How can we miss them if they won't go away?

I know it seems that the news media are in the business of alarming statistics, but no set of numbers has alarmed me more than this tidbit from the U.S. Census Bureau: One-third of all American men between the ages of 22 and 34 live with their parents, an increase of 100 percent in the last two decades.

Chilling, no?

Just when you think you've survived parenthood, the kids come back home. The whistle has blown, but your shift isn't over. You've completed the marathon, only to find they've moved the finish line. The light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a locomotive.

You thought you'd finally have your house all to yourself only to discover, living in your basement, an unshaven, unkempt, unmarried, Nintendo-playing, beer-swilling troglodyte who smells of Fritos.

It's simply not fair. There's a progression to parenting that's being violated here. You have the baby, you nurture the adorable toddler, you support the brave first-grader, you oversee homework and moral development through the formative years, you argue with the smart-aleck, rebellious teen, then -- poof! -- the kid is gone, off to college or marriage or some other institution.

The nest is empty. Our golden years arrive and we slow down and putter at our hobbies and enjoy visits from our grandchildren and smile our way into the grave.

That's the way it's supposed to work, dammit. That's the natural order. You don't kick the baby bird out the nest only to have him fly in a circle and land right behind you.

But apparently that's what's happening these days, at least with one-third of the young men out there. They flap their wings in the real world for a while, and find they like it better in the nest. Or, they never leave at all. They sit on their feathered rumps, waiting for Mama Bird to rustle up another batch of home-cooked worms.

Social scientists studying this phenomenon find many reasons behind it. Entry-level jobs don't pay enough to cover the cost of housing. More students live at home while they go to college. People are waiting longer to get married. The social stigma of "living with my folks" has decreased.

(Here's one they rarely mention: Spare bedrooms. We tend to live in houses that are bigger than truly necessary these days, so there's plenty of room for the kids. Why should they move away when they have all the space and privacy they need?)

We've got two teen-aged boys at our house, and I love them very much. But they've been told since they were small how much I look forward to the day they can live on their own. I've made a special point of teaching them simple cooking and basic laundry and other life skills so they can survive out there. Times may be hard, but children of privilege should suffer a little poverty, working their way through school. It makes them appreciate subsequent success.

I tell my sons that, as soon as they leave, Mom and I will downsize to a condo with no extra bedrooms, just to thwart any notions about "boomeranging" back home. They laugh. Haha, Dad's such a joker. Only Dad's not kidding.

If they're lucky, I might give them our forwarding address.

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