kids

"He’s the boss in their house, not his parents." My best friend enables her 20-year-old son.

My best friend is a hard-working mum of four beautiful kids. Her oldest daughters have gone on to university and established careers. At home, she has a 20-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter. She and her husband are encouraging their teenage daughter to continue her education after high school, but with their adult son, they’re content if he goes a day without smoking weed in the house.

She and her husband expect the bare minimum from their son, and sometimes they don’t even get that.

He is perfectly capable and bright, but he’s been happily unemployed for over a year, long before the pandemic. He plays video games from morning to midnight, locked away in his bedroom, only stepping out for intermittent breaks on the balcony to smoke weed, which his parents have asked him kindly not to do. 

But he’s the boss in their house, not his parents.

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Occasionally, he runs errands and helps pay for groceries when he comes into a bit of money from doing small jobs here and there. But mostly, he doesn’t do much around the house.

The worst part is that he gives his mum an attitude when asked to do minor tasks like picking up his sister from school or unloading the dishwasher.

I’m shocked that my friend and her husband have allowed this behaviour to continue day after day for over a year, especially because they’re unhappy. They tell me and our other friends they’re worried their son will achieve nothing in life if he continues the path he is currently on.

And all I can think is, why haven’t you kicked him out? But I say nothing.

The other day, I let myself into my best friend’s house as I’ve done for over 10 years of knowing her and her family. I knew she was on her way home from work and I announced myself to whoever was there. My best friend’s daughter waved from the dining room table where she was doing her homework. I could hear her brother playing a video game in his bedroom, and I heard him curse at whoever had just shot at him in the game.

Moments later, my best friend walked in the door, gave me a hug, and plopped down on the couch. I could see the exhaustion on her face. She worked a physically demanding job and had worked about 11 hours that day.

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After five minutes of sitting, she stood up and excused herself. I heard her loudly gathering her cleaning equipment — cleaning sprays, paper towels, a mop and glass-cleaner — to clean the downstairs bathroom, which is her son’s bathroom.

"Oh, my goodness, you worked all day. Can the bathroom wait?" I asked her gently. 

She shook her head. "I wish, but we have guests coming tomorrow."

I asked her (as calmly as I could) why her son wasn’t in charge of cleaning his own bathroom. "He definitely has the time..." I said, trying not to overstep.

She said, "Well, he just can’t do it right. It’s easier and faster for me to do just do it."

"But you’ve worked all day, and he’s been at home playing a video game. He can’t get up and clean his own toilet?"

"He’s a boy. He doesn’t clean the same," she says. "I don’t mind."

I stay quiet, biting my tongue so I don’t explode on my friend’s insulting comment. He’s a boy and I’m a woman, so I’ll clean up after him is a toxic mindset that really grinds my gears. 

She is totally enabling his unacceptable behaviour, and I’m not sure how I can help. 

I’d love to grab her by the shoulders and dramatically shake her awake by yelling, 

Helloooooo! You’re enabling him! He is like this because you have never held him accountable to do more. He has someone to cook, clean, and cater to his every need. Why would he ever leave?

But I say nothing. I stay quiet and let her get up and clean. It hurts me, but I let her make that parenting decision. This is not my fight. This is not my mistake to correct. He is not my son.

In situations like these, when we watch the people we love make poor decisions — like my friend enabling her able-bodied, healthy, young son to live a life where there is no homework, no deadlines, no successes, no consequences — it’s difficult to keep our true feelings to ourselves.

I’m not sure if I’m protecting him more than her by not saying anything about it.

She is my best friend of 10 years; her family and mine are very close. But I can’t bring myself to tell her she’s not parenting her son, she’s failing him. I can’t do that — I can’t imagine how I would feel if someone came up to me and criticised my parenting when I truly believed I was doing the right thing for my family.

Over time, I learned to stop myself before I said anything critical of her or her son. Instead, whenever she came to me to vent about how she and her son have gotten in yet another fight, I arrived prepared to deal her the hard facts. 

Listen to This Glorious Mess, Mamamia's twice-weekly parenting podcast. In this episode, Holly and Andrew discuss whether it's okay to discipline other people's children. Post continues below.

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I have my master’s in developmental psychology, and while I’m not a licensed professional, I have some knowledge of child development. So, I brought out my old textbooks and did some online research to help her reframe her anger about her son’s lack of motivation and get to the root of the problem instead. This is what I what I told her:

I asked her to stop using the word lazy when talking about him or to him. I explained to her why psychology experts don’t like that word. Calling him lazy, either behind his back or to his face, will only make him live up to that label. Being called lazy or loser will not have a positive effect on changing his behaviour, and the goal of any conversation with him is to change his behaviour. 

Instead of branding him as a lazy person, focus on his current goals. Because he doesn’t have any concrete education or career goals, it’s really no wonder that he lacks motivation. Honestly, what could he possibly feel motivated about? Work with him to set goals for himself, either getting a job, taking a class online, or working on a creative hobby. Not only will this give him something to celebrate, but it can help his mental health.

I want her to stop comparing her children to each other. She mentions in conversations with me that her older daughters have achieved so much, and she wonders why he doesn’t want to be like them. 

"Have you actually used those words and asked him why he isn’t like his sisters?" I asked her. "Yes, because I want his sisters to inspire him! I don’t know why he’s so stubborn!"

I explained to my friend that he already knows that his sisters are successful, it’s not a family secret. He doesn’t need to be reminded of how he hasn’t lived up to their success. He needs a support system that focuses on his progress, regardless of anyone else’s achievements. 

I want her to try her hardest to keep her word and follow-through. Stop saying things you (and your child) know you will never do. This is, understandably, a tough thing for parents who naturally enable their children; following through with consequences for destructive behaviour means giving them ultimatums or kicking them out of the house which most parents threaten but won’t do. 

Yes, it is indescribably hard for a loving parent to imagine their child fending for themselves away from home, and these parents will probably self-blame for their child’s situation. But when a child has refused a parent’s generous offer of paying for school or helping them get a job for several years because they want to live at home and play video games all day, this calls for serious consequences. And that may look like giving them one month to find a job or they can no longer live at home. 

Because when you constantly threaten to kick them out or make them pay rent, but you never keep your word, your child will call your bluff and never take your word seriously. Your child will label you as a pushover parent and they’ll understand that consequences are just fantasy and do not apply to them.

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Children need rules, they need discipline and consequences. Our job as parents is to prepare them for the future — even if it’s hard to enforce house rules and tell our kids no. Because in the real world, no one can sit at their desk every day, smoking weed and not making sales, and expect to keep their job. 

Unless, of course, their boss threatens to fire them year after year but never does. Because then, the employee knows they have the upper hand in the relationship, and any threats/consequences are not real. And then, it is not the employee’s fault for being a poor employee — it is the supervisor’s fault.

It’s been a challenge to paint this picture to my friend, but I think she is seeing how toxic an enabling environment is for anyone, especially for children who suffer from a lack of structure. Her son needs her love and support, but he does not need a handout from her, especially if he’s constantly complaining and fighting with her instead of showing some kind of appreciation for the luxury of living rent-free and job-free at home. 

In his case, the only way he will gain the insight of how well he has it at home is when he’s no longer reaping the benefits of a consequence-free life.

Feature Image: Getty.

The author of this story is known to Mamamia but has chosen to remain anonymous for privacy reasons. The feature image used is a stock photo.

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