When It’s Time to Throw Your Son Out of the House

How do you know when it’s time to give tough love?

I had lunch with an old friend last week, and over our chicken salad sandwiches she told me she and her husband had finally done it: They threw their son out of the house. My friend—let’s call her Claire—is savvy and self-confident, but she didn’t seem to be either of those things as she related how the son, who’s about to turn 23, had broken a house rule—yet again—and it turned into the last straw. She looked scared and shaken. “He pushed us right up to the line, and then he kept pushing,” she said.

He’s not a bad kid. He’s funny and kind and gentle. He graduated from high school and took a few courses at the local college, but higher ed never took hold. He’s worked at a succession of low-skill jobs over the past five years—short-order cook, grocery-store shelf-stocker, that sort of thing. What he really likes to do is smoke pot and skateboard. You see kids like him in any small town like ours. You see them when they’re 12, when they’re so damned cute, and then when they’re 16, gathered in small knots in parking lots, puffing on cigarettes, taking turns doing tricks on their boards. You see them when they’re 20, when their chosen form of relaxation doesn’t seem quite so innocent, when they’re out there later and later at night and you start to wonder where they’re going with their lives.

Claire and her husband have been so patient, so willing to suggest new ideas and directions. They were grateful when Obamacare was signed and they could keep their son on their insurance plan for a few years longer, so he could get the broken legs and wrists he gets skateboarding fixed. They gave him a place to stay, cooked his meals, helped him buy a car, saw him through the arrests for petty offenses, and were (mostly) cheerful and supportive. And still, he never seemed to gain traction. He just was stuck in place.

Now he’s gone. “Pack your things,” they told him. He asked if he could stay just a couple weeks longer, so he could save up some money for a deposit on an apartment. They swallowed hard and said no. He drove off. He’s been back for dinner once (“It was … civil”), and once to pick up more stuff. Claire doesn’t ask him a lot of questions. She’s worn out. She doesn’t want to know.

Back in March, I wrote about how an entire generation of young men seems stuck in place. Claire’s son was one of the guys I was thinking of when I began working on that piece. He grew up with my kids; I can picture him leaping wild-limbed into the pool at the YMCA, painting pumpkins at Halloween, playing soccer while Claire and I coached. She, of course, has an entire lifelong reel of memories of him, from the day he was born; she’s loved him and believed in him for all that time. And now she and her husband have come to this decision—and, worse, they have to stick with it. They can’t weaken, can’t give in, can’t take him back again.

What is it that they call it—tough love? Tough is right. They believe they’ve given him enough chances, offered enough cushioning, allowed sufficient time for him to grow up and become a man. Now they’ll find out if they have.

“How do you know?” Claire says, and takes a bite of cookie. “How do you really know?” You never think, in those unholy months of colic, in the tussles over bedwetting, in the screaming matches in the aisle of Walmart over No you may not get a new baseball mitt!, that it could possibly get any harder. That you’ll ever be standing in this place.

They hope to God the choice they’ve made is the best thing for him. What do you think?

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  • lldc1037

    WOW! i have the same exact situtation in my home. Today, yes, Today, I threw him out. I have been dealing with his lack of direction, lack of respect & lack of accountablity for 3 years. i am exhausted, i am at the end of my rope. i have tried everything, counselors, rehab, medical test, encouraging him to go back to college, art school. All to no avail. I was played like a fiddle by my son.
    The writing was on the wall in black large font….but i choose not to look. I call it the eye of denial. Refusing to see my son would take full advantage of my loving and good nature motherly ways. Today, I took my blindfold off and he is on his own.
    i hope and pray for his safety. I want nothing but the best for him.. But HE needs to find his own directions. This is his life..not mine…i can’t allow him to bring me down anymore. i will let you know how this tough love plays out. My heart is broken, my soul is crying, my body doesn’t want to function and my mind is full of anger.
    However, I know I made the right decision for him. I wasn’t doing him any favors to help him grow into responsible man. Give till it helps..don’t give till it hurts.

  • jshprintz86

    Sandy, you seem to really feel passionate about this issue. You wrote a big piece on it several months ago and have re-hashed on it a couple times since. Let me start by saying that I enjoyed your cover issue story. I thought it was well written and addressed a multitude of different topics. The thing is when you were spitting off statistics about young men you never said anything about young women.

    Now I am a young man. I am twenty six working full time as a waiter and in my spare time trying to build up my writing career. I moved out of my parents house when I was nineteen and haven’t’ been back since. I’m not saying that every young man is like me, but plenty are. And sure there are many young men who spend their time smoking weed and skateboarding, but that’s not the majority of us.

    Conversely, there are plenty of young women out there who live with their parents all the way through their mid twenties and you haven’t said anything about them. I actually know more young ladies who have yet to move out than young men. That may not be something that’s well represented on a national, state, or even regional level but it certainly holds true in my life. Maybe it’s because women aren’t pressured to move out as much as men, maybe it’s because they don’t cause as much trouble (less trips home in police cars) but needless to say you have totally excluded them from the conversation.

    Instead of going on and on about how young men need to grow up and leave the nest maybe you should talk more about how young PEOPLE need to grow up and leave the nest. From your side of things you may only see men, but there are a fair amount of women as well who need a swift kick in the butt.