East v West - When Parenting Styles Clash
Life as a parent can be difficult. It’s tiring, stressful, kills your social life and can be emotionally and financially draining. However, these are mere irritations compared to the challenges of raising kids in a different culture, in a family with completely different methods to my own. As well as learning on the job, I feel like I’m treading on a cultural minefield, where even a small mistake or oversight can cause emotions to boil over.
This is especially true when in-laws help take care of the child. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘you and me plus baby makes three?’ From my experience I would add an extra line – ‘add the mother in law and that makes four’ When my first son was born, he spent most of his first 6 months at his in-laws about 40 minutes from my home. This did have some benefits, as my wife and I both work full time and I couldn’t afford to hire anyone reliable to take care of him. For all the problems it solved though, it created even more.
Before my son arrived, I naively thought that I would be a hands-on parent. I didn’t know that Chinese grandparents played such as powerful role in bringing up kids and so when she came into the picture, it seemed like she had taken over and I was pushed to the side. My western ideals and experiences were seen as a bit strange and subsequently ignored, and I felt the same way about hers. I strongly disagreed with my Chinese family's views that it was ok to let my boy relieve outside and that he didn’t need to wash his hands every time he used the toilet. Other habits/rituals such as shoving towels down the back of his shirt during hot weather and the one-month post-childbirth ritual that my wife went through seemed downright bizarre.
The most difficult part for me though, was being expected to be constantly polite to my MIL, overlook her every mistake and to not even think about rolling my eyes, backchatting or raising my voice because that's apparently the height of rudeness to anyone over 50 in China.
My theory behind this is that Chinese are expected to feel constant gratitude to their parents for giving them life and raising them. It doesn’t matter if the child is 5 or 35, they’re expected to obey their parents and will court serious trouble if they don’t. When I was raised in New Zealand then Australia, I was instead taught the importance of questioning things, having my own opinions and developing as an individual. When we fight with, or disobey our parents, it’s not seen as a bad thing. It’s actually seen as a positive in some ways, a sign that we can think and act independently. In short, Western kids are raised to look after themselves while Chinese kids are raised to look after their parents. So whenever I disagreed with my mother in law or refused to follow advice I didn’t agree with, I was seen as disrespectful when I wasn’t trying to be. It eventually dawned on me though, that I would have to treat her very differently to how I treat my own mum.
Being excluded from a lot of day-to-day tasks when the boys were very little frustrated me no end. It was made more difficult having no close family here to fall back on for advice when things got really tough. In the almost five years since my son was born, I’ve had to develop a pretty tough and formidable character. I couldn’t let anyone walk all over me or tell me I was useless. I never believed that and eventually, I found my own important roles to play.
One of those roles was teaching them English. I started reading books to my oldest when he was three months old. He listened to English songs, watched English DVDs every day and I talked to him constantly in my mother tongue. Thanks to all that time and attention, he picked up the language quickly and was switching comfortably between English, Cantonese and Mandarin before he was two years old. Reading and writing is coming along a bit more slowly. My wife has tried pushing me to teach him in a more formal and structured way like in a classroom, whereas I’d prefer to let him develop through playing and natural immersion like native speakers do.
I also have firm beliefs that I will never back down from, no matter how much it may upset others. I insist that both my sons practice proper hygeine, that they say please and thank you even to family members, and that they never relieve themselves in public (at least not in front of me) Finally, anyone who hits my sons in anger will have to deal with a very angry father, as I won’t allow corporal punishment to be used on them. On the last point, my wife had a hard time accepting this at first. She believed that a good parent had to be a tough, authoritative type but eventually found out that shouting at kids and threatening to hit them for non-compliance generally made things worse. She's much calmer now that she's discovered that using basic psychology and a firm voice tends to work much better.
At times it’s been an emotional ride through hell but it’s getting easier as my boys grow older. Although miscommunication is still an issue with my Chinese family, our ideas don’t seem so strange to each other any more and I like to think we’ve developed a basic form of trust. With my one-year-old, I look after him a lot on my days off. I feed him meals, wash his clothes, prepare and give him bottles and change his nappies, which would have been unthinkable to me just four years ago. My oldest has developed some good hygeine habits and good manners. He is naughty from time to time but then again, he is a kid.
Parenthood, like marriage, is never easy and requires a lot of work and patience. That hard work does pay off though, and I know that as my boys grow, I'll continue to play an important role in their lives.
The main reason I would never let older Chinese raise my child, if and when I have one, is how they encourage kids to use any place as a toilet, whether it's a sidewalk or a trash can in a restaurant. People ask me what I hate most about China, and this is it.
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