Be mindful of boundaries when helping adult kids financially

Q: Our son and his wife have been married less than a year. Two months ago, his job was downsized, and they’re starting to experience some real financial struggles while he looks for work. We have the means to help them, and are happy to, but we also want to avoid them becoming (or feeling) dependent on us. What do you suggest?

Jim: Your willingness to assist is encouraging, but I also think you’re wise to do it carefully. There are several basic points to keep in mind.

First, be helpful in a way that doesn’t dramatically change your son and daughter-in-law’s lifestyle. Feel free to help occasionally with the cost of necessary items, like groceries or the electric bill. But don’t shower them with luxuries. And especially don’t offer monthly support. Routinely handing over money may ease a temporary need, but in the long run it’s the surest way for your child to become overly reliant on you.

Next, offer assistance with no strings attached. A gift should be just that — a gift, not an attempt (intended or perceived) to control your child’s behavior. Don’t use money as a way to get more phone calls or visits during the holidays. And don’t give with a list of restrictions for how you expect them to spend the money. In the end, your kids may feel manipulated, and it could damage your relationship. So if you give, do it without strings attached.

Finally, respect your child’s home and relationship. Don’t undermine their desire to provide for themselves. And your support shouldn’t cause (or amplify) conflict in their marriage.

Remember, the challenge is to balance your desire to help with what’s best for your son and daughter-in-law’s long-term well-being, as well as to protect your relationship along the way.

Q: How can I help my child care for others, not just herself? I’ve noticed she can be very sweet to friends when there’s something in it for her, but she can treat them poorly when they don’t have much to offer.

Danny Huerta, vice president, Parenting and Youth: It sounds like your daughter is more of a consumer than a connector.

Consumers of people approach others with the question, “What do you have for me?” Their relationships usually aren’t very stable, and they are much more likely to be critical of others. Consumers are poor listeners. They expect others to earn their love and thus have shallow relationships.

On the other hand, connectors begin with the question, “What do you need from me?” Connectors listen well, value people just for who they are and want what’s best for others. They tend to be encouragers and have more deeply rooted relationships.

The great news is that your daughter can learn to be a connector. Consider these as you model connection:

1. Listen first. Our minds are often distracted with our own cares and concerns. Pause to really hear what the other person is saying.

2. Be generous. Generosity isn’t about giving money. You can be generous with your time or even smiles. It’s especially important that we be generous with authentic, kind words.

3. Genuinely care. Ask questions, follow up, write a warm note and model how to care about other people. I know my kids love it when I follow up on something that was important to them. They appreciate that I cared enough to listen and remember.

4. Gain perspective. Many times we only care to look at things from our own viewpoint. Take time to see things from another perspective.

The world is full of consumers and people craving to be noticed. It desperately needs genuine, loving connectors. Look for ways to make and savor memorable connections in your family.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Faimly and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at or at