Care and Feeding

My Adult Son Has Mastered the Art of Weaponized Incompetence

How do we get him to do … anything?

A young man looks bored/annoyed while his older parents look frustrated behind him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Highwaystarz-Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My adult (21 and 23) stepsons are in many ways very similar (funny, thoughtful, helpful, etc.). For nearly their entire lives, though, most of the influential adults around them have practically fallen over themselves to make things “easy” for 23, doing everything in their power to ensure that he is not stressed or inconvenienced in any way. He is smart enough to have realized this along the way and has developed a habit of either dragging his feet until someone makes a decision for him or simply deciding that it is someone else’s job to “remind him” (e.g., do you want to join us on vacation or not? did you finish that paperwork for open enrollment at work so that you can continue to have health insurance?). In short, 23 has never been allowed to fail or experience a natural consequence of his actions/inaction. Conversely, and probably as a result of the behaviors he has observed, 21 just gets things done and takes care of his own business. 23 has mastered the art of weaponized incompetence, while 21 would rather chew off his own hand than ask for help.

We are fast reaching a point where this history is potentially going to create big financial disparities that are largely within our control. We supported 23 through 4.5 years of university.  He found a good job in his field locally after graduation and has continued to live with us for nearly a year. He absolutely can afford to live on his own and still put money into savings each month, but rather, he finds it more convenient to pay a nominal amount toward household expenses and live with us. He has saved well over $50,000 since graduation and that number is steadily climbing. We are effectively subsidizing the prolonged adolescence of an adult child who makes more than his father annually. He doesn’t seem to have a specific savings goal in mind, and when pressed, moves the goal posts. Unfortunately, he also seems to have a pack of coworkers feeding him opinions like “You should live at home until you can pay for a house with cash!” and “you should have at least $100k in the bank before you think about moving out.”

Meanwhile, 21 has managed to finish his undergraduate education in just 3 years, has a healthy $18k in the bank, and is probably going to have to step into adulthood very immediately after graduation. I am struggling with how unfair it seems for 23 to just keep amassing savings without any adult responsibility beyond showing up for work, while 21 will not have that opportunity. I just can’t seem to come up with a solidly defensible argument for why I think it is time for 23 to move out other than “it’s not fair to 21!” I love the kids, I enjoy the kids, and having one live at home because they need support in a time of medical, family, or financial crisis would be different. I find myself feeling increasingly resentful about the idea of 23 living with us at this stage of life simply to avoid the challenge of being fully responsible for his own life and paying his own way. I realize the short answer here is that I have to get my husband on board and willing to drop a firm boundary with timelines—and prep him for the inevitable emotional manipulation and blowback. What I could really use help with is finding the words to effectively do just that.

— Time to Empty the Nest

Dear Empty the Nest,

Just shy of a year doesn’t strike me as all that long to live at home and figure things out post-grad, but of course I am not the one feeding and housing a 23-year-old who could probably be doing those things for himself. I do want to just raise the possibility that 23 might be struggling in some way you’re unaware of, or dealing with something that hasn’t left him with the bandwidth to focus on moving out and starting his fully independent life—what looks like “incompetence” can sometimes be something else.

Assuming all is truly well with 23, you’re correct that you and your husband need to discuss this and try to get on the same page. The conversation doesn’t have to begin with the idea of staging a major intervention and kicking your son out, so much as encouraging both him and your husband to see that letting him coast along with few responsibilities when he does have the means and, presumably, the ability to live independently isn’t doing him any favors in the long run. I don’t think you need to focus on the increasing financial disparity between your two kids, or how “unfair” it is to 21. You can simply emphasize the fact that it is actually in 23’s best interest to start planning for a more independent life—even as you continue to be there for him when needed, the way family members are when they’re lucky enough to have the means. (He may end up doing the same for you and your husband one day.)

When you bring 23 into the conversation, I think it’s important to ask and listen to what he really wants, now and going forward. I’d be surprised if he wants to keep living with you forever. He’s still young, despite the degree and the good job, and maybe he’s feeling stuck and unsure how to fully launch his life as an adult. I’m not saying you can never give him a time-to-move-out ultimatum, but I expect he’ll have an easier time if you lead with encouragement and genuine curiosity about his hopes and goals.


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