Empty nest more myth than reality

Parents find peer-like relationship when children move out

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

You packed up and left home to attend university, but the question remains: do Mom and Dad really miss you?

New research at the University of Missouri suggests your parents have better things to worry about, like financing a cozy retirement or cultivating exciting new hobbies.

The study, published in this month’s Journal of Family Issues, debunks old myths regarding the “empty nest syndrome.”

Christine Proulx, lead researcher and professor of human development and family studies at MU, said the study aimed to shed some light on the transition parents experience when their kids decide to move out.

Rather than complaining about loneliness and emotional loss, empty nesters are more likely to report positive feelings, like increased freedom and more meaningful relationships with adult children.

Proulx said newer generations of parents are happy to see kids experience increased independence and maturity. Of the 142 couples interviewed in the study a healthy majority reported positive changes when kids transition into adulthood.

“It’s about being able to step back and have a less hands-on parent/child relationship,” she said.

Parents reported relating to their children more as peers and others said they acted more like a mentor providing advice to children.

Some things remained the same in the parent-child relationship, like financial assistance.

“In some ways it’s a relief to have the children away,” Western professor of sociology Rod Beaujot said, adding parents can pay more attention to work, hobbies and home renovation.

Western students reflected on their parents’ reaction to the big move.

“They turned my room into a guest room,” third-year kinesiology student Murray McCullough said. “It was kind of a kick in the pants.”

Kristen Holman, a second-year social science and political science student, said her parents left her room how she left it, but have adjusted well to her absence. “Last year my mom was a little crazy " she said she had to shut my door,” Holman said.

“[My parents] used to call a lot,” she added. “But now I call them instead.”

Part of the appeal for parents is being able to offer advice on adult topics.

“[Respondents] really enjoyed being able to talk to children as peers,” Proulx said. “Parents like to hear about what’s going on in young adult children’s lives.”

Holman agreed she shared a better relationship with her mother after moving out of the house.

“Because I’m not there, I appreciate her advice more,” she said. “We’ll go shopping together, and I appreciate the little things, like her doing my laundry.”

McCullough said his mother calls him every day. “I’ve had a daily phone call since first year.”

Many parents in the study felt regular contact with university-aged offspring is essential.

Beaujot said there are strengths and weaknesses to living at home or moving away during university.

He said students who choose to stay at home, run a risk of outstaying their welcome: “Parents begin to ask: will they ever leave?

“The nice thing is, parents are open to children coming back,” Beaujot said, adding this was not the case 30 years ago. “It’s more comfortable for adult children to live at home.”

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