News that a five-year-old girl died after being beaten by her father and step-mother for not being obedient shocked Hong Kong recently. Incidents like this are an exception, not the norm, and invariably spur discussions among parents at the playgrounds I frequent. Most parents I know would never resort to physical punishment when trying to discipline their children. Still, many see obedience as the ultimate virtue and use it to push their children hard in that direction.
In Chinese culture, obedience is a virtue. “Oh, your child is so obedient” is a compliment that pleases most parents. The normal response to such praise is, “No la, my son is actually very naughty.” This is humility, not the refutation of the praise.
Chinese parents want their children to do the right thing and not to develop bad habits. But we all know that our children have their own agenda. They like to do things that give pleasure to their little minds: video games, running around, playing with daddy. Yes, kids love playing with daddy. The trouble is, we never have enough time and energy to play with them. When our kids are left with domestic helpers or grandparents, they just stick to the iPad.
So how do we make sure, when we are not around, our children are not doing “bad things?”
Punishment is not going to work in the long run. Scientific studies confirmed this long ago. And experience corroborates these conclusions. Once the threat of punishment is gone, the child resumes to his own agenda. Still, the punishment is used to incentivize obedience. This, despite the fact that Hong Kong dads and moms work the longest hours in the world.
I grew up without much parental supervision because my parents were divorced when I was two and weren’t around much. In school, I was good at sports, music, and academics, despite not caring much about medals or grades.
Why was I so disciplined? Looking back, I think it was because I enjoyed the process. I read University level Physics books when I was in high school because I found the subject so fascinating. I practiced guitar until my fingers hurt because I loved the sound I could make. I trained in water polo six days a week because I really enjoyed scoring.
Parents want to give kids purpose by pressuring them into obedience, but discipline is better derived from pleasure. Helping kids enjoy the things they do aligns their agenda with parents’ hopes. I’m not much of a disciplinarian because I want my kids to do what they want with intensity. I view my role as influencing their choices and providing access to opportunity, not demanding certain behaviors or accomplishments.
Parents want kids to follow what they think is best for the kids. But pressuring kids into obedience won’t work. You may be able to force kids to do things they don’t enjoy doing. But that has a risk of making them hate learning new things.
In Hong Kong, there is a list of things that kids “should” do: piano, violin, Olympic math, ballet for girls and soccer for boys. If done well, these lead to higher scores when interviewing for prestige schools. Everything a kid is forced to do in Hong Kong leads back to that: getting into a good school.
But your child may not like what you have chosen for them. It could simply be because the timing was wrong. But each child is unique, and there are so many fun things your child may enjoy. Instead of choosing for them, let your child be exposed to a variety of learning and hobbies. Let them choose what they want to do. Once they start enjoying what they’ve chosen, you may find that you no longer need to control their course.