Sawa Kurotani Special to The Daily Yomiuri
Late August is a hectic time for everyone in higher education in the United States, as we ready ourselves for the beginning of a new academic year. Even when I was a student, I never liked this time of the year, and now that I am on the teaching end of the picture, I like it even less.
The university campus is a quiet place during the summer. As I walk across the endless expanse of green grass bright under the summer sun, I see only a few other souls in the distance, all sauntering slowly under the shades of oak trees. The peaceful scene is rudely disrupted one day: Freshmen have arrived! New students understandably emanate excitement and nervousness as they run frantically around campus to get settled into their new dorm rooms, attend orientation events, and register for their classes. Recently, we are seeing more and more of their anxious parents as well, so-called “helicopter parents” who hover over their young-adult children and are very much involved in every aspect of their children’s lives.
When I was a student in a small college in Oregon much like the university where I now teach, I learned quickly from my fellow American students that it was embarrassing to give the impression that we were dependent on our parents. We, in fact, did everything we could to underplay our closeness to our parents and to project an image of independence. We complained to one another how cumbersome it was to have to call our families every weekend. We grumbled about “having to” go home for the holidays, wondered aloud if we should “just take off” for the next holiday season. We criticized the way our parents dressed and were exasperated when they sent us some ridiculous clothes that we “obviously could not wear” in front of our peers.
In the past several years, I have been noticing that my students no longer found it embarrassing to be close to their parents, and were quite open to talking about their relationships with their parents. My students tell me that they call their parents three or four times a day. Cellular phones certainly make it easier for my students to stay in close touch with their distant families than college students in those old days of public phones in the dorm hallway. Even then, what do they talk about with their parents so often? “Oh, like, when I’m shopping and can’t decide which sweater to buy. My mom has really good taste.”
The great majority of these helicopter parents are baby boomers, who grew up in the affluent postwar society, and, in their own youth, they rebelled against the established social order and rejected the material comforts and convenience of middle-class America. I’m certain that when they were in college, they, too, considered it uncool to be attached to their parents. In their mature adulthood, however, the generation that “refused to grow older” is refusing to become an authority figure for its own children, and seems to develop and maintain a more egalitarian relationship–one that resembles friendship–with its children (some boomer children, in fact, call their parents their “best friends”). These former hippies also appear intent on surrounding their children with all the material comforts and convenience that postmodern America has to offer, which they themselves once rejected in their youth.
The pretense of independence that my cohorts and I orchestrated in our youth was exactly that–pretense. Many of us were indeed close to our parents, and valued their advice at important junctures in our young adult life. Even more of us depended on our families financially, and counted on their support, both tangible and intangible, for years after college. The openness with which boomer parents and their children express their closeness is, in many ways, a vast improvement over the often contentious intergenerational relationships that the fortysomethings experienced as they grew up.
Yet, the changing parent-child relationship suggests a significant sea change in U.S. culture, in which the ethos of individuality and self-reliance has been a dominant theme. Much like United States’ myth of nation-building, in which a new nation was formed in resistance against an oppressive old regime, young people in this country grew up and established the identity of their own vis-a-vis the older, established generations–of which their parents are the representation. The transition has to take place in this process of self-making: The close identification (of childhood) with the parental figure is replaced with the recognition (of adulthood) that even those from whom we originate are, in the end, the “other.”
Like every other form of identity construction, this particular model of adulthood is a cultural construct that is made to seem natural and ordinary within a particular cultural context, but is neither essential nor universal to human development. In Japan, for instance, the relational definition of self has long been more prevalent than the individualistic one, and, as psychoanalyst Takeo Doi famously argued, amae, or dependency, is encouraged in interpersonal relationships, which find their origin in the dependency of a child on his/her parent.
In the multigenerational, hierarchical structure of traditional ie (family), amae was an asymmetrical relationship between the young and needy on one hand, and the mature and responsible on the other. In contemporary Japan, however, amae has grown more symmetrical and the participants in an amae relationship are codependent. While grown up children continue to depend on the indulgence of their parents, parents, too, indulge in the amae relationship with their adult children, and depend on their children for emotional comfort and fulfillment.
In the past two decades, this codependency between Japanese parents–particularly mothers–and children has been blamed as the root cause of many social problems involving Japanese youth, from hikikomori (“shut-ins” who refuse all social contact), to an increase of in-family and school violence. I cannot help wondering: what will happen to the helicopter parents and their children when the children graduate from college, or when they start their own career and family? As Japan’s changing family values continue to affect society in unexpected ways, there is no doubt that they, too, will change U.S. society in some significant ways. What we don’t know yet is exactly how.
Kurotani is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands in California and the author of “Home Away from Home: Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States” (Duke University Press, 2005).