Nearly 30 years ago, sociologist Robert Bellah and his team of co-authors in Habits of the Heart (1985) described the American parenting ideal as the production of independent children who “leave home,” both figuratively and literally. To never leave home, they wrote, violated the cardinal American virtue of self-reliance, contradicting self-understandings that individuals should “earn everything we get, accept no handouts or gifts, and free ourselves from our families of origin.” The essence of parenting was preparing children for just such a separation, reflecting the American belief that a meaningful life could be had only by breaking free from family and giving birth, in a sense, to oneself. “However painful the process of leaving home, for parents and for children, the really frightening thing for both would be the prospect of the child never leaving home.” Successful launching was the quest, and the empty nest, even though it required adjustment, the reward. If these were the habits of the parenting heart in the 1980s, American parents clearly have had a change of heart.
Consider these recent findings from the Culture of American Families Survey, conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Two-thirds of American parents of school-age children now say they would “willingly support a 25-year-old child financially” if needed. Two-thirds say they would encourage a 25-year-old to move back home if he or she had difficulty affording housing. Parents still hope, of course, that their adult children will attain financial independence, but this aspiration is no stronger than the hope that children will retain “close ties with parents and family”—both are considered “essential” by about half of American parents. The quest for long-term connection with children has taken central stage. Parenting is still about formation, but its overriding concern has pivoted from formation to connection. One has only to consider parents’ responses to the statement “I hope to be best friends with my children when they are grown” to know something new is happening at home. Almost three-quarters of today’s parents of school-age children (72 percent) agree that they eventually want to be their children’s best friends; only 17 percent disagree. The successful formation and launching of children still matters; it is just that parents don’t want to launch them very far.