Saturday, January 8, 2011

Banana Parenting: Best of East & West or Just A Crazy Mashup?

It is Saturday morning. My 8-year-old son, Amon, is grounded in his room. There will be no TV, Wii or playtime this weekend. He has until 12 noon to clean up and organize his room, failing which, he will not be allowed to attend his friend's birthday party this afternoon.

What did he do to deserve this? It's what he didn't do. He has Tae Kwon Do classes every Saturday. We have an agreement that he is going to be responsible for making sure his uniform and gloves are ready and packed in his bag for every class. Yesterday, I asked him twice if he had done so. He replied in the affirmative both times. This morning, as we were about to rush out for his sister's ballet class, I found the bag empty and strewn on the floor.

Most parents reading this in the US or Europe would just pick up the bag, find the clothes, gently remind him that he needs to do it the next time, and get going. You will probably be quietly disapproving of my harsh diatribe and punishment. Most parents reading this in Asia will be wondering if I was punishing my son for being rude and disobedient to me, rather than for not being responsible for his things (especially in the newly rich cities where such 'chores' are delegated to domestic helpers rather than have the little princes and princesses do them). Both groups need to reserve judgment and read on.

I delivered a 10-minute lecture on 1. paying attention to instructions (did he hear me when I said to pack his bag?); 2. discipline and responsibility (his class, his bag, his clothes, his duty to get them in order, just like it's taught in TKD class); 3. honesty (if he told me he did it, I trusted that he did; he didn't so it was a lie).

Then I set him on his task and sat down to coffee, and my main source of parenting stress therapy - Facebook. And what is the first post I should see but this piece in the WSJ ("Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior) .

The writer, Amy Chua, discusses, a little tongue-in-cheek perhaps, how her "Chinese" (broadly encompassing most Asian) style of parenting is fundamentally different to the "Western" style. Her kids had no playdates, computer/TV time and had to play the piano and violin and score straight As. Once, when one of them was rude to her, she reprimanded the child, calling her "garbage" the way her own father had done. That caused her some bad PR at a dinner party and a mother so horrified at the "abuse" she had to leave.

The point of her piece is that the stereotype of the "evil" Asian mother is really a result of a lack of understanding of cultural differences and motivations by the Western writers. Similarly, many Asian parents secretly hold many misconceptions of Western styles of parenting.

At the risk of being reductive or over-generalizing, I will have to state upfront, as she did in her piece, that I'm using the terms "Asian" and "western" loosely to depict observations and trends. There are many people in both cultures and parts of the world who don't fit in the stereotypes (and I certainly am one of them).

She underlines several fundamental differences but I would trace them all simply back to basic value systems.

Western philosophy values the pursuit of individual happiness and freedom above all. Perhaps John Stuart Mill stated this most succinctly in On Liberty: "the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends) of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion.…” The happiness of society as a whole depends on the happiness and freedom of the individuals.

Eastern philosophy and values, on the other hand, are largely built around the community and the world around us. Confucius teaches that the country comes before the family, and the family before the individual. Buddhism and Hinduism value the respect and embracing of nature and other beings over the selfish interests of the individual. True happiness, inner strength and peace of mind, the Dalai Lama often says, is to be had only when one is caring and compassionate towards others. When society as a whole is happy, the individual can be so too.

These fundamentally different approaches explain a lot about the difference in parenting styles. In traditional Asian belief, the child has a duty to his or her parents to obey and respect them, and the parents have a duty to ensure the child does the right thing. So if he or she fails in a task, the parent has to guide, punish or do whatever is necessary to set him or her on track to succeed. In western cultures, as Ms Chua noted, the parent is more concerned about the child's feelings and self-esteem, and more likely to tell the child, "It's ok. You did great."

Again, I don't want to come across as being reductive. These are two ends of the scale and many parents today - especially Asians educated in western philosophy or schools of thought and westerners who are exposed to the cultures and philosophies of Asia - fall somewhere in between. There is also much to be said for the good old Protestant work ethic or simply just "grandma's dictum of hard work and discipline" that many parents in the west adhere to. The most memorable story about Barrack Obama (for me) was that his mother used to sit with him early in the morning to make sure he got his homework done. And I've already mentioned a recent observation in newly rich Asian societies where the children are treated like "little emperors" and not subjected to the same kind of strict parenting as my peers and our parents before us were.

I believe that there are intrinsic value and benefits from both styles of parenting and the different schools of thought of both western and Asian cultures. I believe that, as with all things in life, the answer to conscious and good parenting comes from going back to the basics and striking a balance. Where those basic values are and where that balancing point is will be different for everyone.

For me, they fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, in the shaded part of the Venn diagram that tries to encompass the best of both worlds. I do believe in playdates and having fun with computers and games. But I also believe in never missing a deadline for homework or school assignments. If that happened as a result of neglect or irresponsibility, I also believe in consequences -- just like the ones I meted out to Amon.

I will not pick up his pieces and tell him gently to remember to do it next time, because I know he won't. And he wouldn't learn anything if I did everything for him just because I was afraid he will feel bad if I berated him. I saw his face when I was delivering my lecture. Of course he felt bad. But I also do not believe in calling him "garbage" or derogatory terms like "stupid" (some of the examples Ms Chua mentioned in her piece that Chinese parents get away with). I don't believe in that kind of feeling bad. My lecture revolved around the basic tenets of discipline, responsibility and self-confidence that his TKD classes were built on. What's the point, I asked him, of going to class and learning the actions, when you don't even want to be responsible for something as simple as packing your uniform in your bag? I also didn't want him to pack his uniform and go for class because I dictated it. He only goes for TKD classes because he wanted to.

So he exercises free will and choice, but he also needs to understand and perform the duties and responsibilities that come with it. And yes, I draw the boundaries of where those duties lie because I'm his mother. If he is rude and disrespectful (which he was initially this morning because he yelled back at me) he will be punished for it. But similarly, if I made a mistake and lose my cool with him (and I have), I will apologize for it. So I expect my child to show the kind of respect Confucius said one should accord a parent, but I also treat him as an equal human being with a right to free will and happiness.

Somewhere, in the convoluted mashup of east and west thinking lies my clear vision of banana parenting. Call it order in chaos, or trying to have my cake and eat it, if you will, but it makes perfect sense to me.

The "yellow banana" is a term, often derogatory, used to described Chinese (or more politically correct, people of similar skin tone) people who reject their roots and culture for "western" values -- yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But really, if you look at it, a banana on the inside is not white. It's a lighter shade of yellow, and in the best of the crops, the texture and firmness is just right -- not too hard and not too soft.

I'm very much a banana. I'm deeply rooted in my origins and culture, but I have also studied and reflected on several different cultures and value systems from around the world. I see myself as a truely global netizen of my time, and that is how I will parent my children -- to learn the best from both east and west, and become true citizens of the world. 

So, there are many points in Ms Chua's piece that I do not agree with. I prefer a more conciliatory and all-embracing approach. But I'm also glad though that someone is finally speaking up for the "evil" Asian mother because I'm sick and tired of the judgmental looks I get when I speak sternly to my children in public.

In the time I took to write this piece, Amon has cleaned up and organized his room. He stayed in there when he was done, and asked his sister if she could convey the message to me to come inspect it. I told him he could come out and have a mid-morning snack. After he eats, I will go with him to his room, and we will assess it and add the final touches together. Then, I will let him read this blog post.

Right now, he's making me a cheese sandwich ("Mom, you have to try's good!") It looks like we're going for the party this afternoon and his feelings are none the worse for wear.

Footnote: So he organized and cleaned up his room. But he also hid all his Chinese books in a paperbag, under a pile of loose 'scratch' paper (i.e. trash). Sigh.

This post can also be viewed on Open Salon  where there is a great discourse going on about the subject. Thank you!

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