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.