Breaking the Cycle of Hardass Asian Parenting

December 18, 2013

Before Thanksgiving, my Kindergartener brought home her very first public school progress report. Every conference I'd had with her teachers -- from her preschool to her introductory assessment with her Kindergarten teacher -- I had been told that she was very bright, right on target, a delight to have in class. Her preschool teachers loved her so much that we remained friends with them and still see them on a regular basis. And I, of course, see my child with a mother's eyes: she's so much better and smarter and more amazing and unique than the other, common kids. So I was surprised at my own disappointment when she came home with a perfectly decent report card.

She's on target and meets expectations in every academic area; she's essentially doing everything a Kindergartener should. She's reading and writing and doing math at a normal Kindergarten level. According to her progress report, she could do a little better in "making good use of her time," but she's five and I know how difficult it can be to get her out the door, so this was no surprise to me. But I was just a teensy bit disappointed that there was no indication that she was the next Sheldon Cooper and deserved to advance to, like, second grade or something. And after having those thoughts, I was completely taken aback by my own natural regression to those Hardass Asian Parent tendencies I was exposed to in my own childhood; the same tendencies I promised I wouldn't expose to my own kids.

To be fair to my parents, I didn't have a terrible childhood. I respect and appreciate the things they did to ensure that I always had a place to sleep, a meal to eat, and someone to get on my ass every time I came home with a B. I was kept safe and healthy. But I don't have many memories of my childhood, and most of the ones I do have include my dad losing control of his anger, my parents having a fight, or having to tell an elaborate lie to tiptoe around my dad's delicate emotional state. They weren't exactly Tiger Mom status, but I wasn't allowed to do a lot of normal kid things, like hang out with my friends on the weekend or talk to boys on the phone or play outside in the summer while my parents were at work.

As an adult, I've learned to let the bitterness go. I've made off much better than most other English majors in my cohort, and I'm happy with my life as an adult and the decisions I've made and the people I have pissed off to get here. I was never on track to go to an Ivy and I was never going to become a lawyer or doctor or engineer. My mom had always mostly been okay with this, and only emphasized that I needed to be able to support myself, and I've long ago lost contact with my dad and haven't had to deal with that pressure for a while. I'm at peace with my Hardass Asian upbringing and can appreciate it for what it was and how it made me who I am today.

But as a parent, it's an entirely different matter. How do you navigate the stormy waters of parenthood when the only map you have -- your own childhood -- won't cut it?

Up until now, my husband and I have done a decent job of making it up as we go along. He and I have a loving marriage and openly express our feelings for each other (in the least barf-inducing way possible, I promise), which is further than either of our parents got. We give our daughter a safe space to ask questions and talk about topics like sex, love, and anatomy in an age-appropriate manner -- topics my parents were definitely not okay with talking openly about, ever. And while I do have moments of yelling and being impatient, maybe more often than I want to admit, I'd like to think we're giving our kids enough space and freedom to just be kids. At the very least, we're trying to be good parents and conciously raise well-adjusted and happy kids, and not just kids who are the best at stuff.

But now that I have a child of school-age, I'm finding academics to be my Very Special Hangup. When it came time to find her a Kindergarten, I became obnoxiously obsessed with test scores and GreatSchools ratings. When I learned that some kids in her class did not know how to read or write, I did the Hardass Asian Mom thing and bought her extra workbooks to supplement her homework. And I honestly don't know why.

It's not born out of any desire for my kids to reach some status or to brag to my friends. Strangely, I think it's a stress I inherited from my Hardass Asian upbringing, like a family heirloom. This is not to say that Hardass Asian Parenting can only ever be dysfunctional. While I sometimes feel robbed of normal American kid experiences, giving a crap about academics is one thing my parents did that helped me give a crap about myself. I never did become a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, but sending me to a good school in the suburbs and emphasizing the importance of a college degree was probably the difference between poverty and a stable income when I fell pregnant with my first and then got laid off from my job three days later. I obviously want to instill the same values with my own kids, but I want them to have a happy childhood too. Sometimes it's just hard for me to navigate the difference between supportive and obsessive.

I'm at least able to recognize that I was disappointed because I see my baby with mom goggles -- my Kindergartener is brilliant and creative and amazing, and she deserves an A++ in everything, if it were up to me. I could drill her on multiplication every night and she would get it, though she probably wouldn't have any fun and would rather be playing outside or drawing pictures or going to her dance class. And that's at the core of what I want my kid to have -- an actual childhood with fun memories.

In order to snap out of it, sometimes I just have to remind myself of the big goals I have as a mom. It is important to me that my girls do well in school because I want them to reach adulthood having options and the ability and freedom to make choices on their own. I just don't want them stuck in a shitty situation (relationship, living situation, working environment, or otherwise) that they can't get themselves out of because they don't have the financial means. I might advise them that college education is the current standard, and that English might not be the most lucrative major, but I don't care what school they go to, and I want to be supportive of whatever career they decide on. I get that it's really only my place to teach them how to invest themselves in the hard work it takes to get to where they want to be.

It's hard to break any cycle, and Hardass Asian Parenting is no different. Currently the only antidote I have is to continually remind myself that it's not important that they're the best compared to everyone else. It's important that they're good enough to be themselves.


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.