First Born

In the last post I posited the “finish line of parenting” is when your child turns 18. As a practical matter this may not be exactly true since many children live at home well beyond 18 and still need assistance and some guidance. However, in the eyes of society an 18 year-old is legally an adult. So it behooves us parents to recognize that at 18 society and the law holds our children responsible for their actions. It is our job equip them to make good choices in the short time we parent them from 0 to 18.

While the checkered flag may be 18 it is also important to keep in mind that as our children continue into adulthood, we parents begin to reap the relational “harvest” that we have sown over the years.  I believe there is a more enlightened and much more mutually satisfying adult parent – adult child relationship than the classic Asian model of respectful and obedient child who is always subordinate and subservient to their parent.  The goal of this more enlightened approach is to raise your child such that as an adult they will be more or an equal, a colleague and a friend.  (More on this topic later.)  

Before discussing parenting further I think it’s appropriate the worthwhile to consider WHY one becomes a parent in the first place.  One drive is inherent in our nature.  On a basic biological level reproduction is part of defining what being alive means.  Things that are alive; plants, animals, bacteria, fungi and other living things reproduce themselves.  It is a biological imperative.  Fair enough, but hopefully we’ve evolved beyond this basic need as our sole motivation to produce progeny.  For many of us having kids makes life complete, more meaningful and simply more fun.  Squishier reasons to be sure, but nonetheless acceptable.  

A few generations back, before industrialization and the rise of big cities. farmers had children because the productivity of many children more than outweighed their cost in resources, thus making children a net positive labor input.  Additionally, the family’s children were essentially a captive labor force.  In traditional Asian cultures (also based on agrarian economies) this was also true, but their were a couple of other factors at work.  In many sinicized cultures including Korea and of course China, having children was necessary because NOT having offspring to carry on ancestor remembrance rituals (often referred to as ancestor “worship”) was a cardinal sin.  In such Confucian cultures to not have a new generation who will pay respect to forebears effectively meant that the family line dies with the existing generation.  Having children to carry on these traditions was so important that childless couples would often adopt a distant relative or non-blood relation so that the family line (and ancestor rituals) would not cease.  

Another reason to have children – or more accurately a son, was also practical and in essence a social contract.  Growing up the first born son received the best the family had to offer (food, clothing, education, etc.).  In adulthood (usually after marriage) he inherited the family holdings (house, farm/business, wealth) and in return for all the pampering and the inheritance he had the privilege and responsibility of taking care of his parents in their declining years.  This was/is in practical terms “social security” Asian/Confucian style!  Having a first son was/is so important that a wife who could not produce a baby boy could  be and often was divorced.  Couples lacking a male heir would (as in the case with ancestor rituals) often adopt a distant relative or from outside the family to procure a son.  

The importance of the first son and his preeminence in the family often means:

  • infant girls/daughters are aborted, abandoned or given up for adoption (true in traditional and contemporary China)
  • children in the same family often do not receive the same treatment and share of resources.  Second and subsequent sons are regarded as less important than their older brother, and sisters (regardless of birth order) may be deprived of education in favor of sending the oldest boy to a good school.  
  • the wife of a first born son is not only his wife, but perhaps more importantly becomes defacto hand maid to his parents.  (Not always a happy or expected role.)

The reason I bring this ancient yet pervasive social contract (between the parents and their first born son) up is that although we live in the modern era, and very few of us are tied to an agrarian livelihood, the cultural expectations and pressures around and on the first son are often alive and well.  (As are the pressures of their wives vis-a-vis her in-laws.)  Moreover, like so many things passed from generation to generation, they are transmitted without analysis or explanation.

This can mean unrealistically high expectations and demands placed on the eldest son, while growing up and as an adult.  Pressures to always act, achieve and represent his family in the best light.  Showering the eldest son with the finest food, clothing and access to the most prestigious schooling, available to the family – all in support of the notion that the higher the son rises, the better he will be able to care for this parents in their later years.  Such treatment can lead to a sense of entitlement on the part of the son, while at the same time subjecting him to stress and scrutiny that his siblings may not receive.  And when the first son is also the first born, in additional to these pressures he  is effectively the “guinea pig” on which his new parents get to experiment!  In my own childhood, I noticed that my older brother (the first child) was often like the the “bow” of an ice-breaking ship.  He was the first to encounter heavy seas and rough weather – reluctantly clearing a path for the rest of us.  In this I did not envy him in the least. 

Conversely, the other children (even those born before the first son) can become “second-class siblings” relative to their brother in many ways.  I’ve spoke with Asian American women who were denied better educations so their brother could go to a more expensive school, and I know of second sons who were slighted in numerous ways so that the best resources and activities could be allocated to their older brother. 

Such inequitable treatment of children in same family in this day and age may seem fair fetched – especially given the modern emphasis on equality and equity in civic life.  Yet, vestiges of this social contract are alive and well in Asian American families in the United States, and remain at full potency in many Asian countries.  

Expectations and pressures on the children to care for their elderly parents  is certainly not unique to Asian / Asian American families.  However, the role of the first born son often is.  I hope this background may help you understand some of the dynamics that have been operative for millenia in Asian families, and  help you make good choices raising your first born son and all other children.  

Begin with the end in mind

In his best-selling 1989 book THE 7 HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE author Steven Covey lists as his second habit “Begin with the end in mind”. This applies to numerous aspects of life and especially to parenting. It also begs the question, when is the “end” of parenting. Many would correctly argue that being a parent, being concerned about the safety and well-being of your child(ren) and doing what you can to protect and assist them never really ends. As my own children are in their early 20s I understand and agree with this perspective. However, for the purposes of our discussion, I humbly submit that the “end” we parents need to have in mind at the outset and thereafter is when our child(ren) reach the age of 18.  

Why 18 you ask?  Why not 21, or when they graduate college, have their first job, or “settle down and get married”?  While all these other events are certainly important landmarks, 18 is when society regards them as an  adult.  At 18 an individual is considered:

  • mature enough to engage in civic life by voting in elections 
  • old enough to enlist in the U.S. military without parental consent
  • perhaps most importantly, from ones 18th birthday they are legally an adult – with all the rights and responsibilities thereunto.  

18 is commonly referred to as the “age of responsibility”.  

For parents this means that society (and the law) doesn’t generally care about what special needs, quirks or unique ways of doing things our sons or daughters possess.  From 18 on they are expected to be able to make decisions for themselves – and significantly, be responsible for the consequences of those decisions.  By 18 our children should be able to decide for themselves

  • how they spend their time and money
  • who they associate with 
  • what they put into their bodies

along with a myriad of other choices.  It is therefor our job to get them able to make good decisions by age 18, and equally importantly to take responsibility when they make poor choices.  (More on this later.)  This is the checkered flag, the goal post, the finish line.  Perhaps not in terms of family life or our relationships with our children, but legally it certainly is.

Everything above in this post applies to ALL parents, of Asian descent and otherwise.  We ALL have the duty (whether we realize it or not) to get our children to the threshold of legal adulthood (18) prepared to use good judgement.   The challenge for Asian American parents is that we have often been raised to believe, often unconsciously, that no matter how old our children become, they must first and foremost be respectful / obedient / compliant.  Respect for elders (e.g., parents) is part of our culture, and often embedded in the language of our ancestors.  In Korean, one must speak UP to an elder or parent (i.e., using honorific speech with special verb forms, person pronouns and nouns)  while they speak DOWN to their juniors using what is known literally as “half words” (speech reserved for addressing those of lower status or age – or as a means of showing contempt or disdain for the listener).  In fact, in Korean culture and language there is practically no way to argue with or contradict someone who is your senior.  Thus it is not uncommon for individuals raised in Asian culture, who have been socialized to see respect for ones parents as an obligation that their children owe them at all ages, put obedience and compliance with the parents’ wishes above letting the child develop their own “good judgement”.  

Another way the cultural imperative to “respect ones parents” can interfere with helping our children develop good judgement is the need for “control”.  At times instead of letting our kids make questionable choices (i.e., small mistake from which they can learn) Asian parents instinctively seek to satisfy the need to control the situation and turn what could be a learning opportunity for their child into a contest of wills and a question of respect.  Now I am NOT saying that parents should let an 8 year old make important decisions unchallenged or independently.  Rather that as they get older, we need to let our kids make more and more of their own choices – and have them live with the consequences.  We need to bear in mind that the way to make good choices is to make some bad ones – and learn from them.

I like the rough framework that

  • when they are little (birth through 5th grade) we are their managers (and at times we micro-manage), deciding what they eat, what they wear, how they spend their time
  • from grades 6 to 9 (or thereabouts) we become their coaches, letting them make more choices for themselves
  • once in high school we become their consultants.  We help them understand their options, the pros and cons, costs and benefits – but increasingly they decide for themselves

Of course these are not hard and fast rules about the age or grade level we should give our children more autonomy, and each child is different.  Equally true, it is difficult, uncomfortable and SCARY to let go.  However, we need to remember that our goal is to raise adults (18 year-olds) who have such judgement that they will not need us to make decisions for them.  And as in many things, practice makes perfect.  

Keeping the finish line of 18 years old firmly in mind, as my twins entered middle school my response when asked if they could or should do something was most often “use your good judgement”.

There are of course other qualities and skills we can help our kids develop on their road to 18, but for many reasons holding this date as the “end” we need to keep in mind (at the start and thereafter) is vital.  

POST SCRIPT:  Speaking now as a 60-something son of a 90-something Korean father, I must also say that I was raised to first and foremost respect my Dad – which I do.  In my wildest imagination I do NOT think of him as a peer or colleague.  This is the way and expectations with which my Dad raised me.  In contrast, I have tried to raise my children such that as they get older they will increasingly be my peers, my colleagues and our relationship will be more-and-more one of equals.  I value their input and opinions and often find them insightful, accurate and mildly disturbing.   I believe that this is a more beneficial and satisfying state of affairs and have kept this goal in mind since they were in grade school.


The previous post discussed the different fighting styles (in Chinese martial tradition) of the TIGER and the DRAGON. While both are fearsome opponents, they differ in an important way. The tiger acts (or rather reacts) purely on instinct and reflex, without thought or design. In contrast, the dragon (the most powerful, mystical – and in many ways most human-like of all the Chinese zodiac) first THINKS, and then acts. The dragon may respond to an attack (or initiate one) the same way a tiger does, but the dragon THINKS first, and then acts. In short, the dragon’s strategy is based on INTENTIONALITY.

So what does being INTENTIONAL mean? In combat it means that tactics (actions) are dictated and designed to serve the objective (desired outcome). These short-term actions are in service of a larger goal, and importantly are CHOSEN not necessarily reflex actions. Being intentional means that possible actions, their meanings, consequences, implications, and alternatives are evaluated, weighed and measured beforehand… and are intended to further an objective. Going back to the combat example, an attack can be met by

  • by “holding the line” (fighting back)
  • retreat
  • counterattack
  • retreating to a stronger position and then counterattacking

…just to name a few. However, if the defender only knows how to attack they have only one option.

DIGRESSION: An important and very legitimate criticism of marital arts including Tae Kwon Do, Karate and certain types of Kung Fu is that they are almost entirely percussive in nature. That is to say, based on striking or blocking. They have an optimal range of an arm’s length to a leg’s length from the opponent. Closer than an arm’s length or farther than a leg’s length and they are useless or ineffective. Furthermore, these styles generally do not take advantage of the force or momentum an attacking opponent offers the defender. I classify these kinds of “percussive” arts as “fighting with hammers”. And the problem with this is “if all you have is a hammer… everything is a nail”.

In order to be intentional, to have intentionality , as a parent, we need to:

  • think about what we do BEFORE doing it
  • understand WHY we are doing it
  • at times evaluate if those “whys” are appropriate or valid
  • consider alternatives that may achieve the desired effect but use a different approach
  • think about how our actions will be perceived and understood by our child(ren)
  • possibly conclude to postpone or even abandon an instinct

The most important question listed above is probably the “WHY”, What am I trying to accomplish? What is my objective? As an Asian American parent, often ask myself “Am I insisting on obedience and compliance?”, “Do I really want my kids doing this so I can have bragging rights among my friends and peers?”, “Am I raising my child(ren) this way because THAT’S THE WAY I WAS RAISED?”.

If much of your parenting is premised on the principle I am raising my child(ren) this way because THAT’S THE WAY I WAS RAISED, please recognize that you may be a 20 – 40+ years behind the times. Few of us would want to have the same medical or dental techniques, instruments or anesthesias that were used in the last century. Nor would most people today prefer corded landlines over cellphones, black and white cathode ray tube TVs over color LCDs, or having to research using hard copy books over searching the web.

Yet when it comes to parenting we often default (without thought or hesitation) to the exact same things our parents (or grandparents) did. …Now I’m not saying that everything Mom and Dad or the grandfolks did was bad or inappropriate for today, just that we should evaluate this conduct before employing it.

In theory such forethought is all well and good, but how do go about evaluating our values, instinctive actions and what we might say BEFORE (and during) the heat of battle… I mean “parenting”?

My litmus test is to ask myself… “Is this (action or speech) consistent with my love, respect, and aspirations for my child?”

DRAGON Father (or Mother) vs TIGER Mom (or Dad)?

At the end of my previous post I briefly described some differences between Asian dragons and Western (i.e., European) Dragons. The bottom line is that in the East (China, Korea & Japan) dragons are considered generally positive, while in the West (Europe and America) they are considered generally manevolent. This is the first of many cultural comparisons to come!

Moving into the next comparison I need to provide a little personal background…

I have been a student of Korean martial arts (TaeKwonDo, Hapkido and YongMuDo since 1974. After some 45 years of practice I can confidently say “the older I get, the better I was”. Over the decades I’ve learned a good deal about the history, philosophy, techniques and culture of NorthEast Asian martial arts (e.g., Kung Fu, Karate – both Okinawan and Japanese -Jujitsu, Judo, Aikido, and Shaolin vs. WuDang styles in China). I had the great privilege and pleasure of researching, organizing and presenting “Asian Martial Arts in America” for the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival for during two sweltering weeks in the summer of 2002.

In Chinese martial tradition the tiger and our old friend the dragon represent two distinct fighting strategies and styles. Both are powerful, lightning fast, and extremely formidable. However they differ fundamentally in their approach in combat. Strike a tiger and it WILL strike back – immediately. A tiger acts purely on instinct with speed and strength. Whatever is lacking in forethought is made up in reflex and ferocity. The dragon is a different. Strike a dragon, and it MAY strike you back… or it MAY retreat slightly or completely, or it MAY re-direct the strike, leading the attacker into a unbalanced, vulnerable position – and then strike back!

The key difference is that the tiger can only react – immediately and solely by instinct. Whereas the dragon “thinks first, then acts”. This difference is subtle and profound… and has parallels in Asian parenting.

By now the term “Tiger Mom” is a well-known stereotype based on the idea that traditional (if anachronistic) values and practices from “the old country” should be imposed upon the next generation – often with greater zeal and intensity than would have been found in said “old country”. For example, if the Mom had to practice piano for 3 hours a day as a girl, she might require her child to practice 6. The operative mentality being “if it was good for me, twice as good will be better for my child”. The tiger parent generally does not ask: “Why do I really want my child to play piano”; “Is there some other pursuit more consistent with their personality and interests that they might enjoy more and be more fulfilled learning?”; “Have I explained my reasons for wanting my child to learn piano so they can understand and value this too?”

The dragon parent (e.g., Father) thinks first… and then acts. Such a parent may consider: “Does my child want to play piano?”; “Do I want them to play for their sake or to fulfill a dream I never did”; “Would they be happier learning a different instrument or skill?” Such a parent may well insist that their child take piano lessons, but the decision is a reasoned one, well-considered and thoughtful.

In short, the dragon parent is INTENTIONAL in the way they parent. Such a parent does NOT simply accept the way they were raised as the only or best way. They think critically about their “family of origin” (FOO) and compare it to the times, culture and value system their children are growing up in. Dragon parents may indeed conclude that the way they were raised is the best in certain areas – but it is not a reflex action, it is a considered decision.

It is my contention (having been raised by Korean parents who came to the states in 1949, and having raised my own twins – now in their 20s) that as children of immigrants, second-generation parents like me, need to think critically about how and why we raise our kids the ways we do (or do not). lest we perpetuate unproductive and negative traditions and values. We are the filter and conduit through which the very best (and very worst) of our ancient cultures will be passed on to our posterity.

SPOILER ALERT: The next post will include a “litmus test” for dragon parents.


Thanks for visiting! I should warn you that I’m rather new to this and bound to make some rookie mistakes as I learn to blog. Please bear with me and do suggest ways I can improve!

So what’s the purpose of this rather pretentiously named blog? That’s simple enough: My hope to is help you be a better parent, and/or understand your parents better.

What I bring to the party that’s a little different is that my parents came from Korea in 1949. I grew up in the heartland of the country in the ’60s and ’70s (when there were relatively few Asian Americans… and even fewer Korean Americans) and became the father of twins in 1996 – at the tender age of 40. Raising my son and daughter forced me to confront many of my fixed ideas about the role of a (Asian) father, and more importantly, how and WHY I had been raised (in various ways) by my own parents. Over time I realized that much of my parenting was repeating the way I had been raised by two well-meaning, loving immigrant parents – who came from a wholly different culture and millieu.

However, I had the good fortune of taking many classes on parenting, being mentored by a number of wise people (themselves parents), teaching college students who are the children of immigrant parents from around the globe, and having a very patient wife and two wonderfully understanding children. Over the years I developed what I refer to as the “Dragon Father” approach to parenting. You can get a good sense of what I mean by this by watching the video linked below.

[LA] ROAR Story Slam 2019: Doug Kim

Doug Kim, our 2nd Place Winner, performs his piece "Something Unexpected Happened" at the first ROAR Story Slam in LA.Born in 1956 in Minnesota to parents who came to the U.S. as students in 1949. Spent 20 years convinced being KA was not a good thing, and 40+ years since learning to understand and value being a product of two cultures. He has taught KA studies at San Francisco State University, raised twins, and serves as Director of SaeJong Camp, the longest continuously running KA youth camp in the country.

Posted by on Monday, May 6, 2019

You should know that I majored in East Asian studies in college, upon graduation lived in Korea for a year, and have spent a good part of the last four decades trying to figure out what being “Korean” and “Korean American” means. Much of my parenting perspectives are informed by or are in response to what I’ve come to understand about Korean/Asian values, traditions and culture. I hope to share many of these insights with you.

Much of what I will write concerns differences between North East Asia (Korea, China and Japan) and the West. A timely and important example of these differences is the dragon. European (Western) dragons are malevolent, fire-spitting demons who hoard gold and virgins (both of which they have little use for). In the Far East dragons also fly through the sky, but unlike their Western cousins (inflicted with incendiary halitosis) Asian dragons are associated with good fortune, achievement, and rain. They are typically depicted frolicking in stormy skies amid grey clouds, thunder and lightning. These dragons are bringers of rain and as such were seen as good omens in ancient (agriculturally dependent) China. In fact the dragon was the symbol of the Emperor of China, as he the “Son of Heaven” was deemed an living intermediary between mankind and Heaven. Fun Fact: For many years in China, only the imperial dragon – representing the Emperor and his family, could have five claws at the end of each arm or leg. Anyone not of the imperial family bearing a five clawed dragon emblem (which most closely resembled the five fingers or toes of a human hand or foot) could be and often was executed.

I hope you have found this post interesting. I don’t want to press my luck, so I’ll save more dragon stuff for future posts. I plan on posting a new entry next week. Til then thanks for your interest and kind attention.

About Me

I am the second son of Korean parents who came to the U.S. in 1949. I was born in Minnesota in the 1950s and grew up in the MidWest. I am the proud father of fraternal twins (a son and daughter) who are now in their 20’s. Necessity and experience led me to seek a better way of parenting my children than the way I was raised. In this blog I will share some thoughts, observations and advice.