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?