incerity. That's the essence of our strategy for raising great kids.
Not only in saying what you mean -- talk is cheap and
isn't the best proof of sincerity -- but in the sense of doing
what you sincerely believe to be in the best interest of your kids. That
isn't always easy, as I'm sure you'll agree.
What makes it more difficult is that in parenting, as
in anything, the good is the enemy of the great.
There's no shortage of "good" parents who
raise "good" kids. Asian American parents hardly need
help in being so-called good parents. Most of us have had ample
opportunities to absorb the litany from our own parents, relatives,
friends, neighbors and professional colleagues. Push your kids to
get straight As, to play with the "right" kids, to acquire "culture"
by taking violin or piano lessons, to pick up rudiments of Asian traditions,
to get into a prestigious university -- preferably an expensive one --
and find a desk job with some big company after graduation, then marry
someone just like themselves.
Sadly, that just about sums up the parenting philosophy
of four out of five Asian American parents -- not to mention three out
of four white American parents. It's a great strategy if your parenting
goal is to earn your stripes in the eyes of other parents just like you.
Unfortunately, making yourself look like a good parent
comes at a steep price -- and I don't mean the cost of piano lessons,
prep schools and college tuition. I mean the price your kids pay
when they come to understand, at around the age of 7, that their parents
really want them to be someone else. "I hear John gets
straight As. Why can't you be like John? Mary always plays with
the popular girls. Why don't you do that? I wish you'd be
more athletic instead of playing those stupid computer games all the time."
In a nutshell, that's the dynamic behind the relationship between
"good" parents and their never-good-enough kids -- parents who
never forgave themselves for having failed to live up to expectations
foisting off the same guilt, inadequacy and debilitating pressures on
their own kids.
Remember when you swore never to do that with your kids?
And yet before you know it you find that your relationship with your own
child has been poisoned by the same kind of insincerity that fuels the
vicious cycle of "good" parenting.
"Study hard and get good grades."
Here's an aspect of the parent-child
dialogue too often poisoned by insincerity.
"So you can go to a top college and become successful
"What if I hate studying?"
"I don't care what you hate. I want you to
study harder and get better grades so you can be happy later on."
At this point most kids simply clam up and beat a sulking
retreat. After all, the parent is bigger and stronger and holds the pursestrings.
The parent feels like he's done his duty by laying down the law.
In fact, all he's done is confirm the suspicions that his interest
in his child's happiness is insincere. The kid doesn't have to be
a genius to finish out the dialogue in the sound stage of his own mind.
"But I thought you said it was for my own happiness
"But I told you -- I hate studying. It doesn't
make me happy."
"I don't care. I want you to go and study.
I know what's best for you."
The dialogue always ends on the same note -- a parental
assertion of superior wisdom and authority. The kid is forced to
come to grips with the ultimate no-win proposition. He must study
and get good grades even though he hates studying and isn't smart enough even
to know what's best for himself. Yet, in essence, this is precisely
the one-sided dialogue between good parents and their hapless kids with
regard to every area of life -- school, friends, sports, music, sex, money.
It all boils down to the bald assertion that the parent knows best
and the kid must obey or else.
What makes it galling is the parent's insistence that
it's all for the kid's own good. Most parents fool themselves
into believing that their kids believe the nonsense.
Let's see how the dialogue might go if the parent were
"Dad, why should I study when I hate it?"
"Son, there are many reasons. First, if you
got better grades I would feel like a responsible and successful parent.
It would let me brag to the guys at work who are always telling
me about their kids' great report cards. And later, when you're
you might have an easier time getting a job so you won't be a financial
burden on me and your mother who, after all, will be nearing retirement.
And, who knows, you might even like being successful."
"You mean, if I get good grades, it would make
life better for you?"
Yeah, that's it."
Oh. Okay, Dad, I'll see what I can do, though
I still hate this math and English bullshit."
The sincere parent doesn't insult the child's intelligence
by trying to force-feed him patent lies ("It's for your own happiness.").
For another, by admitting what parental success means for himself,
he elevated the kid's sense of self-worth and importance. What's
more he injected some meaning into at least the outcome of his studies
-- helping his parents -- if not into the process itself. Not a
bad first step for a parent determined to break the vicious cycle of
Before we move into an orderly review of our parenting
strategy, let's follow the dialogue a step farther. If the parent
is sincerely interested in his child's welfare and happiness, it may
have continued thus:
"Thanks. But if you don't mind me asking
-- why do you hate math and English so much?"
Asked with the proper degree of sincere interest,
a question is the critical second step in salvaging a relationship from
the slippery slope of insincere, self-defeating parent-centered parenting
and returning it to the more effective and satisfying child-centered
PRINCIPLES OF CHILD-CENTERED PARENTING
As I said earlier, sincerity is simple but most certainly
not easy. In a nutshell, here are the key precepts we will be exploring
in Part 3: