(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK, June 19 (Reuters) - It's the secret fear of every American parent: failure to launch.
What if, despite your best efforts, your adult kids just aren't able to sustain themselves financially?
The idea used to give Andy Byron the cold sweats. With a whopping five kids, the 57-year-old financial planner from Pleasanton, California wanted no part of 'delayed adults' hanging out in his basement well into their thirties.
So he and his wife turned their household into a virtual factory for churning out financially independent kids. The eldest girl, 29, is an English language teacher. The 26-year-old twin boys work for Apple and PricewaterhouseCoopers, respectively. Their 22-year-old son scored a paid summer internship with medical device manufacturer Stryker Corp, with an eye toward a career in medical sales.
The 19-year-old daughter, a college sophomore in the fall, is combining her studies with a paid summer internship and a part-time accounting job during the school year.
So what's their secret sauce?
"Start early, be consistent, and make sure they know what their responsibilities are," Byron says.
As soon as they were 16 or 17, the parents told their kids that they had to get jobs, and would be on their own after graduation. As a result, the three oldest are out of the house and get no more monthly cash from the bank of Mom and Dad; the younger two will follow suit soon.
While the Byron clan appears to have figured it all out, it's no easy task to nudge kids from the nest. Among people in their 40s and 50s who have adult kids, a stunning 73 percent report lending financial help over the previous year, according to Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Are the successful launches of the 27 percent due to thoughtful, years-long projects to educate kids about handling finances? Or are they product of tough love, throwing adult kids into the deep end of the pool in order to force them to swim?
"They are more the result of financial education, and talking about money, which ranks right up there with sex as a taboo subject," says Sally Koslow, author of the book "Slouching Toward Adulthood."
For those with children who have yet to launch, there is plenty of time left on the clock. Here is how to prep kids for true financial independence, during college and the critical years that follow:
If you don't want your kids financially hanging on, do whatever you can to help them graduate from college debt-free. Seven out of 10 college grads last year had outstanding loans, at an average debt of $29,400, according to the advocacy group Project On Student Debt. To help them avoid indentured servitude, start saving as soon as they're in swaddling clothes.
Andy Byron and his wife contributed at least $50 a month, and often much more, into 529 college-savings plans for each one of their five kids - "as soon as each child had a Social Security number," he says.
Byron supplemented that aggressive strategy by "strongly suggesting" the kids go to public, in-state universities. The payoff: All the Byron grads have emerged from their college years free of student debt.
The popular HBO series "Girls" was premised on a key event: Lena Dunham's character getting financially cut off by her parents.
That can be excruciating for everyone involved, but necessary nonetheless. "Parents get so emotionally involved," says Matt Curfman, a vice president with financial advisers Richmond Brothers in Jackson, Michigan. "That's why I tell them, 'If you need me to jump in and help, even if I end up being the bad guy, I'm happy to do so.'"
It doesn't have to be done in one fell swoop, Curfman notes. If your adult kid runs into financial trouble, write down a concrete plan to help with a certain amount of dollars for a certain number of months - "but that's it."
Kids get plenty of calculus and chemistry in high school and college, but personal finance? Not so much.
That's where parents can make themselves a critical resource. For 24-year-old Annie-Rose Strasser, home instruction was what set her on the path to become the financially independent young adult she is now. Strasser has a full-time job as a journalist in Washington and lives in her own apartment. "I never learned personal finance when I was in school - 401(k)s, saving, balancing a budget: I learned it all from my parents," she says.
Paired with that informal home-study was the early expectation that Strasser would put herself to work as soon as she was able. A constant stream of it - at summer camps, at office jobs, at paid internships - helped set the table for her successful launch.
"My parents aren't the kind of people who would say, 'Go off and explore yourself,'" she laughs. "Instead, they put a lot of stock in the idea of finding a career, saving money - and being extremely financially responsible." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Beth Pinsker, Lauren Young and Jonathan Oatis)