Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents
August 2006 (perspective of a master's student)
Many Asian parents put extreme pressures on their kids to excel academically, ignoring their kids' natural dispositions and emotional health. The dire negative consequences of such overbearing parenting, which are destructive to the parent-child relationship, far outweigh the perceived benefits, which are often non-existent.
I wrote most of this article while in an unusually bitter mood after hearing several stories about the parent-child conflicts that arise over the issue of Asian parents putting enormous pressures on their children to excel academically. Thus, some of the opinions in this article are gratuitously stereotypical and possibly offensive, but I resort to using hyperbolic language to elucidate my points (e.g., I often use sweeping generalizations, but I don't mean to imply that ALL Asian parents are the same). I am very thankful to my parents for not making me suffer through these distressful experiences as so many of my peers have, and I hope that this article will help Asian parents and teenagers to come to a healthy mutual understanding over expectations for academic achievement that will maximize happiness on both sides.
(Note: I will use masculine pronouns such as 'he' and 'him' throughout this article, but obviously my opinions apply equally to females as well.)
The caricature of the stereotypical Asian parent
Asian parents, especially those who are first-generation immigrants (meaning those who are born in an Asian country and immigrate to America as adults), are notorious for putting intense pressures on their children to excel academically. They will enroll their children in after-school tutoring programs (known affectionately as cram schools), force them to do extra homework on the weekends for reinforcement, prep for standardized tests many years prior to the testing date, and, to a lesser extent, prod their children to participate in extracurricular activities (e.g., tennis, violin, piano, community service) that they feel could boost their children's chances of gaining admissions into top-ranked colleges.
What is the end goal? To raise well-balanced, well-adjusted, mature, responsible, ethical young adults? To prepare their children to succeed in the professional world? To make sure that their kids grow up to be happy and emotionally healthy? Hell no! The only end goal is to get their kids into a top-ranked college: Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, etc. You might think that this is almost laughably cliched, but it is the truth. Cliches arise from truths that are verified countless times.
So why do Asian parents want their kids to go to these top-ranked colleges? What's their motivation? Here is a typical line of reasoning: If you go to a top-ranked college, you will get a shiny name-brand diploma, employers will chase you down, just begging to give you high-paying jobs, and then you will inevitably live a good life and raise a family so that you can pressure your kids to do the same damn thing. What's in it for the parents? You could attribute it to pride and honor and bragging rights, but deep down they are often motivated by a genuine concern for their children's well-being. They feel that going to a top-ranked college is the most surefire way to land a stable high-paying job and to eventually lead a financially secure future. First-generation immigrant parents sacrificed personally and financially to move to America, so they do not want their children to also suffer financially when they are adults.
... but they neglect one crucial factor
I think that the fatal flaw in this line of reasoning is that it does not take one crucial factor into consideration: the child himself—his abilities, disposition, personality, etc. If your child isn't very academically-inclined but you force him to study hard, do extracurricular activities, and jump through hoops that you construct just to polish up his college application, then what the hell happens AFTER he goes off to college and you are no longer around to nag him anymore? How is he going to do well enough in college to be able to get a good job after graduation? He needs to be truly self-motivated, not simply externally-motivated by his parents (or by a fear of his parents' reprisal if he somehow 'dishonors' the family).
Why do so many Asian kids go ass-wild when they arrive at college, engaging in unhealthy extremes of drinking and illegal drug use? It's that same old story of repression versus freedom. No longer under the stern watchful gaze of their parents, these kids can do whatever the hell they want. Having always been shielded by their overbearing parents during their teenage years, these kids don't know about personal responsibility, integrity, and consideration for others, and will likely engage in activities that are hurtful for themselves and for those around them (it's not up to me to judge anyone's set of morals or values, but pain in all forms is something that I feel should be universally avoided). But these kids can't be blamed too much for their immaturity, since they never learned these lessons from their parents; all they've been indoctrinated with throughout their lives is a singular, intense focus on grinding their way through middle and high school so that they can get into a coveted 'name-brand' college.
The major shortcoming of the stereotypical overbearing Asian parents is that they feel that the child's own natural abilities and intellect are irrelevant. These parents don't take their own children's disposition and desires into account when formulating a parenting strategy: It doesn't matter if my child doesn't learn fast or isn't good at remembering things or can't focus for long periods of time while reading books. I will train him to study harder. It doesn't matter if my child hates learning and hates school, even if I have somehow exacerbated his hatred through my stern approach to parenting. I will force him to study harder and longer. Because once he gets into a top-ranked college, his life will be guaranteed to be great after he graduates. He will make an ass-load of money and be able to support not only his own wife and children, but also his aging parents. But if he can't get into a top-ranked college, then he will be doomed to become a janitor or manual laborer, and his life will be ruined forever.
The position inflation problem
What is the result of all of this parental nagging and pressure? Well, on average, these Asian parents do get good results, by their own standards of getting their kids into college. On average, the Asian kids who are the subjects of prodding and poking are able to strengthen their applications and get into colleges that are ranked a fair amount higher than what they could have gotten into without the effects of prodding (i.e., being raised in a typical American household). So the prodding works, to a certain extent, if all you measure is admissions rates into name-brand colleges. But what has not been changed for the better by this extreme parental pressure? The child's natural abilities and internal motivation will not likely have improved (if anything, motivation might have decreased). The general effect of the Asian parents' interventions in their children's teenage lives is that they artificially boosted their children's credentials upwards so that they are able to attend colleges where more of their peers are smarter than they are, which could have negative effects on their self-esteem and could lead to self-destructive behavior.
Here is a hypothetical example of this position inflation problem caused by parental prodding: Let's say that the average Computer Science student at a top-ranking university like MIT has some overall intelligence index of 100 (I know, I know you can't so naively quantify intelligence with a number, but please bear with me here for the purposes of this illustrative example), and good software companies are very likely to hire people with an intelligence of over 90. Then from the outside, it seems like many MIT students have no trouble getting jobs at good software companies (since most of them surpass that minimum cutoff index of 90). But let's say that some Asian kid managed to get into MIT through parental prodding, but his intelligence index is only 80. Then, he will be at the bottom of the candidate pool in terms of software jobs and will likely be passed up for many of them (while his smarter peers get those jobs with relative ease). His parents will be pissed that they spent all this money to send him to a name-brand school and he can't even get a good software job like all his peers can easily do. But what the parents don't realize is that he shouldn't be at MIT in the first place. If he were at a more mediocre university (where the students have an average intelligence of 70), then he would be at the top of the candidate pool and be able to get a decent job (maybe not at a top company, but certainly at a decent one), and more importantly, he will live a more emotionally balanced and fulfilling social life during his undergraduate years since he won't feel dumb and inadequate all the time around his classmates.
So what are the benefits of attending a top-ranked university?
So how much does the school's reputation matter? The school's reputation matters to help you get your foot in the door in terms of jobs; like I said earlier, recruiters will be more aggressive about trying to find candidates from higher-ranked schools versus lower-ranked schools, simply because that's their way of minimizing risk. They are more likely to find better candidates at higher-ranked schools, but that doesn't mean that EVERYONE at a higher-ranked school is better than everyone from lower-ranked schools. If you are smart and talented but happen to come from a non-top-ranked school, then undoubtedly you will have to work harder to get your name out there and to attract the attention of recruiters. You may face more frustration and agony, and you may even be rejected when shittier candidates from hoity toity Ivy League schools are accepted, but that is all considered to be character building. In the long run, if you really are deserving and have a college diploma from somewhere decent, then you will have your chance to demonstrate your abilities (assuming that you take the proper initiative). Just look at the most successful and talented professors, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, business executives, etc. and see where they went to college. Undoubtedly, many of them went to top schools, but a lot went to mid-ranked or even obscure schools, and they are still at the top of their fields!
So why bother going to a top-ranked university at all? Didn't I just say that your choice of schools doesn't matter that much? That it's really your own abilities and motivation and work ethic that propel you? Well, that's true for the most part, but I still think that there are benefits to going to a top-ranked school. I think that the kids who stand to benefit most from going to a top-ranked school are the ones who are already highly smart, motivated, dedicated, and charismatic in the first place. Being around peers who are also charged with energy and vigor will help to bring out the best in those kids, to help them really stretch their minds and fulfill their potential.
However, my assumption is that the kid was good to begin with; the top school simply makes him better. But if the kid isn't good, doesn't got the stuff, or can't handle the heat in the first place, artificially boosting his credentials through tireless prodding and getting him into a good school won't instantly make him a superstar. Quite contrarily, I think that it would hurt him and make him discouraged that he isn't as smart as his peers, and drive him downwards into depression and despair. The best thing for the majority of kids who are not academic all-stars is to have them go to whatever college is appropriate for their own comfort level, perhaps encouraging them to be a bit more ambitious in order to challenge themselves, but definitely not making them into something that they are not. Not everyone can be academically strong, just like how not everyone can be great athletes. If my parents tried to mold me to become a junior Olympic all-star, I would have hated it and resented them for making me suffer so much.
Happiness and misery
From my own experience, the emotionally happiest and healthiest people I know (amongst academic high achievers) all have good relationships with their parents and were never poked and prodded into high academic achievement. They were able to get far academically due to their own intellect, motivation, and determination, of course with loving encouragement (not prodding) from their parents.
Always remember the effects of selection bias. The kids graduating from these top-ranked schools and getting good jobs are a highly select sample of young people who have extraordinary intellect and motivation, and much of that comes from genetics, environment, peers, or luck, and NOT parental intervention. If you are a parent, just because you see so many kids graduating from Harvard getting $100k starting salary jobs doesn't mean that if you drop your own kid into Harvard, he will magically come out with a $100k starting salary job. Your kid needs to have that intellect and motivation; without them, he will wallow in depression because you expect so much of him, but he simply doesn't have the ability to deliver what you desire.
Unlike the philosophy of many Asian parents, not everything can be taught to everyone. Some kids are simply not made to go down a top-ranked academic path. They may have strong skills in other areas, such as mechanical hand skills or people skills, and are thus better-suited for different professions. There should be no shame in your child being a car mechanic if he simply can't do well in school no matter how much you force him to try. If fixing cars is what he's good at and he aspires to open his own small car body shop (which can be a stable and profitable business in the long run), it's useless to try to push him into becoming a brain surgeon.
Having your child resent, shun, or hate you for years and years (or having them cut off connections with you completely and refuse to even speak to you, much less to see you in person) is so much worse than having him go to a decent state college or technical training school when you really, really, really wanted him to go to Harvard all along. Here's a thought experiment: Let's say there are two identical twins raised in the same family with the same intellect and personality. One goes to Harvard (the parents prod and poke him incessantly), and the other goes to a decent state college (the parents leave him alone for the most part), but both have the intellect comparable to students at a decent state college. I think that the twin at the state college might actually end up doing better than the Harvard twin because he's in a more comfortable environment where he is around peers who share similar academic skills and habits. Or the Harvard twin might do slightly better in terms of both professional and personal lives because being around highly motivated peers would influence him to heighten his game (after all, peers exert far more influence on teenagers and college students than parents can ever dream of being able to do).
In the best case, the Harvard twin might do slightly better, not significantly better. Is the risk of having your child turn psychotic, depressed, suicidal, or hateful of you worth it for a chance for him to do just slightly better? Are the consequences and risks of extreme Asian parental pressure worth it for the rewards, which are really minimal at best?
So, my take-home message to those who might even remotely qualify as overbearing Asian parents: Try to get to know your child, to know his abilities and limitations, his talents and strengths, his shortcomings and weaknesses, his interests and passions, his likes and dislikes, and set your expectations for him accordingly. Please don't blindly poke and prod him towards your academic dream of getting him accepted into 'name-brand' colleges. One of the worst ways to treat a child is to poke and prod him in a direction that he can't stand, because of the simple fact that eventually, you will have to let go, to take off the training wheels, to let your child ride solo, and if he simply doesn't have the ability or motivation to succeed in whatever path you choose for him, he will either fall off the bike and crack open his head (bleeding profusely) or even worse, stop the bike, get off, walk away, and never return ...
Since I've received quite a bit of email regarding this article, I decided to start a dedicated discussion forum. It's very easy to participate in the dialogue; you can post anonymously.
Follow-up article: Understanding the parents' perspective
Three years after writing this article, I wrote a follow-up article exploring why parents might so stubbornly feel the way they do about issues raised in this article: Understanding and dealing with overbearing Asian parents
Some responses to this article
See my article Responses to Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents for a sampling of email responses I've received regarding this article. Those are amongst the most poignant, heartfelt, and emotional responses sent in by readers of any article on my website. e.g.,
I'd like to say that of all of the articles I've read regarding the issue of overbearing parents, e.g. those who force their children to choose the career path they want them to take and to go to colleges and universities they want them to go, I relate to your article the most. It was also comforting to know that there are so many out there who have had similar experiences that I've had and that I'm not the only one who is unfairly deprived of the freedom to live my own life the way I want to.
I've posted most responses anonymously to the discussion forum
Postscripts on 2008-12-26
Here are some additional claims that are backed by anecdotes I've heard from friends and family throughout the past few years.
To overbearing Asian parents:
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Last modified: 2009-12-22