(This post is part of the series on postsecondary education.)
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At age eighteen, a young American acquires the legal right to leave his family of origin and strike out on his own. But it is a rare young American who awakens on his eighteenth birthday ready to "establish a family in favorable moral, social, and economic conditions."
Oh, sure, there's a few situations where a young person will by age eighteen have something approaching latent competency to establish a family. That is, the fundamentals have been learned, "financial means" are secured one way or another, and the path is clear to acquire the rest. Mark and I sort of had that, each of us, when we finished high school, before we met each other. We had a lot of maturing still to do, but each of us started college with a full scholarship, a decent work ethic, and a declared major in a fairly practical field. It wouldn't have been wise for us to get married and start a family at age 18 or 20! But neither would it have been crazy to look at either of us and assume that we would make it out all right, assuming we didn't screw it up along the way.
(Now, of course, we shake our head and wonder how we managed NOT to screw it up. But that is another story.)
Lucky individuals aside, most eighteen-year-olds aren't all set for the future. If it's the parents' moral obligation to educate a child until they can "establish a family in favorable moral, social, and economic conditions," then I think we parents maybe should expect to continue offering educational, financial, moral, and social support past age eighteen.
Because an eighteen-year-old is legally free from his parents' control, he can decline that support. And so at age eighteen, the parent-child relationship enters a new and strange phase: one in which the parents have a responsibility to offer appropriate, judicious guidance and support, but the son or daughter no longer has the obligation to accept it.
It is easy to see how the mutual responsibilities can become confusing, particularly if communication is poor. It's also easy to see how new power struggles can develop. The young person may need her parents' help and support acutely as she tries to cement the skills of independent living; but at the same time she may resent much of their advice and the things they ask of her. The parents may be eager to see their children move on to independence, and eager to help; but at the same time they may feel dismay at their sons' and daughters' choices, and wonder if they ought to use the power of the purse to compel "right" choices.
The Catholic documents give some guidelines about the mutual responsibilities of parents and children. (See here and here.) But ultimately, parents and their grown children have to find shared values in order to move forward in a way that satisfies both.
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What kinds of support might parents provide for their children past the age of eighteen in order to help them complete their education so that they might "establish a family in favorable moral, social, and economic circumstances?"
The one that most of us are talking about around here is paying for college. After (maybe) receiving a need-based offer of a financial aid package from a school, there's usually still a price to be paid.
Paying for college, for an eighteen-and-over son or daughter, is the functional, continuing equivalent of delegating your underage child's education to an elementary or secondary school, or of putting in the work of homeschooling them. And parents must delegate that education responsibly: they maintain some responsibility over this education, because a young person is not "emancipated" in any sense of the word if his parents are paying thousands of dollars a year for his upkeep.
- "As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators" and that correspond "to their own convictions" [CCC2229].
- It isn't a foregone conclusion that the school they choose will be a school friendly to the faith: If "ideologies opposed to the Christian faith are taught in the schools," parents ought to "join with other families and ... help the young not to depart from the faith" [FC40].
- But at the same time, "parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children."
- They should cultivate "a simple and austere lifestyle" to promote the correct attitude towards material goods [FC37].
- Parents must "consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church," in order to "thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those the future may bring" [GS50]
I read in this that parents who are paying for a postsecondary education have the right and the responsibility to take part in the selection of a college. It would not be appropriate for a parent to completely control their son's or daughter's education, because "parents should be careful not to exert pressure on their children... in the choice of a profession," but they are perfectly within their rights to "set a good example" by carefully considering whether the money is well spent according to their own values.
Because parents owe their unemancipated children discipline: Paying parents are also perfectly within their rights to set conditions on the money, such as maintaining a certain academic performance, sticking to an agreed-upon plan to graduate on time, or staying out of certain kinds of trouble. The choice of conditions requires careful thought, though. The catechism implies strongly that parents should not require obedience except for the good of the child or the good of the family, and that instructions to the child should be reasonable [CCC2217.] Parents must not provoke their children to anger [CCC2223]. Parents must not force a person "to act contrary to his conscience" or "prevent him from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters" [CCC1782].
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Parents can also support sons and daughters during the postsecondary education years by allowing them to continue living at home. In some ways, this arrangement can look very much like it did before the child's eighteenth birthday, but really something fundamental has changed, because the arrangement is now, legally and morally speaking, voluntary on both sides. Either parents or young adult could choose for the good of the family to terminate the arrangement; and the young adult is free to terminate the arrangement in order to establish a new family. Because it's voluntary, it's appropriate to negotiate the terms.
There are a lot of economic and social benefits to the living-at-home-with-parents arrangement. The family who considers this option presumably already knows how to live together in some peace, so there are no unknowns associated with finding new roommates; the total rent/mortgage cost paid by the family members is smaller; there are no transaction costs associated with obtaining a new living space; many common items can be shared instead of new ones having to be bought; economies of scale are preserved in the purchasing of food and groceries.
Offering to pay for college is an economically significant gift to the young person, at a steep cost to the parent; welcoming their son or daughter's continued presence in their home is also economically significant to the young person but (unless they would otherwise downsize to a smaller home or rent out a bedroom) at a quite low cost to the parent.
If the young person is living at home and has not yet learned how to have "stable work, sufficient financial resources, sensible administration, [and] notions of housekeeping" -- part of the necessary content of education -- then a period of living at home after age eighteen is a good, if late, time to start. Acquisition of these skills by contributing to the running of the household and demonstrating progress on a plan towards self-emancipation (working and saving money, studying for a degree or certificate, rehabilitating oneself, etc.) can be a condition of this kind of support. Remember, parents have a responsibility to educate their children who are living at home, and children living at home still have the duty of obedience towards their parents' just requirements.
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A third means of support that parents can provide are certain incidentals that are often of low cost to the parent but high value to the young person. Two common examples are health insurance coverage on the family plan (where the young person is eligible) and use of a family-owned and insured automobile. These aren't generally cost-free to the parents (for example, health insurance premiums for an employer-provided plan are higher if they include dependents), but they are often much, much less expensive than a separate plan for the young person, and so it may make common sense for parents to provide them -- even if they require the young person to reimburse them for some of the extra cost.
Depending on the total amount of support, it doesn't strike me that a young person's accepting this kind of help from his parents necessarily means that he isn't emancipated from them (particularly if he reimburses them their out-of-pocket costs).
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Some parents may be so positioned as to be able to offer their son or daughter a job. Maybe they are business owners, or own rental properties that require management. Maybe the parents hope the young person will join the family business and eventually take it over; maybe it is just a good means to help him ride out a recession with a secure job. Or maybe there's a service that they could really use -- caring for younger siblings or other relatives still at home, cooking and household projects for the family, etc. Either way, it's an opportunity to directly help the young person acquire work experience or life skills.
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But what to do if there is some money to help the kids get started in life -- a "college fund," if you will -- but college doesn't look like the way to go? There's always straight-up gifts of cash. The difference between a gift that's enough to pay for college tuition, and "paying for college," is that a gift doesn't have strings attached. Except, of course, on the honor system: "This gift is for you to use wisely so that you can establish stable work and sufficient means to support a family."
This is the ultimate in "being careful not to pressure" young people, and it communicates a lot of trust in the young person's wisdom and willingness to listen to advice.
Probably not a good idea for some young adults. Maybe a good idea for others.
A similar option, a little safer, might be to set up a trust fund. Let a young adult start off with a nest egg, and encourage him to learn about investment strategies and long-term money management, so that he can turn it into something meaningful.
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But besides paying for college, there are other strings that could be attached to cash money -- always remembering that the goal is to give the young person the means to, by way of his education, "establish a family in favorable moral, social, and economic circumstances."
Maybe the parents would be willing to put up seed money for a business start-up (perhaps in exchange for a share in its ownership).
An alternative to paying for college, if the son or daughter's college "plans" are nebulous and unformed or suspiciously low in bang-for-the-buck, might be to subsidize -- not the college semesters themselves -- but tuition for a shorter-term vocational degree or certificate intended to bump up the wages that the young person can command before going to college. The average student doesn't graduate in four years anyway -- why not make the first year or two as lucrative as possible, by making them years of vocational training? There will still be time to go to college afterward, but the difference is that (a) the young person has a skill she can fall back on to support a family if need be and (b) the young person might actually be able to command a high enough wage to work his way through school or to pay off the loans he might take out. By the time the vocational program is complete, the student will be emancipated -- a couple of years sooner than he might have been had he depended on his parents to pay his way through four-plus years of college -- so young people who are itching for true and total independence may prefer this option.