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.  

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