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☞ Issue 152
글씨크기 크게 글씨크기 작게 기사 메일전송 기사 출력
Tae Guk Gi and Stars & Stripes (5)

To Raise a Child

Melissa Hahn (2009/12/07 22:41)  

Five years ago, when my husband and I were home visiting his parents during his college spring break, I jumped at the chance to learn more about his childhood. His mom and I were sitting in the car by ourselves as Mike and his dad filled up at the gas station. Partly as a way to break the silence, I seized the moment.

“Mikey told me that he never got into trouble when he was a little boy,” I said slyly. “Is that really true?”

Grinning, I expected to hear a story about how he had been naughty at one point or another – some bout of stubbornness or some memorable day that he had stood in the corner for breaking the rules. While I had never had any behavior problems at school, I was like any American child and had committed my share of sassiness and other minor offenses. I had stood in the corner for back-talking, had been sent away from the kitchen table for laughing uncontrollably at a sibling’s antics, and had argued passionately over the list of chores that I perceived to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Graduating at the top of my high school class with Mike and our fellow classmates, I knew that my story was not unusual. Even the best students had their fights with their parents. And yet, when I asked Mike about his upbringing, he had tranquilly insisted that he’d never had any disagreements or yelling matches with his own parents. When I asked how that could be true, he informed me that it had simply never come up. To me, this was astounding – and very odd, indeed.

From my perspective, this “testing the limits” and battle of the wills was not only unavoidable, but one of the critical ingredients in the maturation process. In my family, this was viewed as a frustrating yet critical step towards our autonomous futures. Like a clay pot is forged in the fire of a kiln, our adult selves emerged partially as a result of the painful clashes with our parents.

My naïve assumption that this was a universal process, however, proved false. Mike’s mom could only recall one day that he had even been scolded.

Apparently, at age three or four, he had taught himself to primitively tell time without anyone realizing it; in particular, he knew that the hands on the clock lined up with certain numbers on the face when preschool ended and his dad would arrive to pick him up. One day, when the hand moved past the appointed time and his dad did not appear, he panicked and began to cry. By the time his dad arrived five or ten minutes later, he was inconsolable. Back at home, they scolded him for his outburst, saying that he didn’t need to be worried and that they would always be there to pick him up from preschool. Further, they were disappointed that he had made such a scene; whether he had been sad or scared was beside the point.

My grin faded as I listened to the story. Out of eighteen years of childrearing, this was the one story about Mikey getting into trouble? And in my eyes, the scolding had hardly been warranted – I felt sorry for the little version of my husband.

Mike and his dad got back into the car, and we all rode home in the same normal silence that permeated his parents’ home. Progressing from mere curiosity to incredulity, my mind became occupied by an emerging realization that I had grown up along fundamentally different philosophical lines regarding the role of the individual in society as well as child development.

In culture-clash studies, researchers point out that the most difficult aspects of cross-cultural communication are those that are not seen, because they are the hardest to unravel and the least expected. Foods, religious icons, fashions, and architecture – we can all see these, and we subconsciously brace ourselves for having a slightly uncomfortable or unfamiliar experience. In other words, we know that we are encountering something foreign, and so we tailor our expectations accordingly.

From my husband’s and my successes in high school and in society, an average person on the street might assume our families were very similar. And yet, our parents viewed their responsibilities in fundamentally different ways, mirroring the divide between the Western emphasis on individualism and the Eastern emphasis on collectivism and social responsibility.

For my parents, their primary purpose was to help us become the people we were destined to be – as individuals who would create and find their own personal happiness. While they emphasized our responsibility to contribute to society, it was as individuals that we would accomplish this task – and we were to go about it in our own personal way. “Marching to the beat of a different drummer” was encouraged. Possibility, optimism, and hard work were the mottos that defined our upbringing.

They were concerned with our internal sense of fulfillment, the expression of our desires, expectations and dreams. If that meant sacrifices on their part, they never hesitated. For all of their time, energy and expense, they only asked that we not sell ourselves short, abandon our goals or take the easy path in life. They are proud that one daughter is a writer and graduate student, that their son is a creative executive in Hollywood, and that their other daughter is a political consultant. That their children now live in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Phoenix - thousands of miles away from their new home in Atlanta - is just another sacrifice that they are willing to make. While they miss us, they would never ask us to move home. Quite the contrary: in their eyes, the only people who fail in life are those who stay in their hometowns at the expense of their true talents.

Mike’s family, by contrast, emphasized duty, family roles, and stability. Possibility and dreams were a part of the dialogue only insofar as they conveyed an expectation that Mike attend college – the first in his family to do so. They wanted him to go to college because it was a credential that would bring a higher salary and a higher standard of living to him and his family – not because he would have the opportunity to explore new ways of thinking or develop a new appreciation of the world around him. He was not encouraged to think outside the box but instead was encouraged to excel within it. They recognized his skills for computers early on, and encouraged him to work hard outside of school so that he could ‘get ahead.’ Like my parents, they expected him to put forth his best effort – meaning that he should be able to get all A’s.

They also expected that after college he would find a career near home- that he would get a nice salary and a nice little house, and settle down permanently. For his parents, dreaming could be reckless and dangerous – it could upset the delicate balance that one worked so hard to achieve in the name of satisfying some fleeting and trivial urge. They cautioned him to be satisfied with the little that he had, to keep his head down at work and not attract attention, and to just submit himself to the everyday routine. In the very way that I would let my parents down by limiting my dreams, Mike would disappoint his by thinking too expansively.

Indeed, his dreams did lead to disruption of the family order. By choosing to relocate to a separate university in another state – partially to be near me but also because of a one-of-kind program that he needed for his career- he was seen to be abandoning his family. Pursuing his own interests outside of the box was, in essence, tantamount to violating his filial duty and thumbing his nose at all of the sacrifices that his parents had already made. They tried cajoling, bribing, threatening and rebuking him in an attempt to get him to stay, but he wasn’t having any of it. At 19 years old, he had his first real disagreement with his parents.

Since then, nearly ten years have passed. With a bit more wisdom in my pocket and chapters of observations from the time spent with Mike’s family, I feel myself straddling the two styles of upbringing with less vertigo and more balance, if not complete comfort. Unfortunately, the perfect form of childrearing has yet to reveal itself; such human experiences do not lend themselves easily to black-and-white regulation. Yet certain truths are apparent, and as I acknowledge them on the eve of beginning my own family, I feel both a sense of relief as well as a sense of foreboding. The task will not be easy – and whichever method we follow, we will be hard-pressed to do as fine a job as our parents did with us.

As the Chinese proverb says, “To understand your parents' love you must raise children yourself.” And as Dr. C. Everett Koop says, “Life affords no greater responsibility, no greater privilege, than the raising of the next generation.”

In all societies, parents witness their children mature with a mixture of love and pride, disagreement and anxiety. Regardless of culture and upbringing, parents are destined to clash with their children over matters great and small. It seems to only be a matter of timing when these disagreements will occur with the greatest frequency – whether during childhood, adolescence or adulthood. But if raised with love, a spirit of kindness, a high level of expectation for excellence, a curiosity about the world and nature, and moral integrity, the children will grow into adults that their parents can be proud of. And that desire is something we all have in common.
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Author's career and profile

I was born in 1982 and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, I had a strong interest in learning about the many cultures of the world as a very young child. One of my prize possessions was my very first globe, and I would practice the names of these places as I fell asleep at night. In high school, I studied French, and through a special distinguished scholar program I designed an honors project which enabled elementary school children to participate in several festivals from around the world. I received a B.A. in Russian Area Studies from St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, and have completed graduate coursework at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland towards an M.A. in Central European Studies. I have also written numerous articles for the political website, pinr.com, on topics covering Central Europe and Asia. I am currently involved in children's literature and photography projects, with the aim of writing meaningful books to engage children with the world around them in hopes of promoting peace and understanding. I have backpacked across Europe three times, covering twenty countries. I hope to visit Korea very soon!





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