December 15, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver

Lawyers are often witness to the very best, and worst, behaviors of clients and their children.

“Mitch,” an attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, had a request:

“Dennis, I would like you to address the legal consequences — and advice —for parents who enable their children, making them feel that all is owed them, which often results in criminal behavior when they are adults and suddenly the money tap is turned off by the death or incapacity of a parent.

“I can’t tell you how many adult children of financially successful families we have bailed out of jail for fraud, passing their parents’ stolen checks, and financial elder abuse, all because one parent or the other could not say no.

“We stopped pointing out these failures to our clients, because each time we did, they fired us. We’ve seen a lot of great parents, and sadly, many helicopter parents who have ruined their kids’ chance at becoming self-sufficient adults.”

My Gold-Plated Scheaffer Fountain Pen

Years ago, I used a beautiful gold-plated Scheaffer fountain pen to take notes when in trial. One day the badly enabled son of a client — who I had just gotten out of jail — stopped by and asked for some water.

The pen was on my desk. I got him water, and he left. Afterwards I could not find my pen.

Later my client called and said, “My boy just bought himself a gold-plated fountain pen. I never knew he liked such things!”

When I told him that he had stolen my pen, he fired me.

Helicopter Parents Can’t Say No

I spoke with social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of “The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it ― and Stop People-Pleasing Forever.” It addresses saying no to your children, whatever their ages, and why that’s important.

I asked her, “What creates a failed adult?”

(1) Parents who can’t say no to their children:

Beginning when they are very young, the child starts to feel entitled. They aren’t allowed to make decisions for themselves. Their helicopter or lawnmower parents, plow down every obstacle in their child’s way. So, as young adults they have no resilience to any kind of failure.

They don’t have to work hard for anything. If they mess up, mom or dad is there to take care of it.

This comes back to haunt parents when they have young adults who can’t stand on their own two feet and still expect someone to bail them out.

(2) Fail to see your children as adults:

These parents slip back into their “mommy, daddy with a 10 year-old child role,” and have dinner waiting every night, pick up their dirty dishes, do their laundry, and so on. Stop treating them like guests.

You can do this by not covering all their expenses, or paying to put gas in the car. If they have a part-time job, make them responsible for some token amount of rent.

Have them mow the lawn. Do the grocery shopping this week. Say, “You handle dinner.”

Don’t run interference in their job hunting or their dating life. Back off – these are young adults, not teenagers.

(3) Giving kids the things the parents never had is often the basis of these behaviors:

Now that the parents have money, they want to give the kids the things they felt deprived of.

Psychologically, it is filling a void in their lives, thinking back when their own parents could not come to a soccer game or weren’t there for them.

These parents feel they should make life easier for their children, but it is just the opposite. They aren’t helping, rather, they are preventing the child from facing adversity and developing fortitude and independence.

(4) Having no exit plan when adult children stay or return home:

Yes, there are some cultures where the kids remain at home until they marry. But, assuming there are no disabilities or chronic mental illness, the adult children we are talking about never leave.

And when it is chronic and the parents are being taken advantage of, this is when it becomes a major problem. When the parents finally turn off the tap, it can lead to criminal behavior.

Parents need to set a time limit in which to leave the home. Perhaps six months, perhaps a year.

But you need to create a negotiated “out” date.

Concluding our interview, Dr. Newman cautions:

“Don’t give up your social life to always be there to help your adult child out. Eventually – hopefully – your child will leave, and you do not want to break off all your connections to your larger world.

Explain how their living on their own benefits everyone. The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever is a terrific read. If you know someone like the parents described here, maybe have it delivered anonymously.