Children are delaying adulthood deep into their 20s, creating a new group between teenagers and adults that BYU researcher Larry Nelson calls "emerging adults" and that others have called Peter Pan kids. The shift in American society is causing some growing pains for children and parents alike.
"There's this new, long period of time where parents are finding they're not done with parenting," Nelson said. "When people find out I teach child development, it's interesting so many parents ask me what to do with their 18- to 25-year-olds. I get more of that than I get questions about toddlers."
The BYU researchers talked to 392 college students at five schools around the country and interviewed at least one of their parents. Only 16 percent of mothers and 19 percent of fathers said their college-age children had reached adulthood. Among students, just 16 percent considered themselves adults.
"It's hard to know where to put the line," said BYU senior Andy Orme, who was fuzzy about considering himself an adult yet.
Putting it relatively, he said maturity may depend on the moment's activity: "If it's serious financial stuff, then I'm probably not there yet, nope," he said. "But other stuff, smaller stuff, I think I'm there."
College and university employees know that some over-active parents, dubbed "helicopter parents" by some, have played a part in the rise of this new "emerging adult" stage of life, Nelson said. Parents who complain about their marriages or divorces and about every little problem with their jobs push emerging adults to delay those choices.
"Why would they want to rush into that?" Nelson said.
Lori Passey, mother of a BYU freshman, doesn't consider herself the "helicopter" kind but said parenting in that age group is full of "hard calls" between letting go and butting in.
Passey said she tries hard to treat her 18-year-old daughter Dani Passey like an adult but isn't quite ready to write her in the adult category just yet.
Dani, who said she's enjoying "total freedom" as her first college semester winds down, believes she's reached the next level.
"I'm paying for everything," she said. "My school, food, everything, so I can't help but feel like (an adult)."
And mixed messages in media can set parents and their 18- to 25-year-old children at odds. Some media encourage emerging adults to use this time to play around, explore, take their time, but when they do so, other media label them as selfish, narcissistic and irresponsible.
It is precisely this kind of exploration and pushing that goaded 22-year-old sophomore Wayne Morris into commenting.
"I don't know why they would get that data," Morris said. "We're all forced into these adult situations (at school) and make pretty serious decisions."
Nelson said parents and their college-age children can get along well, and the emerging adults can flourish "if everyone is on the same page about this new coming-of-age time period."
The healthiest thing parents can do is provide advice and guidance about the new, grown-up situations their children are experiencing and offer support, Nelson said. Then they should let their children make the decision or confront the professor or deal with the bank or credit card company themselves.
"Parents still matter, even at this age, and their children want them to matter," Nelson said. "If parents abandon them completely, I think they'll struggle, and if parents hover, they'll flounder. If parents provide direction and support and allow their children then to choose and act on their own, they can flourish and succeed."
And not all college students are still kids, said Nelson, who dislikes labels like Peter Pan kids and Millenials, a term some are applying to children born between 1980 and 1995. In a previous study, Nelson showed LDS college students reach standards of adulthood sooner if they have served church missions or worked hard in church positions.
"Young people with a little more structure in their lives tend to be achieving these criteria sooner," he said.
BYU freshman Austin Olsen, 19, admitted he will likely linger in pre-adulthood for a while, at least until he's married. He said then his parents might see him where he believes he's already arrived.
For now, though, crossing home's welcome mat in St. Louis, Mo., means a change in jurisdiction; old rules still apply.
"I still get nailed with curfew every time I go home," Olson said, shrugging his shoulders and half-smiling.
There were some strong agreements and some sharp disagreements between the generations in the new study over the criteria for adulthood.
One that parents and students almost unanimously agreed on is accepting responsibility for the consequences of actions. About 75 percent in both generations said another is learning always to have good control of their emotions.
But most college students felt they needed to be settled into long-term careers and be financially independent before they can be considered to have reached adulthood. Fewer parents felt that way.
On the other hand, parents believed learning to drive safely and avoid drunkenness were necessary steps to adulthood while the majority of students felt otherwise.
"These (college) kids want to do everything because they think we're right here as a safety net," said Lori Passey. "And I guess we kind of are."
The study was published in The Journal of Family Psychology. The students in the study were attending the University of Nebraska, the University of Minnesota, the University of California-Davis, Loyola College and McDaniel College.
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