Planet Earth

Just Like Us: Animals Also Mooch Off Their Parents

Humans aren't the only ones taking care of their adult children. These animals also can't seem to let go of their "little" ones.

By Donna SarkarFeb 9, 2022 3:10 PM
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(Credit: Irena Kofman/Shutterstock)

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Protectiveness typically goes hand-in-hand with parenthood. And while it's natural to care about their child's safety and wellbeing, parents sometimes extend the nurturing for too long.

This phenomenon may become harder to avoid as more adults stay at home far beyond high school. According to Pew Research Center, 52 percent of U.S. 18- to 29-year-olds were living with one or both of their parents in July 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic likely played a major role in this peak. That number has since fallen, though it reflects a broader national trend that began around the 1960s.

Meanwhile, shacking with parents well into adulthood is fairly common around the world. In fact, looking after adult kids also extends across species. And although letting mom and dad feed you and house you rent-free may seem alluring, is it healthy for an adult (human or animal) to remain, well, a child? A closer look at several critters' parenting styles and behaviors could perhaps provide insight into our own parenting choices.

Parents Know Best?

Just like us, animal parents may step in when their offspring struggle in adulthood. Many wild animal parents feed their starving adult children who have trouble finding meals. In fact, stored food often comes in handy in these exact moments. Some animals will also provide their offspring with introductions to mates. Such actions are referred to as extended parental care.

Animals may need extended parental care for the some of the same reasons that humans do. Sometimes, it can be a matter of an unsafe environment or limited resources. For instance, Western bluebird sons who stay close to home during the winter months are more likely to survive. Because these birds are safer in numbers, living with family allows them to thrive. As an added incentive, they also inherit their parent's territory that often comes stocked with food. However, these creatures also pull their own weight by teaching their younger siblings how to survive. Other animals who win the real estate lottery include North American red squirrels and meerkats.

"In the wild, it can often be dangerous to leave your group and go out and look for your own mate," says Karen Bales, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis and core scientist at the California National Primate Research Center. That's why adult kids could benefit from staying home as long as possible, she explains.

But what drives these parents to care for their adult children? The answer lies in evolution. In the animal kingdom, competition occurs in seemingly every corner, from scouring resources to seeking out potential mates. When an environment presents too much competition or too many predators, an adult child's life may be at risk. Parents, therefore, attempt to protect their offspring for a multitude of reasons, including an inherent need to continue their genetic legacy.

Older children could also offer certain advantages to their parents, Bales says, such as caring for their younger siblings, which happens to be the case for marmosets and tamarins. In some contexts, families could simply benefit from more bodies to stay warm at night or reduce the risk of getting eaten by predators.

Whether it's endearing or embarrassing — or maybe both — for grown-ups to stay close to the parentals, it's probably safe to say there's no place like home (or mom and dad's basement).

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