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July 18, 2012 by

A Conversation With Sally Koslow

In addition to being the author of three novels and the former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, Sally Koslow has earned her chops as a crackerjack reporter. In her newest book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, she draws on that background and comes up with a penetrating analysis of today’s boomer parents and their frequently failed-to-launch offspring. She talked to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the need to establish boundaries, the Jewish tradition of über-parenting and how 34 has become the new 24 for a whole generation of young people.

How did the idea for this book come about?

Eleven years ago my oldest son moved from New York City to San Francisco after college graduation and two years later returned to Manhattan to start a new job. The plan was for him to live with us until he found his own apartment. When 9/11 happened a week later, however, his new job evaporated. He began collecting unemployment and seemed in no hurry to job-hunt. After ten months, my husband and I found out that our son had, in fact, been offered a job that he was thinking of declining—it wasn’t, in his eyes, perfect. After receiving a significant shove, he accepted the offer and moved to an apartment in Brooklyn with members of a band called, fittingly, The Oddjobs. Cut to three years ago. Having a young adult child return to the womb became something I noticed all around me. I also observed growing numbers of college grads in a state of constant improvisation, often shackled to their parents by cell phone and/or purse strings in a three-legged raise toward an undecided destination. Since I myself had been 24, or even 34, something new and interesting was clearly afoot. As a journalist, I decided to explore it and my research become Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest.

You write a lot about “helicopter parenting” in this book; do you feel Jewish mothers have a special corner on this market and if so, why?

Along with Asian moms, we may have invented “helicopter parenting,” but now it’s a quotidian upper-middle-class practice. At the very least, though, our tribe is historically child-centric. Manhattan has many parades, but not one has more kids than the Israel Day Parade, and our emphasis on education is indisputable. Jewish mothers are often unapologetic advocates on their kids’ behalf. Sometimes we overdo it, not stepping step back so our kids can step forward. Butting out is an unfamiliar practice.

How do the daughters and sons of these helicopter moms respond to their parents’ continued involvement in their lives?

Some kids establish boundaries, cutting off parents at the pass on Facebook, say, or blocking emails and insisting on independence. But it’s more common to see adultescents—a term my older son coined—who are only too willing to take-take-take, counting on parents’ endless financial and emotional support, having mothers and fathers vet every resume and job-hunting letter, staying on family cell phone plans, allowing parents to pay for apartments, vacations, cars, insurance, electronics, vacations and clothing, making 28 is the new 19.

Do you feel there any advantages to this kind of parenting? And do you feel there is any benefit to the extended “adultescence” you describe?

Motives for this parenting are generous and never intended to be inhibiting. Everything is offered in love. Children most likely feel the tenderness and often, the generations genuinely enjoy each others’ company.

The paralyzing effects of the behavior are stealthy, however, and what springs from kindness can have negative consequences. Like it or not, some opportunities go stale if a young adult doesn’t pounce on them early. It rarely works out well if at 31, let’s say, someone regrets that they didn’t go to work on Wall Street. That boat has sailed. There are also important practices and behaviors no one can teach you but yourself—how to get along in the workplace, meet deadlines, fulfill obligations, co-exist with people of many backgrounds, work hard, accept disappointment and learn to sacrifice. An adolescent needs independence and practice to master these essentials.

Certainly, recent economic crises and downturns have been responsible for this changed parental paradigm. But do you think there are other causes as well, such as redefined perception of what it means to be a good mother?

It’s a fact that it’s become harder for young people to get jobs and paid internships, and the average young adult carries $45,000 of student debt, but the problems adultescents face go beyond the grim reaper job market and financial burdens. Many adult children exist in a perfect storm of overconfidence created by parents who’ve raised them to feel capitol-S Special. Parents are often too eager to give kids every opportunity they never had. I’ve heard mothers and fathers take thinly disguised pride in their children’s champagne taste and only half-jokingly admit, “I’d like to be reincarnated as my daughter.” Teaching kids practical skills that lead to self-sufficiency and living within a budget may be undervalued, creating entitled but incompetent kids who’ve been enabled by well-meaning parents.

At the end of your book, you give some very sane advice to boomer parents of adultescent kids; do you have any special advice for Jewish moms?

Forcing ourselves to back off is no harder than what we expect of our young adult kids. Retrenchment may smack of tough love, and it’s a practice not only for non-Jews.

Watch the trailer (below) for Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest.