Chinese New Year Resolution for Parents

This Lunar New Year heralds the year of the rabbit — a good time to make some resolutions about how we parent our kids because the rabbit has, well, lots of kids and is considered kind, wise and conscientious — precisely the qualifications for a good parent.

It’s also timely because Amy Chua and her Chinese mothering memoir has managed to put parenting strategies top of mind for social observers throughout the Pacific Rim.

In a nutshell Chua used terror tactics to yank out her kids’ free will and stuff in its place her ambitions for them. Her rationale seems to be that was how she was raised, and look at her now — a Harvard degree, a Yale law professorship and a Jewish husband who’s also a Yale law professor. Her creds and the mystique surrounding China’s economic rise earned Chua’s over-the-top child-rearing strategy a book contract instead of a visit from the local child welfare agency.

What parent doesn’t know the temptation to turn kids into proxies for our own unfulfilled dreams? Or to subject them to the same mindless oppression to which our own parents may have subjected us? Or to bask in the achievements of our kids as proof of our superiority to the Chens, the Kims, the Nguyens, the Joneses?

But truly good parents resist those urges because they know that, in the end, what’s infinitely more important to a child than any number of credentials is an unshakeable sense of self. A sense of self is more than some zen concept. It’s a matter of life and death, figuratively and literally.

Lest a parent like Amy Chua is tempted to think that credentials provide protection from the vast black emptiness that inevitably comes to fill the void left by a shattered sense of self, consider many Asian Americans like Susie Bin-Su Barron, a successful 30-year-old San Francisco resident with two Harvard degrees who parked her car in the garage one day, left on her ignition and a note on her windshield: “I’m sorry.”

Pressure on kids to substitute their parents’ dreams for their own has produced among Asian American kids a suicide rate higher than all American groups except Native Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death among Asian Americans while it’s 11th for Americans at large. For Asian Americans between 15 and 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death while it’s third for other Americans in that age group. For Asian American women aged 15-24 suicide is the second leading cause of death while for other Americans in that group it’s third. Those suicides are fed by the highest rate of depression among adolescent girls in grades 5 through 12.

Many of those suicides occur on college campuses — the first extended away experience for most young people. For example, at Caltech during a 3-month period in 2009 three Chinese-American students took their own lives. At Cornell 13 of the 21 suicides between 1996 and 2006 were Asians or Asian Americans. Harvard and MIT have had more than its fair share of both Asian and non-Asian suicides though it has suppressed public awareness of them, possibly due to a lawsuit filed last year by the parents one suicide victim.

It’s a great irony that the badges of success bad parents so often coerce their kids to attain don’t lead to higher self esteem but to lower self-esteem or even lack of a sense of self. Taking away a child’s free will and replacing it with a parent’s conception of what her child should be effectively turns the child into an automaton, a zombie. By the time the child leaves home her sense of self is shattered. When the sense of self breaks, so does the will to fight the unending series of big and small challenges that is life.

At the very least, the victims of Chua-istic parenting are sent into life animated by centuries-old demons born of decaying zero-sum-game societies as Amy Chua apparently is. That sad strategy is like a pair of lead boots in the frontier of personal freedom and fulfillment that the United States remains to this day.

With that in mind, here are a few resolutions I’ll try to keep in mind:

Let’s use our parental influence and energies to give our kids real options backed up by quality information and personal example to help develop the ability to make good choices.

Let’s not create the false impression that life is a sprint to the finish line of college admission.

Let’s not try to offset our own feelings of inferiority by forcing our kids to focus on badges of superiority.

Let’s not escape our own frustrations by micromanaging and terrorizing our kids.

Let’s remember that our kids must become adults who will need a strong sense of self to live with courage in the face of challenges from which no credentials can insulate them.