It's the Kids. Lock Up the China!
APRIL WILKNER literally got caught with her pants down.
She was traveling with her mother in Japan, visiting a spa in Tokyo. The two of them were stuffing their clothes into lockers and slipping on robes when her mother saw the cherry-patterned underwear her daughter was wearing.
"Where did you get those?" Ms. Wilkner's mother said. "Those are mine."
"Huh?" she replied. But it was pointless to deny it. The red cherries were unmistakable.
Ms. Wilkner, 24, a fashion model in Manhattan, had come across the brand-new Brazilian-cut briefs in a basket in her mother and stepfather's home in Providence, R.I. Assuming her mother had accidentally bought sexy underwear instead of her usual granny style, Ms. Wilkner had simply helped herself.
It was not the first time Ms. Wilkner had swiped something from her mother. She often appropriated socks, spices, oatmeal, once even a chest of drawers she found in her mother's bedroom that had yet to be assembled. "That was a pretty good steal," Ms. Wilkner said. "Oh, I took a bookshelf, too. Clocks. I took artwork, a bunch of Monet prints. But my parents have plenty of artwork."
A generation ago, adult children visiting their parents' homes might have left with a Tupperware container of lasagna. Today, many of them stealthily make off with toiletries, groceries, sometimes clothing and even furniture. It is an apparently widespread practice, born of a sense of entitlement among young adults - and usually amusedly tolerated by parents - that gives new meaning to the phrase "home shopping." Like most adults, the pilferers have set up their own households, but they seem not to have given up the expectation that their parents should provide for them in certain ways. They loot their parents' houses to cut costs, or because they would rather not pay for incidentals. Or because they want things with sentimental value.
Sometimes the children ask if they can take things. Often they do not.
Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology and human development at Northwestern University, said this kind of filching was one more example of the way grown children were putting off adulthood: living at home longer than they did a generation ago, staying in school longer and getting married later. "A lot of people in their mid and late 20's do not think of themselves as adults," Dr. McAdams said, "even if they make a lot of money."
The result is a period of life that has come to be known among some sociologists and psychologists as emerging adulthood. "It's like a new stage in life," Dr. McAdams said. "They're not teenagers, and they're not really adults."
Stephen Kunken, 34, an actor in New York who is an admitted "pillager" of his parents' possessions, said he rationalized that his parents had too much stuff and that he was both "trimming the fat" and "liberating" things. "I thought: 'These poor things. These are never going to get used. I'm going to liberate them and bring them into the city,' " he said.
Through the years Mr. Kunken has taken briefcases, a slide projector, an electric toothbrush, razors, blank tapes, paper towels, soap and bottles of wine.
His parents did not know their wine was missing until he served it to them at a party at his Brooklyn apartment. "We had our own wine that he stole," his mother, Ginny Kunken, said. "It was very nice that he invited us."
His parents are accustomed to finding things missing. "What have they taken?" said her husband, Fred Kunken, a dentist from Upper Brookville, N.Y., referring to Stephen and his 37-year-old brother, Jeffrey. "What haven't they taken? They've taken just about every bit of my clothing, from my underwear and socks to --"
"Bathing suits," his wife interjected, laughing.
"All of a sudden my razors disappear," Dr. Kunken said. "Shaving cream disappears. It's gotten to the point that if I see them coming, and if it's something I just got that I want to wear, I hide it."
That parents find their grown children's thieving humorous is a reflection of how family dynamics have changed, some experts said. Parents of previous generations maintained an authoritative stance toward their adult children, but now relationships are more equal, more like friendship, said Frank F. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the chairman of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, which examines the changing nature of early adulthood. "That's been a secular trend throughout the whole 20th century," Dr. Furstenberg said.
Having grown up with a feeling of friendship with their parents, Dr. McAdams said, many young adults may feel comfortable taking their things. And parents, wanting to maintain the camaraderie, look the other way. Some even keep their cupboards full so there is plenty to go around.
Today's empty nests, especially those in affluent neighborhoods, are also generally bigger and better stocked than ever before, Dr. McAdams said. Some are almost like warehouses, especially if the parents shop at discount stores like Sam's Club and BJ's Wholesale Club.
Replacement razors for the Gillette Mach 3 are expensive if you buy them in small packages, Stephen Kunken said. But his father buys them in bulk. "He goes to Costco and has 40, so I'm like, 'I'll take eight,' " Mr. Kunken said.
Ms. Wilkner said her mother hoarded things and had "a wall of toilet paper" in the bathroom. "They're not going to miss six rolls," she said.
Toilet paper is typically the first quarry in a life of petty thievery from parents' homes, many filchers said. During a visit the grown-up child notices an abundance of Charmin in a parent's bathroom, is perhaps reminded of the inferior brand in his or her own apartment, and suddenly decides to tuck a few rolls under an arm and deposit them in a knapsack. Soon the thief is taking other provisions. Toothpaste. Windex. Band-Aids. Electronics and home furnishings are not far behind.
"Ketchup and toilet paper are those things that you just really don't want to pay for," said Nicole Atkins, 26, a musician who lives in Brooklyn, adding that her parents "are generous to let me take their peanut butter and paper towels."
Debbie Jaffe, a 31-year-old actress, takes her mother's camera film. "She always has excess of everything," Ms. Jaffe said. "I took a printer recently. She had an extra."
Naomi Finkelstein, 24, a campus recruiter for a financial institution, said, "My parents are very giving." She has taken bags of marshmallows, batteries and other "little things that I just end up tossing into the bag," as well as groceries that her parents freely hand over.
Some parents balk at the practice of home shopping. They may remember reaching their own independence earlier in life, and how their parents had gone through the Great Depression and were extremely frugal. Taking things from them was out of the question.
"I think there is some resentment older adults might have," Dr. McAdams said, adding that these parents may see their children as "lacking focus."
But these are generally not the parents whose homes get looted. The filchers often say they would never take items their parents truly valued. Many parents say they are amused, or even flattered, by the pilfering. "It means they need us," said Dr. McAdams, a father of two. "It's nice to be needed."
Robin Hoffman of Manhattan has a daughter, 26, who took family photographs, and a son, 24, who took a cushy chair that used to belong to her father. "I'm happy that they want it and that they'll use it," Ms. Hoffman said. "I think it's great."
The phrase "emerging adulthood" does imply that these sticky fingers will eventually become independent. Is there a specific age by which one should finally accept the responsibility of paying one's way? Psychologists and economists point to the early or mid-30's.
"By the early 30's the assistance that kids are receiving from their parents dissipates strongly," said Robert F. Schoeni, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "The kids are establishing their careers, they're getting better-paid jobs, getting married."
Ms. Atkins, who has decorated her Brooklyn apartment with shot glasses, candles, Mexican marionettes and boxing gloves from her parents' house in Neptune, N.J., says she will cease her home shopping once she gets married and has a family.
"If I had kids and a husband, and I was still taking stuff from my parents," she said, "that would be really lame."