It’s time someone came out and said it: Too many of China’s adult children are freeloading off their parents. Even after helping them find jobs and planning their whole lives out for them, a generation of so-called helicopter parents still feels compelled to help their kids buy a house. Lucky are those whose kids only ask for help with the deposit and don’t expect their parents to help them make their monthly mortgage payments, too.
Strictly speaking, if an adult child needs money from their parents, they should agree to pay it back in the future, but in China they simply demand it with no strings attached. Not only do they do so openly, but they also expect their parents to happily comply. The second a parent doesn’t give in — or if they do give in but seem unhappy about it, or simply don’t give enough — their grown child will throw a tantrum.
The situation is reminiscent of Marshal Zhou Yu’s whipping of Huang Gai, a story taken from the famous Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” In the story, Zhou whipped his general, Huang, but Huang also willingly submitted to the lashes — a concept called akurouji, or the ruse of self-injury to win an otherwise impossible war against a formidable enemy. In other words, torturer and victim alike perform their respective roles for larger mutual gains. Now, after decades of the one-child policy, children are insisting that they have an incontestable claim to everything their parents own, and are often willing to stoop very low to get ahold of it.
But the situation has long since spiraled out of control, with kids’ expectations for support wildly exceeding their parents’ ingrained desires to give them some assistance. Not only does the younger generation often appear ungrateful, but they also treat the prospect of sponging off their parents as a given, complaining if their parents hesitate to whip out their wallets. The grumblings of these discontented offspring are a fixture of social media feeds, where they whine about their parents having the temerity to suddenly go on a trip or moan about their in-laws playing mahjong instead of giving that money to their grandkids instead.
Many grown children remain reliant on their parents for financial assistance even after they’ve had kids of their own, thereby perpetuating the cycle of freeloading into a third generation — except the grandkids don’t turn to their own parents for help. Instead, both generations sponge off their grandparents together. Most young couples today have two sets of parents, a fact they often exploit by publicly calling them out on social media, neatly pitting parents and in-laws against each other to see who can give their kids more. Freeloading is treated as natural, while not giving your children whatever they want, or not being generous enough, are the worst offenses imaginable. Not only are kids leeching off their parents, but they also feel entirely justified in doing so.
There are very real societal problems that have contributed to this phenomenon, including excessively high real estate prices and a lack of job prospects. But these reasons do not begin to explain the degree to which parents are expected to support their kids, however, or how kids came to feel so entitled to their parents’ money in the first place. The real problem lies in how we socialize and raise our children. Specifically, the parent-child relationship lacks clear boundaries. The law may say that a parent’s responsibility for their children ends when they turn 18 years old, but in practice, it’s not uncommon to see 38-year-olds still turning to Mom and Dad for a handout.
In families without adequate boundaries between parents and children, children are raised to expect their parents to take care of everything for them, irrespective of their parents’ own wishes. In essence, parents fail to treat their child as a person. Physically, the child will eventually grow up, but they will remain psychologically stunted. This is the root cause of China’s “kidult” problem.
I’ve asked many parents of millennials whether they ever freeloaded off their own parents. As soon as the topic is raised, they all proudly reel off the challenges they overcame to get where they are today; not only did they never ask for a single yuan, but they were also the ones supporting their parents — not the other way around. And they still found time to venerate to their ancestors. Then why is it that when it came time for this generation to bring up their own children, so many of them raised a bunch of directionless loafers? Is that really what they wanted?
It is difficult to overstate the lingering psychological effects of the one-child policy. Restricted fertility rights meant that many parents chose to coddle their children, a phenomenon that gave rise to a generation of so-called little emperors. Even now, many parents are reluctant to encourage their adult children to be independent, even though they are aware of the necessity of letting their kids fly the coup. Held to ransom by their own entitled children, they capitulate whenever the younger generation hits a setback in life, and all too easily let them come back home and leech off their moms and dads.
Today’s young freeloaders were mostly born in the 1980s and ’90s, and were raised through decades of turmoil in the financial and property markets. Compared with their Western peers — many of whom now struggle to get by in sluggish economies plagued by high unemployment rates — China’s young people are paying the price of the country’s rapid urbanization drive. The high costs of migrating and living in cities have drawn multiple generations into the financial orbit of their youngest relatives, exacerbating a psychological disconnect between what is appropriate to demand from one’s elders and what is appropriate to give. The resulting emotional tug-of-war often does more harm than good.