Responses to 'Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents'
December 2008 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
Ever since its publication in early 2007, my Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents article has consistently received a few email responses per month. I was surprised that complete strangers (mostly Asian-American teenagers) felt compelled to write me emotional and heartfelt emails upon reading it. I want to share some of their poignant and eloquent insights, because they provide firsthand accounts of many of the topics I covered in that article. In addition, I urge you to participate in the discussion forum (you can post anonymously).
How people found my article
According to Google Analytics, the vast majority of people found my Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents article by searching for "asian parents" (as of 2008-12-28, my article is the #1 hit on Google for that search term). For instance, one reader writes:
Hi, I came across your article by keying in "Asian Parents" and I think you got it right on the spot. It was a very good explanation towards parents, and of course, as a daughter of Asian parents and coming from a "patriarchal" family where dad is head of the house, I can relate. (2008-11-09)
Other common Google searches were for related terms:
Regarding parents whose primary goal is to get their children into a top-ranked college
Ironically, some readers are precisely the kinds of parents whom my article caustically rails against; overbearing parents found this article by doing Google searches for terms like the following:
Here is one representative example:
I read your article 'Attention: Overbearing Asian Parents' with great interest. I am one those first generation immigrant parents and always search for ways to help my kids move forward. I would be very interested in learning a bit more about how you grow up and how you got to MIT and Stanford without much push from your parents. I have to say you did not do too bad. (2007-04-12)
It seems like this parent totally missed the purpose of my article, but oh well, I guess everything is open to personal interpretation :/
Another reader pointed out how he could understand how these parents could be so blindly devoted to their goal of getting their kids into top-ranked colleges that they could even read an article as oppositional as mine and still try to scour it for tips:
To begin, before college, the only kind of Chinese parents I encountered is the kind closely described in your article: parents who are overbearing, or on the verge of being overbearing. I understood completely when you saw some parents scrutinized your article for the secret for getting into MIT. I had plenty of that, with my parents' friends who would drive miles and pay special visits to this "high-achiever" kid who got into "such and such school". As I found out quickly, such people are the last kind you can have a real conversation with. They form the last tier of parents whose only end goal, as you succinctly pointed out, is to get their kids into a top-ranked college. (2007-12-10)
An elementary school teacher from Temecula, California pointed out to me that this obsessive nagging behavior begins as early as when the child is in elementary school:
I am a primary teacher in an elementary school in southern California and stumbled on your article looking for things to say to a very pushy Asian parent who insists that her daughter be promoted because her work seems so much better than the other students. You made great points, you just forgot to say this starts in elementary school. We have kindergarten, first and second grade students being taught at home or at tutoring schools like Kumon so parents can come in with work and say their child needs to be promoted to the next grade. As a parent who has been through the college process, you are so right when you say it can really backfire. And almost always I have found that those who were pushed flatten out by 4th or 5th grade.
Unfortunately, it is so difficult especially if the parent has gone to a prestigious university and is determined their child is going there also.
Glad to know someone else understands intrinsic motivation is critical for a child's success! (2008-10-18)
I especially liked her observation about how kids who are pushed early-on during elementary school tend to have their progress "flatten out by 4th or 5th grade"; that's analogous to my hunch that kids who are pushed during their teenage years tend to have their progress 'flatten out' (or even regress) by the time they begin college.
Regarding traditional Asian parenting style
Traditional Asian parenting style dictates that children should be blindly obedient and unflinchingly respectful to their parents. For these parents, any amount of expressed dissent is tantamount to intolerable disrespect. It seems to me that depriving kids of the opportunity to express their feelings in a comfortable environment is a great detriment to their chances of thriving as adults in a competitive world where they need to speak up at times without fear of reprisal.
A 14-year-old Chinese-American boy wrote to me expressing his frustrations at his parents for not allowing him to express his dissatisfaction with verbal abuse they've incurred upon him:
I seriously feel like what my dad said about my not being their equal, and that I have no right to "talk back" to them, regardless of the validity or outrageousness of whatever they said is wrong and unfair. He said that I did not respect them if I did talk back. But I feel like it has no connection to my appreciation for all that they have done for me by raising me, giving me food, clothing, shelter etc. From the bottom of my heart, I do appreciate it. However, I feel like it doesn't mean that I can't let them know that what they do to me affects me.
Especially the inequality idea; that really hit me hard, because I do believe that I still have to respect them and all, but that word alone was like a slap to my face. It was as if I had no say in anything, that whatever they do is right even though it may be wrong, and that I am not allowed to say anything if they say something that may be hurtful, inaccurate, or totally random and wrong. (2008-12-26)
Another reader eloquently draws a distinction between Eastern and Western parenting philosophies:
And you wonder why Asian kids don't like their parents. It's because their parents never treat them like individual adults endowed with the natural liberty of making their own decisions, and who possess the maturity and responsibility to accept the consequences of their own actions. In western civilization, man is born with the natural endowment of liberty, and the role of the parent is to protect and guide until that liberty can be exercised independently. In eastern civilization, man is born a subject of parents, who decide to give you freedom if you do exactly what they say. (2007-04-22)
A first-generation Taiwan-born immigrant mother, who is proud of the fact that she is not one of these overbearing parents, chimed in with harsh criticisms of her peers:
Asian parents love their "face" more than their children, which is wrong. They use all kinds of excuses to prove that they are right, and they are doing these things for their children, not for themselves. This sounds very sick. (2008-10-22)
Regarding low self-esteem and depression
I know that Asian parents are known to have excruciatingly high standards for their kids' report cards, but this was still a bit ridiculous:
Thank you for writing this. I am 13 (chinese) and i just got my report card. I had 4 A-'s and 5 A's, but my parents were unhappy because I usually get high honors (average of an A). Many of my friends were happy when they got a B. I was wondering why my parents were so tough on me until i saw this. Thanks again. (2007-04-12)
All kidding aside, a common theme that pervades many of the longer emails I receive is how strict Asian parenting and pressures for kids to excel academically while neglecting all other aspects of life have led to kids having low self-esteem and depression.
Mental health is a taboo subject in Asian societies, much more so than in the West. In Asian cultures, people don't speak of self-esteem, depression, seeing psychiatrists, or taking medications for psychological disorders; any admission of mental health issues is seen as a great personal weakness, and more detrimentally, a shame to the family.
Overwhelming parental pressure to excel academically, combined with a culture that discourages open communication about one's feelings, leads to kids bottling up their pent-up frustrations and resenting their parents. Here is a Bangladeshi girl recounting growing up in the US under traditional first-generation immigrant parents:
What's annoying is [my parents] push us to constantly do math or reading, especially math mainly during the summer, where we can't just socialize or watch TV. If we don't do that, they scold at us. They think we'll go astray, and we won't want to study. I compare myself to other students, Americans, Indians, and they do so much better than I do, even if my parents are constantly behind my back about this. Their parents don't have to pressure them, they're social, active, intelligent, have lives, and I'm constantly doing work and nothing but work and don't do well. I hate myself. (2008-07-15)
The 14-year-old Chinese boy quoted earlier continues his email to me by mentioning the causes of his depression and lack of motivation:
In addition to my mother's pressure on my academic studies, events like [verbal abuse] also make me feel like crap at times. I honestly want to do better in school, but the mere thought of my mom's endless ranting about education and college actually make me hate school, especially when I'm not doing as well as I would like. I feel depressed and under pressure to study at times; I feel like I don't even have a chance to be motivated because I'm always worried about mom's reaction. And ultimately, whatever she's doing doesn't even work most of the time. The way I was raised, like you mentioned in your article, actually deprives me emotionally and personality-wise. (2008-12-26)
Clearly his parents' excessive pressures are backfiring; this kid has lost motivation to do well in school because he is constantly haunted by anxiety over his parents' reactions to his academic achievements.
An Asian-American woman in her mid-20's summarizes her memories of childhood in bleak terms, citing academic pressures and a filial obligation to care for her parents (despite their being the cause of her depression) as the sources of her frustrations:
I'm amazed how you know so much about this. Growing up I've been suicidal/depressive/constantly feeling incapable....and I'm still an "average student", which makes it even worse as my rebellious nature makes me look like an ungrateful idiot of a child. I'm in my mid 20s, and still trying to get out of my parents' house....I CAN, but I have this feeling of "obligation" - it's hard to explain. Whenever I start wanting to leave, thoughts of my dad or mum in their deathbeds start streaming in.
The aptly titled 2007 CNN Health article, Push to achieve tied to suicide in Asian-American women, summarizes academic studies on the links between family pressures and suicides amongst Asian-American women, especially young adults like the one quoted in the above snippet.
Regarding parents not taking their child's personalities and interests into account
Asian parents tend to subscribe to the 'blank slate' view of human nature, in which children aren't born with natural predispositions or strengths and thus can be 'molded' like clay to their parents' desires. Decades of cognitive science research have laid waste to this myth (read The Blank Slate for a comprehensive summary), but overbearing Asian parents stubbornly hold onto this notion, which is aligned with their traditional world-view.
The Bangladeshi girl continues her email by describing how her father desperately tried to mold her into becoming an electrical engineer, a career which she has absolutely no interest in doing for herself:
Anyways, about my story is that my dad wants me to be an engineer, an Electrical Engineer, he wants his first daughter to be that. My dad is so high spirited, proud, telling everyone I'm studying this. I'm not excited, I don't have much interest, I can care less. I have interest elsewhere. He thinks this is best for me and what I choose is not so good. Fine. From the beginning I have not been doing well. I did not take Calculus in high school, did not take advanced classes, I've been failing and retaking classes at my university. I'm 2 years behind, not working, nothing, going to take me 6 years to graduate. What pisses me off is that my mother scolds about this, how dumb I am, did not prepare, this and that, now my parents pressure my younger sister because they don't want her to make the same mistake as I am and she's doing so well, far better than I am, and they are much pleased with her for giving them high A's everytime. Well she is a quick thinker, and is intelligent, since she was little. That's something I'm not. I'm not up to their standard and expectations, and it pisses me off. I'm not quick, not smart. I'm really slow. I have serious inferiority complex, deep sorrow. I feel so inferior and angry around others who are quick thinkers and who really want to be engineers and do so well. I strive to make high grades, but lack the confidence. I've been emotionally troubled, don't want to make friends. All I want to do is to graduate with Honors in EE so I can show them, look at what I'm made of. (2008-07-15)
Unfortunately, even if this girl does make it through her Electrical Engineering degree program (perhaps with honors) to redeem herself in her parents' eyes, it is unlikely that she will find lasting satisfaction in a job as an electrical engineer. Not only has she not developed an interest in the subject matter, even worse, she will always be haunted by the trauma of her parents forcing her to pursue such a career path against her will. If given a free choice, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that she would be far happier, more productive, and more successful pursuing another profession? Wouldn't she feel more proud of herself if she could find a major in which she excelled because it matched better with her natural strengths and interests?
Here, the Asian-American woman in her mid-20's recounts her resentment for her father wanting her to become a businesswoman and inherit the family business:
I've been saying "yes" and then "no" on and off to helping in the family business for years, and I still haven't gotten into it, even though my dad seems hopeful that he's going to one day convince me through all the "look at [our friend's daughter], she's your age and she's already veeerrryyy successful with her family business and is now buying a house".... At the same time, he isn't aware that actually drives me away, esp. emotionally! I'm never going to be that "businessperson" (I tried, but failed miserably) and despite math tutorials everyday, I still sucked at it until I eventually went to college....still sucked at it! (2008-11-09)
This woman's resentment stems in part from the fact that she did earnestly try to learn math and business to please her parents, but they didn't seem to recognize her efforts. When she found out that she was no good at these subjects, her parents continually nagged her by making snarky comparisons to their friend's overachieving daughter instead of either compassionately encouraging her to try harder or working with her to figure out an alternative career path.
For a refreshing change, an email I received brought up the interesting point that oftentimes parents who are smarter and better-educated know not to forcefully prod their kids, since they realize that natural abilities and personalities play crucial roles in determining how well kids will do learning particular subjects:
I didn't meet the second kind of parents, those who have good relationships with their children, until college. Admittedly, most students whom I befriended with were physics and engineering majors. However, I was surprised to find that most parents of those students are themselves highly educated (especially those in physics). Most parents were half educated in China and half educated in U.S. They are quite like us, other than that many didn't get Ph.D's until they were over 30. In contrast to the kind of parents who didn't have higher degrees beyond college, but often require their kids to do much more, these parents didn't wield a whip and ask their children "get A or else" in high school. These parents appear to know that learning difficult, college-level materials comes only naturally and is sustained only through one's passion. I think this is especially true in fields like physics that are hard and often require more than hard work. Argue me wrong, but my impression is that Chinese parents' way of living and thinking have direct influences on how their children will / will not choose what they will become. (2007-12-10)
I'm sure there's some social science study that aims to correlate immigrant parents' education levels (and alma mater status) with their willingness to poke and prod their children to excel academically in the way that they see fit; if this reader's claim is correct, then there should be an inverse correlation.
Regarding kids falling apart once in college
Overbearing Asian parents neglect to realize that after all the pushing and prodding to get their kids into a good college, it is then up to the kids to chart their own course. Many of these kids unfortunately struggle and flounder in college for several reasons: First, they are probably less capable and less emotionally-prepared than their peers to survive the rigors of a competitive college, since their parents' prodding artificially increased their credentials so that they could get into higher-ranked schools than they could ordinarily get into without such prodding (what my article calls the position inflation problem). Furthermore, their parents deprived them of opportunities to learn to interact with other kids, to socialize, to talk back and argue, and other soft skills crucial for succeeding as young adults. Even worse, now that these kids are far away from their overbearing parents' watchful (tyrannical) gaze, they might feel compelled to go ass-wild partying, binge drinking, doing hard drugs, and letting out all of their repressed frustrations built-up over almost two decades of living under their parents' rule.
These parents might see admission into a top-ranked college as a paramount goal, but in reality, college is only a means to an end, and that end is success and fulfillment in life. If kids can't even properly survive college, then all of that prodding has done way more damage than benefit.
A fellow MIT student mentioned how, like me, she had also heard from her parents about how kids of family friends floundered and went ass-wild in college:
I also occasionally hear stories through my parents about kids with overbearing parents going to college and completely falling apart, getting involved with drugs and having to drop out. That seems like the ultimate worst case, to work hard to get into a good college, only to have to drop out. (2008-11-01)
That same student also mentioned how she thought good time management skills were crucial for succeeding in college and also sorely missing in many kids who were prodded by overbearing parents:
I suspect one of the huge problems coming to college after having to deal with Asian parents is that their kids never learn good time management. I feel like good time management is crucial to success at MIT at least and if you have always had someone else managing your time, you never get a chance to learn yourself. (2008-11-01)
Another reader tells of a Korean friend who attended Caltech, a top-ranked college focusing in math and science:
The student's younger brother attempted suicide while in college, and he himself, despite having started as one of the over-achievers of the Caltech lot, suffered academically due to his overbearing parents. Such stories appear to be quite common among Korean parents, who often make newspaper headlines for not apparently caring anything about their kids except the grades. (2007-12-10)
A recent college graduate from Malaysia helped make my claims more general by noting that such overbearing parents are prevalent not only in the US but also throughout Asia, and how children who grow up prodded by such parents have troubles adjusting to adult life after college, not just during college itself:
I find your article amusing because you are very honest in discussing the authoritarian parenting style of most Asian parents. Though your focus is mainly on the first generation immigrant parents in the US, I think your description of the typical Asian parents applies to almost every parent in Asia! Trust me, I know it by life experience. Regardless of nationality, Asian parents will always see academic excellence as a way out of a hard, miserable life. Thus, the extremely strict parenting style. Some of the victims, I mean, children may grow up according to their parents' expectations, but others would normally lose their way in life when they grow older. That's what happens when for 21 years you have someone showing you what to do and suddenly you are to choose a path of your own. I'm so glad I turn out fine as an English literature student. (2007-09-24)
The mid-20's woman whose father wanted her to take over the family business (against her own desires) concludes her email expressing relief at being able to finally tear herself away and be her own person:
I've been resentful towards dad (and my mother for allowing this) for many years, until just recently I've had ENOUGH and really questioned what I can do for MYSELF, because life is too damned short. I'm laughing at the fact that it took me so long to come to such realization! When I do have kids one day, I will do exactly the opposite of what dad put me through! (2008-11-09)
The Bangladeshi girl whose father wanted to mold her into an electrical engineer concludes her email with an earnest plea for parents like hers:
All in all, parents should be open to their children, and understanding. And why not be a little bit loving, too? They must have patience in order to raise healthy, happy, and academically successful children. (2008-07-15)
To conclude on an optimistic note, I'm glad that this first-generation Taiwan-born immigrant mother has a clear idea of what's genuinely important for kids to grow up learning:
Nothing is more important than a healthy personality and a positive attitude. I will make sure that I teach my children these 2 important things, and make them to be winners in life, not just SAT or college or salaries. (2008-10-22)
And another similar email from a Chinese mother who wants her kids to have 'big muscle' over getting super-stressed about academic achievement:
I am not an academic person. I want my kids be happy and healthy, I never expected them to get into name-brand colleges. Every time I talked to them, I told them to eat healthy foods and go to gym (they both got big muscle, not like most oriental kids). (2008-04-10)
You may directly respond to issues raised in this article by posting in the discussion forum.