Parentification in The Road and The Hunger Games


A common motif in stories has to do with the hero having to take on a role that circumstances tossed him into (wizard, symbol of rebellion, jedi, politician, mob boss, super spy, etc.). And then the hero discovers that it is the role they were meant to be all along. The hero must learn to take on a leader role to stand on his or her own. Young Adult novels, especially, are littered with the absent parent or adult figure, both emotionally checked out or oftentimes deceased and completely out of the picture. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and the boy from The Road are two such characters who have single parents who have checked out of their parenting responsibilities and have unconsciously forced their children to take on the role of the adult. Figuring out our path into adulthood, or what we want to be when we grow up, is a question that everyone can relate to. Especially when, like Katniss and the boy, the paths we are placed on aren’t of our own choosing. Many people can relate to taking on responsibilities at too young of an age, which makes this theme so popular. The theme of finding one’s place in the world is expressed in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games through characters who had to shoulder the burden of two very different types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.

Parentification happens within a parent-child relationship when the parent takes on the dependent role and the child has to take on the responsibilities of an adult. There are two types of parentification; instrumental parentification and emotional parentification. According to Lisa M. Hooper, a counselor at The University of Alabama, “Instrumental parentification is the participation in the physical maintenance and sustenance of the family” (1) which differs from emotional parentification, which “is the participation in the socioemotional needs of family members . . . serving as a confidant, companion, or mate-like figure, mediating family conflict, and providing nurturance and support” (Hooper 1). From the Graduate Student Journal of Psychology, Jennifer A. Englehardt states that, “most often, one or both parents are incapacitated, commonly for physical, social, emotional, or economic reasons, and they come to depend upon the child to meet their needs and the needs of the family” (46).  Katniss and the boy certainly fit that criteria. In The Hunger Games, Katniss shows she is a parentified child on a personal level, however all the children in all of the twelve districts are children of parentification as well. After Katniss’s father’s death, she is forced to step into the role of provider and adult for her mother and sister. At the age of eleven, a year before she can enter her name into the drawing for tesserae, she becomes the provider by hunting when her mother emotionally checks out, a “woman who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones” (Collins 8). Calabria Turner from Georgia College and State University puts the parentification of Katniss this way: “While her mother is succumbing to grief, Katniss becomes the provider her family needs, which forces her to bury her emotions of her father’s death and also disregard any childhood innocence pertaining to the perils of adulthood” (38). While Katniss can be identified more with the instrumental parentification as provider/protector, the boy in The Road is an example of emotional parentification.

The man’s entire purpose for not taking his own life and ending it all, is the boy. The man’s constant has become dread. He no longer sustains faith that there are decent humans left. The man believes that “beauty and goodness are things he’d no longer any way to think about” (McCarthy 61). He even tells the boy, “If you died I would want to die too” (McCarthy 11) reinforcing the boy’s emotional role of keeping his father alive. The man is emotionally unable to confide anything to the boy without passing on his fear of other human beings. It is in this sense that the boy has become the parent figure in providing hope for the future with his insistence that there are other “good guys” still in the world. At the beach, the boy wants to write a message in the sand for the good guys to see. The boy asks, “Maybe we could write a letter to the good guys. So if they came along, they’d know we were here” (McCarthy 245), to which the man immediately answers, “What if the bad guys saw it?” (McCarthy 245). The contrast between the man’s disbelief that there really is anyone good left, and the boy’s hope that there is, is significant in who is keeping the emotional strength between them. This swap of emotional roles is explained by Victoria Hoyle, a medieval archives researcher, as: “The boy needs his father to care for him, to socialize and love him, and the father is acutely aware that he needs the boy to give him a purpose, a reason to keep living in an unreasonable, inconceivable world” (1). The boy’s role isn’t so much as the provider, as Katniss Everdeen’s is, but more in providing the emotional stability for his father. He has become the confidant and companion. On a larger scale, the situation both Katniss and boy find themselves in, also forces them to find their roles in the world. For Katniss, the adults in the districts have to rely on their children for food. There is no way for the children not to step into that world.

The Capitol has ensured that the parents in the district are not able to fulfill their adult roles by making the availability of food limited and only children between twelve and eighteen years of age have the means to get more.  “A meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person” (Collins 13) is given as tesserae if the children put their names in the reaping drawing extra times. Turner explains the toll this takes on the parent-child relationships this way: “Their role, as is any parent’s, is to supply the family with the necessary provisions, and they cannot do this. The Capitol succeeds in making parents feel impotent as each parent watches their children’s chances of dying increase for the sake of obtaining food that will barely sustain the family” (Turner 32).  While Katniss becomes the provider for her mother and sister, and then protector and provider in the arena for Rue and Peeta, the boy in The Road is an example of parentification in more of an emotional role in his relationship with his father. They both move into their roles. Katniss finds her place as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the resistance. The boy also finds his place in the world as a child survivor who, thanks to his emotional parentification with his father, has the emotional maturity to lead the other children into a more hopeful future for mankind. Collins and McCarthy created fascinating characters who had to find their own place in the world. It is relevant that these books were written in a time when the world was reeling from terrorism and war and everyone was trying to find their place in this uncertain new world.

The Hunger Games and The Road were written in the first decade of the 2000s. This was after the events of September 11th and in a decade when school shootings were rampant, and the economy was in its downward spiral. These events combined had an influence on the authors and what they saw in the youth of the nation. Collins admits to have taken her inspiration from a reality TV show where children were competing for money and McCarthy’s idea came on a trip with his young son. The younger generations were not alive during the attacks on their home nation like the generation before who remembered Pearl Harbor and the London air raids. Before then we heard of isolated bombings by crazed radicals, and distant attacks in foreign countries. On September 11, 2001 terrorism shattered our sense of safety, of isolated incidents. The decade became one of The War on Terror and bullied children posting manifestos and walking into schools to kill their classmates. Nowhere was safe. No one was safe. And it was obvious to the younger generation that the adults who couldn’t manage the economy had also failed to keep them safe. The youth, as a whole, took it upon themselves to make the change in a world-wide type of parentification where they began leading the charge against anti-bullying, gun control, responsible climate control, and political accountability. No generation before has been as accepting of others and as vocal about the harm of shaming and bullying. Individually, it is a new world of social media shaming and/or uplifting each other that is an obstacle some might say, or a stepping stone in the path of discovering their place in the world. With fear and becoming adults too soon, it’s a small wonder that The Hunger Games and The Road spoke to so many and grew in popularity and commercial success. Collins hit on the unspoken fear of never having any place of real safety and blended it with the popularity of a reality TV spectacle when she wrote The Hunger Games (Engelhardt 46). Likewise, McCormack struck on this same theme as he gazed out of a motel window one quiet night in El Paso and wondered what it would be like in a century where no one is safe and a son and father have only each other to rely on (Johns-Putra 520). Whether he meant to endow the boy with characteristics of a parentified child or it came from his subconscious where he knew the man had no one else to gain emotional support from, it’s difficult to tell. However, the traits of parentification are evident in the boy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Hooper, a study found that “parentification was related to positive outcomes such as high levels of individuation and differentiation from the family system” (1), which is undeniably the case with Katniss and the boy. Each was able to shoulder the “adult” role they were thrust into due to the physical and emotional experience they received through being parentified children.

The theme of discovering one’s role in life has always been a popular theme. Since it is a self-awareness everyone must come to terms with in their own life, it is an idea that everyone can relate to. The Hunger Games and The Road take this theme to new levels as Katniss and the boy must come to the realization of who they are in places of horrific violence and lack, where they were not allowed an innocent childhood and had to take on attributes of adults for themselves and their families. The idea of having to grow up too soon, of lost childhoods, and figuring out who you are, what you stand for, even in a world where your safety can be taken away at any moment accounts for the commercial success of The Hunger Games and The Road.  Whether it was becoming the provider of the family or taking on the role of giving emotional support, Katniss and the boy took on the burden of adulthood and became examples of parentified children who ultimately became the people they were meant to be in Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  






Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 2008. Print.

Engelhardt, Jennifer A. “The Developmental Implications of Parentification: Effects on Childhood Attachment.” Columbia University. 2012.

Hooper, Lisa M. “Defining and Understanding Parentification: Implications for All Counselors.” The University of Alabama. Jan 2008.

Hoyle, Victoria, et al. “Two Views: The Road by Cormac McCarthy.” Strange Horizons. March 2007.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage Books. 2006.

Turner, Calabria. “A Parthenos in Pop Culture: Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.” Journal of the Georgia Philological Association, vol. 7, Jan. 2017, pp. 31–44.