How can I free myself of my parents’ control?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 15, 2005

Mom and Dad say if I don’t lose weight, they won’t find me an apartment for grad school.


Dear Cary,

I am a 24-year-old young man who lives with his parents in a wealthy suburb of a major American city. I graduated from college three years ago. I spent a year abroad teaching English and came back to the United States at the end of 2003. I have had trouble getting full-time employment since then. I have had some internships and occasional temp work that gives me enough money to slowly pay off a small and interest-free debt (owed to my parents) and also have some spending money. My temp work does not give me enough money to afford rent. I wanted to move out of my parents house ASAP, so I did what most suburban kids in my situation do: I applied to grad school.

The problem is that the only grad school I got into was in the nearby city. I have a small trust that pays for tuition and books (legally it can only be used for education expenses until I turn 35). I still can not afford an apartment. My parents think I am overweight and told me that they would not start looking for an apartment for me until I weighed 145 pounds. My height is 5 feet, 6 inches. I lost six pounds very quickly, but my weight has been hovering at the 155-156 level for the past few weeks and nothing I do seems to make it go down. I go to the gym five to seven times a week. I eat less. It looks like I will not make 145 by the time school begins unless I starve myself and go on a water-only diet.

I have been a late bloomer my entire life but it is beginning to drive me insane and throw me into mood swings. I am the only person I know who lives at home. My social life really suffers for it as well. I know lots of people who live in the city and I feel like I do not get included in a lot of activities because it would require too much planning. They can just call or e-mail each other and say be at place X in a half-hour or 40 minutes. Including me would require giving me enough notice to let me catch a commuter train in, get on a subway, etc. If I end up commuting to grad school my social life will continue to suffer. I will not be able to go out to dinner after late-night classes and such because I will worry about getting home at a reasonable hour to study and get enough sleep.

I see my problem as being the sum of three things: my constantly being a late bloomer in all social situations, being too economically dependent on my parents, and that my parents believe it is acceptable to treat a 24-year-old with carrot-and-stick deals and punishments. I want to be free. I want to experience what it is like to be a 20-something living in a city and be able to do things at a moment’s notice. I feel like by the time I am independent of my parents it is going to be too late for all these things. Everyone else will have grown up and be on to the serious stuff like career advancement, settling down, buying houses, starting families, and worrying about 401K plans.

What can I do to make myself free, Cary? How can I convince my parents that they are being insane about the apartment-weight deal? (BTW, they got my brother an apartment no questions asked when he started grad school. They claim he was not overweight.) The few friends I told about my apartment situation think my parents are insane but can’t give any advice. Am I just being another spoiled rich kid from the suburbs who is learning harsh lessons about reality? How can I keep my sanity and stop from being depressed about my situation — and the fact that it never seems to improve?

Late Bloomer With the Carrot in Front of His Face

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Dear Late Bloomer,

You ask, “What can I do to make myself free?” What you can do to make yourself free is move out of the house and get a job.

You may hesitate to leave home because your parents are offering you a lot of help. But the “help” they are offering is not helping.

There are two kinds of “help” that parents typically offer. One is helpful help. Helpful help sometimes doesn’t seem like help at all. Being thrown out of the house, for instance, can be helpful, though it may not seem so at the time. Being made to wash dishes, pay rent and mow the lawn can also seem unhelpful, but can actually teach a young, indolent wastrel certain laws of economics and human behavior that govern an astonishingly large part of adult society, from competition for mates to distribution of resources to the balance of give and take required to maintain love and friendship. Real help sometimes does not look like help at all. Likewise, what looks like real help is sometimes nothing more than sinister manipulation that is confusing and undermines the spirit.

In your case, the “help” you are getting from your parents seems profoundly unhelpful. I would guess that’s because it’s not age-appropriate. When you were a weak little kid, the carrot-and-stick approach might have made a certain amount of sense: You were biologically dependent and in need of operant conditioning. You needed to learn rules of behavior by repetition and practice, and the reward system gave you incentive to keep practicing the same behaviors over and over until they became rote. The object of such a system is to prepare the weak, helpless child to become strong and self-sufficient. Once the child has reached that point, however, it’s time to abandon the carrot-and-stick approach. Otherwise, it becomes a system of control. It makes you crazy. It torments you. It undermines your more or less natural instinct, which is to leave the parental compound, forage for food, dig a shelter and mate.

(Frankly — as one who has no kids and so probably shouldn’t talk — I’m a little troubled by the carrot-and-stick system of child-rearing: How can it possibly prepare one for the real-world reward system, whose rules are strange and random and require problem-solving ability of a whole ‘nother order? How does a kid, raised in such a way, interpret situations where participants don’t spell out their reward programs quite so explicitly? “If I lose five pounds, then can I have the job?” “What?”)

It’s not that your parents are monsters, necessarily. Parents get used to dealing with you in a certain way. And at times, in my opinion, parents don’t really want you to leave; they would prefer to have you helpless. That doesn’t reflect well on the parents; but it’s not like they’re out consciously to screw you over. Nevertheless, they hamstring you with their systems of control and manipulation. They mess with your head.

You have to get away from it, for your own good.

So it’s time for you to leave. Don’t wait for your parents to kick you out. They’re not going to do that. Leave. Get a job. Learn to cook and clean for yourself. Work full-time until grad school starts. Keep a part-time job while you’re in grad school. If you need living expenses, take out a student loan. Take it out in your name. Don’t ask your parents to co-sign.

Remember: As the right-wing jingoists like to say, Freedom isn’t free.

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