Parents giving their children some kind of allowance here and there is usually not a problem for anyone, least of all for those concerned. However, when things go wrong or don’t start right away, it becomes necessary to turn that tip into something more serious. And that’s where the problems can start.

Sometimes our parents support us financially even though we’re already at an age when that’s not supposed to happen anymore. We turn to them for help or protection when we are supposedly grown-ups. Some people live this situation naturally but others may feel a conflict with their identity. That is, a conflict with their concept of themselves and the extent to which they perceive themselves as emotionally mature, autonomous and responsible adults.

Maybe the issue is something apparently as “silly” as the fact that we want to organize our wedding in our own way but we don’t have the money for it. Our parents have it, but their model of celebration doesn’t fit very well with ours. Do we have a wedding that has nothing to do with us? Do we let it go? Do we invite a select group to a snack since we can’t aspire to more on our own?

Children should appreciate and be grateful for the help they receive, but they should not incur a debt to their parents that ends up cancelling them out

Other times it’s more serious. I want to study Art History but I belong to a long line of judges, prosecutors and state lawyers (without being me). Don’t ask me why, but it seems to me that my mom and dad aren’t very keen on allowing me to choose a career, but that they’re going to force me to go into law and refuse to pay for any other studies. Am I going to spend five years, and those who kick me out, dedicated to something that has nothing to do with me? Am I going to look for a way to pay for the tuition I want even though that effort won’t make my college years any more enjoyable either?

I'm an adult and I rely on my parents

And of course there’s the issue of where to live if I don’t want to continue sharing a flat with my parents beyond the age of 30 but my precarious job is worth it. Or if I want to leave my job to set up the project I’ve always dreamed of but with the thorny problem of financing. Or when I get kicked out of the company and suddenly have to return to the family home with all that that involves.

Let’s be honest: life is not perfect. It is not so easy to make one’s way even when we are already a certain age and we should have greater stability and a large pool of own resources. The life situations in which we may need a parental bank rescue even when we are older and for issues in which, in theory, only we should decide, can be very diverse. How parents and children resolve this will depend largely on family peace and the subjective well-being of those concerned.

Parents and children to the end

The role of parents is what is expected of them by the fact of being parents. One way to define it, quite basically, would be in terms of “by their very nature, parents are providers of protection and nourishment“. That is, a parent is expected to protect and feed their children, with food and other material care.

Obviously, this does not mean that parents should never be considered as “perfect parents who always give everything, always well, and who have to sacrifice themselves one hundred percent for their children until they are no longer able to do so”. Not at all. We mean that a parent is expected to give, protect and help because that is precisely an important part of what being a parent is all about, not giving up your life or being vampirized by your child. We always talk about the role of parents on a theoretical level, not about the way each human being has to put it into practice in real-life based on their particular situation and their own parental capacities.

Now, the role of parents never dissolves no matter how much time passes, that is to say, no matter how adult the children become and no matter how helpless the parents become as they grow older.

In the same way, the need that sons and daughters may have to receive protection never disappears completely, because that defines in great part the role of the son, no matter how much we progress in life.

Therefore, and of the thousands of ways this can be done in each family, it is imperative that parents help, protect and support their children to the best of their ability. At the very least, they should feel the urge to do so, even if it’ s because of inertia as caregivers. It is also necessary that the sons and daughters, as children, see their parents as figures to turn to in a moment of trouble or if they go through a bad time.

Examples from the movies

Surely you remember the film As Good As It Gets (James L. Brooks, 1997), which has given so much play in so many conversations about psychology. The character of Simon (Greg Kinnear), defeated, disgraced and in need of all the support possible, struggles between asking his parents for help, with whom he hasn’t spoken for years, and evaluating other options. Melvin (Jack Nicholson), uninhibited and unsympathetic but very intelligent in his way, sees no conflict at all. Whatever has happened between those parents and that son basically tells him that “If your parents are alive they have to pay“. In other words, even though you are an adult and are expected to have your own resources to be autonomous, there is nothing wrong with the fact that if your parents can help you, they will. Without going any further, because they are your parents. Even if you don’t talk to each other.

I'm an adult and I rely on my parents

If you’re a bit more of a movie fanatic, you’ll also remember another good gem: Guess who’s coming to dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967). Towards the middle of the film, there is a moment of considerable tension, which suddenly breaks the peaceful and polite atmosphere that has prevailed until then. John, the character played by Sidney Poitier, has a confrontation with his father when the latter uses against him all that, as parents, he and his wife have done for him since he was born: how much they have sacrificed, how many things they have given up, how much they have tried to get him through despite the family’s modesty. Besides being an internationally renowned doctor, good John is the prototype of a model and educated son who honors his father and mother and is therefore aware of what it has taken to put him where he is. However, even from that position, he answers something not very politically correct but which, of course, makes all the sense in the world: “You did all that because it was your obligation”.

In other words, children should be grateful, appreciate and value what little or much their parents have done for them with the resources available. But it is no less true that it is the role of parents to do everything in their power to promote the progress of their children but that they do not incur a debt that must be paid. Because parents (in the broadest sense) are not mere creators of biological life, but they are the first promoters of the full development of their children, within the framework of an asymmetrical relationship: between parents and children, it is not “one for you and one for me” that works, but rather “care goes from parents to children”.

The art of paying

Obviously, this duty must always be done by enhancing the child’s autonomy (not abandonment, but autonomy). Otherwise, instead of being the driving force, parents become the subsidizers, a mere hook to be always hung on. 

Following the terminology of As Good As It Gets, if the parents are alive they have to “pay”. Nevertheless, they can do so in three directions. One of them, the ideal one, is just that: a healthy combination between helping and teaching to fly. The other two are undesirable and should be avoided.

He who pays, commands

Firstly, parents can support their child from a ” he who pays, commands ” perspective. Which means that I support you financially or materially but on condition that I choose the path that I think is right for you. In this case I do not abandon you, but I cancel you out, because I do not let you be who you want to be or go where you want to go. Instead, I direct your life and, moreover, I do so without encouraging your autonomy, since I do not help you to find a way for you to pay for your own way, I keep you but under my power.

The spoilt child

The second possibility is that of ” spoilage “: I pay for everything so that you can do what you want – be it good, bad or average – and I do it indefinitely and without conditions. A “be yourself and live your life” at my expense and to any degree. In this case I allow you to be who you want to be (whether that is convenient or not) but I also don’t empower your autonomy, I don’t train you to become neither responsible nor the true owner of your own life, because the real owner is me, who runs the tap. This can allow you to live a life that you want to live but you don’t do it on your own, but in a position of a parasite or scrounger.

I'm an adult and I rely on my parents

Both scenarios directly or indirectly nullify the child, either because his need for self-affirmation is strangled or because that need is not adequately contained and is resolved in a distorted way. The consequence is that the child, at heart, remains in a position of inferiority in both scenarios.

The root of the conflict

Maybe my current situation is that mom and dad are “already paying”, still “paying” or are considering “paying” again because, after all, if they are alive their obligation is to help me if I have need of it. If, in addition, they do not approve of the path that I want to take, but which I am not yet able to travel on my own, a major conflict of loyalties may open up before me: what do I love to serve, my parents or myself? In other words, to which owner do I owe myself to?

In order to resolve this dilemma, we can conclude that it is only fair that, if they are the ones who pay, they should also be the ones to decide what their support is used for. Thus, since I feel indebted to them for receiving help that I should no longer have to receive (because I am now an adult) I decide that it is better to pay for it (obey and assume) than to try to follow my own path. Though psychologically painful, it can also be less conflictive. It frees me from the burden of dealing with them and the responsibility of being myself, as I pass it on to others. If it works out, good for me. If it goes wrong, the blame will be on those who made the bad decisions. However, the price to pay is very high: I lose myself, I live an inauthentic life so that I can live “some” life and we can all get along in peace. In this scenario I will see a defeated and misplaced minor every time I look in the mirror in 3, 2, 1?

On the contrary, if I decide that the priority is to defend my personal project, I face the risk of confronting my parents (danger! danger!) and my first reaction will be to avoid it: remember that the reason we run away from conflicts is that they are tremendously uncomfortable. If I finally dare to face it, the move can work out well for me, as long as I manage to convince them. However, it can also go wrong if my parents don’t give in. In that case I have to decide again: I can either give in and take their position or I can stand my ground (“neither for you nor for me”) but then I can’ t live either “some” life (the one they wanted) or my life (the one I wanted), but a kind of collateral substitute that does not satisfy anyone.

Parents must find a healthy balance between helping their children when they need it and boosting their autonomy

We have already said that, as children, we should be grateful for and appreciate any support we receive, including that of our parents (even if we consider it required). We have also said that to appreciate and be grateful does not mean to feel in a perpetual debt to them, a misunderstood loyalty that leads us to submission, that buries our identity and that blurs the roles of both parents and children. To want to repay parents with loyalty and responsibility out of gratitude is laudable, but it is not the case of assuming that if they pay then they must decide what life I should live.

Therefore, in addition to the option of “he who pays, commands” and that of “consent” there must be, as we said, a third way that is healthier for both parents and children. It is neither more nor less than the one we have already pointed out, in which parents combine all the support they can get for their children to progress with a healthy promotion of their autonomy, with confidence in the intuitions they have about their life and acceptance that the children’s path does not always coincide with what we consider to be right for us.