- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

- Opening line of “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy

Much has been written about the current trend of young adults moving back home to live with their parents, but little has been heard from the parents’ point of view.

It’s a situation often solicitously described as a transitional state when children suddenly lay claim again to familiar territory, inviting new roles and new relationships on both sides.

Normally, the transition is between college, extended travel or a failed job and whatever constitutes the next step toward complete independence. How each generation adjusts seems to depend a great deal on how optimal relations between them were beforehand.

Certainly, the younger generation hasn’t had such good press in the matter. In her 2006 book, “Generation Me,” California psychologist Jean Twenge, an associate professor at San Diego State University, sweepingly described the group as more narcissistic than their elders: more confident, assertive and ambitious — and more miserable. She wasn’t sparing in her survey that she says included data from 1.3 million respondents spanning six decades.

Her conclusions are echoed in the statement of a Texas mother of three, a branch service associate for UBS Financial Services in Dallas, who, when asked to describe life at home with a 20-something son offered a litany of complaints and this statement: “Somewhere along the way, my children lost respect for us as parents and began to think everything is an entitlement to them.

“Every once in a while, he will step up to the plate and mow the lawn or vacuum the house, but usually there is some type of threat involved,” she says.

That isn’t always the case, however, since the majority of parents contacted in a rudimentary survey were more likely to put a positive spin on the situation. The most discerning view comes from D.C. architect Robert Weinstein, a partner with his wife, Judith Capen, in Architrave PC. They are the parents of Kirby Capen, 25, who lived with them for a year recently until getting a full-time job in New York City.

“I always felt it was great having her home [after she graduated from Smith College with a degree in engineering]. We enjoyed her company,” Mr. Weinstein says. “But I felt it wasn’t the best thing for her. When she got the job offer, it was like a veil had been lifted. I think she felt her self-esteem went up several notches, and it seems she got happier.”

He considers that his daughter was “an excellent roommate, a good team player.” She worked in part-time office jobs, including her parents’ office, and contributed to some household expenses, he says. “Sometimes she would cook. And we almost always had lunch together. She had her own bedroom, but we shared bathrooms, the same as the ones she had grown up with.”

Rules were minimal: She only had to let her parents know if she were spending the night in a friend’s house.

“There were the usual strains and pleasures,” notes Sherry Saunders, parent with husband Joe Rees of a 25-year-old son — their only child — who since has moved on to an internship in sports management and communications in San Antonio, Texas.

“He didn’t pay rent, but he vacuumed,” she says.

The most frustrating matter was “people in that age group tend to live different hours.” The family continues a Sunday tradition of always speaking together by phone unless they are out of the country.

Ms. Twenge cautions in her book about some parents who ask themselves, “Did I mess up rearing this child because they are just sitting around?” and observes problems can arise among parents who did not exert discipline when their children were young.

“Baby boomers as parents did not face much pressure to instill obedience,” she says.

Monica Cavanaugh, 24, a Washington freelance writer juggling several part-time jobs in retail while awaiting word about a full-time position, has her own bedroom and bathroom funkily decorated in the unfinished basement of her parents’ Capitol Hill house.

“It wouldn’t work if I were still upstairs,” she says.

Rules in the household are few.

“She’s theoretically in charge of cleaning out the dishwasher if she is here,” says her mother, Stephanie Cavanaugh, who regards the arrangement equitably and says her daughter “pays me with joy.”

Mrs. Cavanaugh works from home as does her husband, Gregory, whose firm, Egg and Dart — the name of a classic molding style — restores old houses. He has turned his daughter’s former room into an office.

The only stated friction between the two generations — suggested with humor, but easily detected — is the different hours they keep. Footsteps and even the sound of the television on the first floor carry below. Mother rises early; daughter likes to sleep in whenever possible.

And, while there is a rear garden entrance, Ms. Cavanaugh, who lived with roommates on her own for six months while studying in Oxford, England, and, later, for four months in Argentina, prefers the front door. The parents know she is home when they see her car keys on the radiator in the front hall.

“I think my husband has a more difficult time realizing she is grown up than I do,” Mrs. Cavanaugh says. “I say, ‘Honey, she is grown up and leave her alone.’”

There is obvious affection between mother and daughter, both attractive brunettes.

“We wear the same size and that is helpful. Her stuff is as often upstairs as down. If she isn’t in, I’ll go down.”

There is no lock on the basement door. No rent money changes hands in the Cavanaughs’ home, unlike other parents who have asked for token sums to help make their offspring responsible for domestic upkeep.

Nancy and Philip Renfrow of the District’s Northwest, charged one son “something like $400 a month” (when he had a temporary job). Another son, an aspiring professional soccer player, earns his keep at home by being the handyman on the premises.

Stephen and Maygene Daniels of Capitol Hill have had two children come home after college and never asked for token rent money.

“I’ve heard people say they charge a child for rent and then give it back when they leave, saying ‘Here are your forced savings,’” says Mr. Daniels, who has enjoyed the turnaround. “It’s just marvelous to see your child grow and develop as a person, and fun to know her as an adult.”

Leah Daniels, 27, is with them currently while establishing her first retail business, called Hill’s Kitchen, near Eastern Market.

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