I consider myself a very successful woman. But unlike the authors of “Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers — and How You Can Too,” I attribute my success to not having traditional Asian parents. In fact, for any parent who wishes to raise a child in America, I would caution against ever using the Asian model.
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Asians comprise upwards of 60 percent of the student body in many local schools. I’ve seen enough to know the disadvantages of a traditional Asian-American immigrant upbringing. Of course, I am making a generalization here, and generalizations always have exceptions. But they do have some truth to them as well.
There is nothing wrong with being a disciplinarian, but the problem is that most Asian parents rarely know when to stop controlling. They do not allow their children to take the crucial step of individuating from their parents, which is instrumental to a child’s future success.
But first let me explain what I mean by “success.” The first mistake the authors make is in their definition of a “high achiever.” Success is not about getting into an Ivy League school. If that were the case, paying someone to write your applications would count as success. Moreover, an increasing number of top corporate executives are graduates of non-Ivy League universities.
I believe there are two parts to success. First, knowing what you want is just as important as getting it. Success is achieved through purpose, because if you never know what you want, you can never get it. I would want my children to have personal, meaningful reasons for making their career decisions. I want my children to choose their own goals in life. And because it is their own choice, they will better embody and actualize their purpose.
The second part of success is the ability to be intrepid. I don’t mean that success entails climbing mountains or skydiving, but just daring to do even small things like taking a challenging class, attempting that difficult job interview or taking on an innovative project. You will never advance if you do not have the courage to go beyond your current ability. And I don’t want my children to be drones. I want them to take the risk to be creative and to lead.
Both these parts of success depend on the ability to individuate yourself from your parents, which rarely happens with traditional Asian parenting. Parents have an unbelievably overwhelming amount of control on their children’s lives. I do advocate that parents enforce rules on their children like making sure they finish their homework. But this discipline should clearly stop far short of controlling their child’s desires, especially when he or she is already a young adult capable of making informed decisions.
My mother’s friend, for example, has a daughter who loves journalism and was admitted to Northwestern’s prestigious journalism program. Her parents refused to let her attend, insisting that journalism was not a suitable career choice. She is now studying biology at UCLA. Asian parents so often seem to forget that their child is an individual with his or her own desires and path in life.
Independence of thought obviously cannot exist under these conditions, and children are either unable to find their own purpose or find it quickly stifled. My non-Asian pre-med friends often tell me of their passion for healing or their love of science. My pre-med cousin just shrugs and tells me her father explained that medicine is a stable, well-paying job.
Intrepidness comes with independence. Independence clearly breeds confidence, and goals of one’s own making add to that by providing self-assurance. Only with confidence can a child begin to take risks. It is surely no coincidence that there are few Asians in the theater or in leadership positions, two roles that require a great deal of confidence and intrepidness.
But for all its evident drawbacks, Asian parenting does work … in Asia. It is simply not a suitable model for an American child. It works very well in places like China where your college admission determines your entire career, and where stability and obedience are still highly valued. But here in the United States, where we value purpose, courage and, above all, individualism, traditional Asian parenting is the wrong choice.
Katherine Zhang is a sophomore in Silliman College.