising Happiness (tag line: Science for Joyful Kids and Happier Parents).

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Comments to "The stuck-at-home generation":
    • Coach S

      Dr. Carter thanks for this article. Being a youth developer for over 25 years, I have seen the “slowing down” of our children even though we’re speeding up to light year speed with technology and its uses. I speak with kids all the time about being much more active and proactive about being kids. Working with kids 9-18, they are nothing like what we were and I feel a lot of it has to do with the technology, its use and how its made our kids an “in-the-house” society. But I also know that we as parents need to motivate our children to be more active.

      We need to get them out of the house and into youth programs that will make them more active. There are sports programs, academic programs and youth entrepreneurial programs that are helping our youth to not only be more active but also develop skills, character and leadership qualities that will give them the edge as they become adults.

      Your article is one that parents should definitely read to help them understand that we have to be the motivating factor for our kids because they are seemingly loosing that motivation for life somewhere along the way.

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    • Dee

      You bring up many good points as do the folks that responded. What your article immediately brought to mind was my parents. Both of them born around 1920 lived through the Depression of the 1930’s, my father was drafted into WWII in the 40’s.

      Because my mother didn’t want to live with her mother, my dad built a small cabin near Boulder Creek on a piece of property they purchased. My mother lived there with my sister, who was a toddler at the time, while my father was shipped overseas. In their early 20’s they were facing a world war, not enough or any money, and raising a child.

      Life has never been easy. I think the raising of children has certainly changed. We have tried to make life more fair and protect our children, in short we have enabled them not to grow up. We have done a disservice to our children and ourselves. I’m not suggesting getting married at 18, moving out, and starting a family. I’m suggesting we let children and young adults grow up and make mistakes, face the consequence of their actions, and learn from them.

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    • Cynthia Barnes-Slater

      Thank you, Professor Carter, for your insights as they resonate with how I view my 28 and 22 year old sons who have been “out in the world” for several years now: one left home to go to acting school and study theater in NYC at 18, and he still lives there successfully 10 years later. The younger one went to LA at 18, went to college to study music and is on a break working as a musician on a cruise line since September.

      My sons come home for visits, for “big dates” like a grandparent’s birthday, holidays; we stay in touch and connected and I feel their love and concern daily BUT they do not and will not live with me or their dad — they are fiercely independent, like their parents.

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    • Anthony St. John '63

      Dr. Carter, the focus of your posts is by far the most important on this blog.

      The future for our families, especially our children is the most important thing we must protect today more than ever before because the future is more uncertain today due to global warming, over-population, degrading resources, political party failures to protect the long-term future for our children and far too many institutional failures in leadership due to greed and immorality.

      Thank you for your efforts, but now I would like to ask you to become not only a California but also a national and international leader in educating populations on how to protect the future for our newest and all future generations.

      We need dedicated, charismatic experts and leaders like you to educate, speak out, inspire and motivate people to focus on the most important survival actions for the human race using all media the that people read, watch, think about, discuss and act upon.

      We keep following in the failed footsteps of all previous civilizations, failing to learn and protect ourselves from past human failure modes, and it is time to prove that we are finally well enough educated to save acceptable long-term quality of life for our children and families today.

      The quality of life legacy we leave is up to scholars, educators and leaders like you.

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    • RJ

      Car Talk had a lovely piece about the dramatic dips in kids getting driver’s licenses these days, and many callers reported that they couldn’t afford to own and maintain a car (gas and insurance being the two biggest recurring expenses). Why bother, they reasoned.

      You also highlight a dip in the number of young people who move to a new state. When I did my undergrad, UC was about $6k a year for CA residents, while Out-of-State tuition was about $33k. Out-of-state tuition at the University of Washington or the University of Michigan was about $4k, so it was just as economically feasible to go to school at UW or UM as it was UC. Now other states have caught on and while UC is now $12k, out-of-state tuition at UW is closer to $18k and UM closer to $24k.

      I think it’s fair to say that a good portion of this decline in mobility is driven by the economy.

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