The Bloom Effect, Part 1: Context, Context, and More Context

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Bloom Effect

This post is the promised follow-up to my earlier post titled “Two Disconcerting Trends: Korean Kids, School Systems, And Parental Appraisal.” I have split the follow-up into two parts, as 10,000 words seems too long for a single blog post.

This is a sprawling essay discussing:

  1. The idea of the Tiger Mom, and some thoughts on Amy Chua’s book
  2. The importance of social context in determining the outcome of a given parenting style
  3. Hyperschooling and why it is a rasdically new thing in South Korea, and why nobody seems willing to admit it to their kids or themselves
  4. “The Bloom Effect” observed by my wife and myself in our tutoring practice
  5. The notion of 중2병 (Middle 2 Syndrome), and the toxic norms the meme reflects
  6. The role and importance of resistance in context to those toxic norms, and a brief look at some of the emergent resistance in South Korea today

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. But I hope this essay will be illuminating and inspiring, if you see it through to the end. 

1. Amy Chua, Defective Packaging, and the Value System of the Tiger Parent

Well, the fact that Amy Chua and her husband are releasing a new book about the success of specific minorities in America makes it sensible to bring up the discussion of Tiger Parenting a few years ago, triggered by the Wall Street Journal’s pick-and-choose piecemeal excerpt from Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

That discussion was, on the whole, rather useless: it was more of a spontaneous bout of mudslinging overall, particularly by white Americans eager to decry the barbarity and cruelness of Asian parenting (as presented by Chua, or, well, not even: mostly, as imagined by white Americans, since most people didn’t even read the book). There was also a little bit of interesting commentary by Asian-Americans on their experience (some upholding what the imagined Chua was saying, while others like Wesley Yang bashing her claims). Particularly interesting was the reaction by some Asian-American moms against Chua perpetuating a racist stereotype that didn’t reflect their own experience at all. Of course, most commentators of all races and opinions hadn’t actually read the book.

To be fair, probably at least part of the reaction has to do with Chua’s public persona. She’s wordy, academic, and her smile often has just a slight hint of sneer to it. (Seriously: photographers seem rarely to capture a flattering smile from her:

I believe this was the post used with the WSJ excerpt, wasn't it?

That picture up above certainly has at least a hint of what looks like a triumphantly judgmental sneer to me.

In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that the choice of photo alone probably damned Chua in the eyes of may: it just has this smug, looking-down-on-you sort of vibe to it… like, ha, you inferior, lax “American-styled” moms don’t have well-behaved, obedient daughters who dress like little concert musicians and play piano and violin in your living room, now, do you? A quick search of Google shows a lot more of those kinds of shots of Chua: always with the vague hint of a sneer that makes her seem, well: snotty, patronizing, and judgmental of those she deems “too American.”

But now look at this shot:


In this second picture, Chua looks more relaxed, personable, engaging. The impression is that she’s not trying so hard, in the second picture, and ultimately, that problem–the distortions that come from trying-too-hard–that ultimately plague The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mothers. It’s also why why I can’t blame all those commentators on the earlier book for not reading it.

After all, the truth is that the book was really kind of a mess.

It’s full of self-contradictions, mixed-signals (is she mocking herself? betraying myopia? actually being a strident abuser?), and what looks like attempts at humor that constantly fall flat. Not only that: it’s a memoir that seems, overall, to work through Chau’s self-realization that she was pretty over-the-top extreme, and details her moving away from some of those extremes.

The failed humor, well: she’s an academic, and moreover, an academic specializing in law. Comedy is hard to get right even for people who specialize in it, as pretty much every hit-and-miss comedy show on TV (30 Rock? SNL? Community?) seems to demonstrate with depressing regularity. But there’s more to it than that: it’s a convolution of impulses, I think, that ruin the book: Chua wants to lampoon herself, but not so aggressively that she might actually look ridiculous. Gentle self-mockery, well… if you’re too gentle–too concerned about not losing face, one might say–then you’re not really mocking yourself anymore, and it’s hard for your audience to figure out what you’re doing.

The most notorious example from the WSJ excerpt is pretty exemplary of the problems in her book, actually. I’m talking about Chua’s story regarding the reaction she got when she told a story at a dinner party about calling her own daughter “garbage.” Chua holds up the shock and horror, the objections and emotional reactions of the people at the party, as if they’re astonishing, shocking, something she could never have anticipated, as if they’re stunning. 

Which makes you wonder just how seriously you can take Chua.  I found myself wondering: is this some kind of self-ribbing, too? It certainly felt like Chua was holding up her own (eggheaded? traumatized?) obliviousness in public, in some ways.

I mean, it’s one thing to believe that calling your kid “garbage” isn’t scarring because you believe in the innate strength of your children and their knowledge that you love them. (Though it’s not hard to extrapolate justifications for beating children, or other forms of abuse, along the same grounds. For the record, I think the justification is bullshit, and I think her claim that her mom did it, and she turned out just fine, rather sounds like every justification of child abuse I’ve ever heard in my life.)

But while someone growing up in America could grow up thinking that way, one struggles to understand how someone who grew up in America could fail to understand that this is not how the majority of Americans think about it. The way Chua tells it, she just went on and told a dinner-party full of people about how she shouted “You’re garbage!” at her kid, and then was shocked when they reacted badly to it. Perhaps if she’d just arrived from someplace where calling your kids “garbage” is normal, that would be understandable. (If such a place even exists outside of Chua’s imagination.)

But Chua grew up in America, and lives and works surrounded by people for whom is very clearly is not a social norm… among people for whom, in fact, calling your kid garbage is a clear and obvious form of abuse. (The same people among whom her kids have grown up, it’s worth noting.) For her to be surprised by the reaction makes no sense whatsoever. She’s either posturing, or taking a poorly-executed dig at herself for being socially inept, or a traumatized survivor of tiger-parenting herself, or an “egghead academic” who sincerely was so out of touch with her own society that didn’t expect her American neighbours would find the anecdote shocking, or that no degree of explanation as to how she’d been through it herself would change their minds.

My suspicion is that, simply put, Chua is just that she’s too poor a writer (outside of her specialized academic domain) to get her deeper comedic or critical  intent across. Too poor a writer, or too reluctant a self-critic, or perhaps just too eager to not shame herself in the public eye… or maybe too oblivious. And that’s a problem that is visible throughout the text: it’s a very poor apologia for Tiger Parenting, in fact: it almost screams aloud the problems with the approach… assuming Tiger Parented youth end up as confused, ineffective, and clueless as Chua seems on the page, anyway.

Tiger Mom CoverOne suspects that Chua’s book could have been more interesting and more fruitful in terms of generating discussion about different modes of parenting, if it’d been written (or co-written) by someone with more experience writing for non-academics, as well as if the author had been willing to be a little more self-effacing and self-critical, rather than engaging in self-critique or self-mockery, without necessarily doing what Chua always seems to do: immediately pulling back into the realm of justifications. Chua seems eager to present a family that had no really serious issues, despite her extreme behaviour and her constantly hinted-at sense that maybe she did cross the line a fair number of times. 

Likewise, Chua’s weak attempt to deracialize “Tiger” parenting, when she’s already chosen an overtly “Asian” label for it. Tiger economies and Tiger Parents: the link is obvious in her mind, but bullshit in practice, as she briefly acknowledges. For the record, my parents, though they looked approximately like other white majority Canadian parents, exhibited a lot of the kinds of traits Chua mentions, at lesser extremes, at least with me: I was an eldest child, and I got asked things like why an A on my report card wasn’t an A+; I got pushed to work hard, to study, and so on. Not the way Chua talks about, but in a way qualitatively more like that than the way most of my peers seemed to be raised. I only recently realized that this was probably why the kids I got along with best, to a one, were kids of “immigrant” parents too, from the Phillippines, the West Indies, and China, for example. Of course, without the sensationalization inherent in racializing so-called “Tiger Parenting” people probably would never have read Chua’s book in the first place.

But now, Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, are speculating on the success of specific (ethnic) minorities in America, and this, I have to say, is pertinent to my promised follow-up. Chua and Rubenfeld argue that the most successful groups in America possess, as ethnocultural groups, the following traits:

  • a sense of their own superiority or specialness
  • a sense of insecurity, the need to “achieve”
  • a stronger investment in “impulse control”

And just like with “Tiger Parenting”–it’s not racial, no, totally not, but let’s use an Asian metaphor anyway–the definition of “success” in their new book is something that deserves some serious criticism. People who devote themselves, to, say, teaching elementary school are not “successful” by the definition they’re using, as they make plain in this interview:

I ask them about someone who moves to Vermont, teaches second grade, has lots of children and dogs and is happy. They are quiet for a moment.

“That’s a non-triple package person,” Chua says.

[The crassness is pretty hard to miss, even when her husband gives a more reasonable response:]

“There are a host of good, decent people who are not ambitious, who are not climbing, who may have the best lives of all,” says Rubenfeld, who is gentler. “We are just not writing about those people.”

Which raises the question: why not?


The answer, of course, is that Chua and Rubenfeld value not, perhaps, the best life, but rather the social climbing, the ambition, and the economic wealth. That is: their value system is centered on money and status, and everything rather straightforwardly proceeds from there: immigrant populations who come to the United States are often focused on achieving wealth and status in the environment of unprecedented (for them) socioeconomic upward mobility. (Else why migrate to the USA?)

The sense of superiority and the sense of uncertainty are easy: most successfully upwardly-mobile immigrant groups come from a background of belonging to a majority group, who’ve suddenly lost that privileged position. (Chinese and Koreans in America outperform, day, Laotian and Burmese ethnic minorities.) The impulse control, one suspects, its perhaps partly cultural, but also very much tied to the exigencies of living as an immigrant: after all, most immigrants do experience some kind of downward socioeconomic mobility at first. They do without lots of things they took for granted in the old country, and learn they can do without all kinds of things as a result. And that gets passed on to their kids, but not really to their grandkids, who never missed any of that stuff from the old country, and whose parents are raking in cash in the sorts of professional positions their parents insisted they pursue in the first place.

It’s a great value system… if you live in Stepford, and are willing to Stepfordize yourself, along with your spouse and the kids. Over at The Guardian, this review makes plain the problems with their position:

How does the book define success? Simply, bucks and position. Not accomplishments in science or the arts, not excellence in public or the caring services. Those do matter of course, say the authors condescendingly, but cannot be included in their neat spreadsheet. Which makes their main claims capricious and hopelessly unconvincing. These two have low emotional literacy, don’t seem to value creativity, dissent  or the good life.

Which is very, very pertinent to my whole discussion of the education of Korean kids, and the parenting that they seem to experience. After all, Chua/Rubenfeld’s value system–unapologetically measuring success in terms not of happiness, but of money and status–is one eerily familiar to anyone who’s lived in South Korea.

Eerily familiar, and unsettling. That way, we know, is a brutal, harrowing road. That way lies the vast grey tenements, and streets where the only music that can be heard, blasts from loudspeakers mounted to shopfronts–not to be enjoyed, but only to sell product.

2. Parenting and Social Context

This is directly pertinent to the observations I’ve been making in terms of parenting and education with Korean kids we’re working with here in Saigon, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’ve come to a very simple, but very important, conclusion. That is this:

There’s something that’s been missing from the “Tiger Moms” discussion: social context.

Specifically, I mean that it’s tempting and easy for parents to fall into the trap of attributing all failure to the social context, and all success to their parenting methods. If kids fail, it’s because America (or American schools) are so lax; but if kids “succeed” then it must be because of their parents’ approach, specifically they “Tiger” Parent approach.

It’s an understandable mistake, of course: parents routinely overestimate their influence on their kids, believing that their values will rub off, that their way of speaking will, that they share a culture in common with their kids. Well, until their kids are teenagers, and listening to music they don’t understand, using slang they cannot fathom, and pondering life in a future some decades ahead of the ever-changing present that the parents themselves are struggling to keep up with.

Hell, the degree to which kids learn language from their parents’ corrections, as opposed to their parents’ behaviour, is in itself pretty revealing. Namely, it doesn’t really matter how often you stop and correct your kid on some grammar mistake. There’s piles of evidence that negative input–corrections and admonitions–don’t play much role in kids’ primary language acquisition: they just pick up the rules from all of the overwhelming positive inputs. (In other words, its not your corrections that cause your kids to stop saying “goed” or “mouses,” but simply the sheer number of times that they hear the correct usages “went” and “mice.” Wehn you correct them, you may well be wasting their time and yours. And yet, we all do it.)

Well, when we talk about “Tiger Parenting” one thing we need to consider is the social context in which is happens. Kids being Tiger Parented in one kind of society, and being Tiger Parented in another kind of society, are going to reach different outcomes.

To speak more specifically about our own students: the “Korean” schooling experience, and the “International” schooling experience, take place in–and also, simultaneously constitute–radically different social contexts, in which their parents’ approach to parenting play out.

This occurred to me most clearly when I read this post over on the (frankly, quite terrible) Ask a Korean blog. (Not that it’s a surprising omission, for reasons that Sonagi expresses well my problems with his blog: I have trouble taking seriously the claims and arguments and explanations of Korea offered as authoritative by someone who neither lives in Korea, nor has lived in Korea since his teenaged years (when his experiences and interactions were necessarily limited); and whose claims about Korea many Koreans I know find laughable, and risibly social-conservative, as well as  intellectually dishonest for reasons very well put in this comment on his blog:

[According to “The Korean”] Korea’s successes are unique and can be attributed to uniquely Korean traits, culture, and societal values. But Korea’s problems and failures are universal, exist elsewhere, and therefore not attributable to Korean traits, culture, and societal values.

This is particularly true in his claims about Tiger Moms: he focuses on the ostensible successes that Tiger Parenting his produced among Asian-Americans. It’s very curious, especially considering his general mandate to discuss Korea, that he says nothing about the parenting method or its results in Korea… after all, the school system and society in general are much more directly compatible with Tiger Parenting–teacher and parent expectations of teaching and learning line up more directly–so why isn’t Korea an intellectual and educational powerhouse? (Not just in test performance, but in all scholarly realms? Why aren’t Korea’s universities topping the world’s evaluations, instead of mostly performing rather middlingly?)

It’s also very, very much pertinent to my own discussion in this post, and the post that preceded it. Remember, I mentioned, in my last post, that among the kids I tutor these days, it’s very easy to tell apart the Korean-International-schooled kids from the International-International-schooled (and homeschooled) kids. To reiterate what I described:

The Homeschooled kids and the International Schooled kids seem… well, like how you’d expect a healthy teenager to be in most places. They’re inquisitive, and thoughtful, and have hobbies, and play sports, or do art or music, or have ideas about what they’d like to be when they grow up. (Concert violinist, astronaut, dentist, and film soundtrack editor are examples of answers we’ve heard.) They’re usually allowed a certain amount of play time, and they seem to be generally happy. This is true even though, as we later discover, physical or psychological abuse is no less widespread among their homes than it is the other kids’. Somehow, they deal with it better, though. They’re most definitely not constantly sullen, or resentful, or demotivated. They seem to have some kind of interest in learning something, at least when the thing is something they’re interested in.

Meanwhile, the Korean-schooled kids are… well, the best I can say is, most of them seem seriously (and I do mean, clinically) depressed. To a one, they’re less interested in books and learning, and more resentful of being asked to read or do homework, however minor… and when they do it, unlike their International-schooled and Homeschooled peers, they tend to do the absolute bare minimum. Almost none of them have interests or hobbies, and tend to be very excessively pressured to study, and to be allowed much less (and in some cases, that means little or no) time to play or have fun outside of school. They to be uptight, over-serious, almost universally socially awkard even with other Korean kids of the same age, and unable to sustain a conversation–even in Korean, with a native Korean speaker like my wife.

And when they do start talking, usually have nothing to say but complaints. Not that they have nothing to complain about: they tend to take violence both at home and at school for granted as normal to a degree the International Schooled kids don’t, and over tiny things. (Like the difference of between 94% and 95% on a mathematics exam, to take one example from earlier this week.)

All of that is one thing when you’re in Korea, and most kids live out their lives within that system, and the alternatives are very limited. It’s still a very serious thing there, of course: one look at the child suicide statistics in Korea suggests that it’s so serious as to deserve the status of an epidemic.

But what’s more terrifying is seeing the night-and-day difference between the kids in one system, and the kids in the other. It’s not that every kid would be a brilliant, happy genius if transferred to the International system, or that every kid would be completely destroyed by the Korean system. It’s just that, when you take a bunch of average kids, the effects of each system are very, very clear. One kid is inquisitive, tries to talk to chat with the other, and ends up looking funny at the other because that other kid is barely able to respond to his or her questions, and finally rebuffs the first kid.

What I’m finding, it seems like, is that social context matters. Children’s lives are, in fact, so stripped of natural, organic interaction with their communities that eve just a school setting can serve as a social environment, which means Korean kids living in a place like Saigon may find themselves in either a cosmopolitan social environment, or else in a social bubble inhabited almost completely by Koreans (except the odd English teacher), even while living in the same apartment complex.

David Vetter, the famous "boy in the bubble" from the 1970s. The "germ isolator" bubble treatment mentally damaged him, as explained in this article about his story.
David Vetter, the famous “boy in the bubble” from the 1970s. The “germ isolator” bubble treatment mentally traumatized him during his short life, as explained in this article about him.

What seems apparent to me is that the social context in which Tiger Moms operate is very very important to how their children deal with or handle their parents’ style of parenting. And yes, I’m going to say Tiger Moms, here, because for kids we tutor, who come from very much middle-class expatriate Korean families, the model is, essentially:

  • Dad works at a company, usually Korean but sometimes international, and is essentially absent from the kids lives, and hands-off when it comes to their education and, generally, their parenting.
  • Mom is a stay-at-home parent, often with limited social connections, and bored out of her mind. (A lot of moms also take English lessons here… and Vietnamese, and tennis… not because they want to learn these things so much as because it gives them an excuse to get out of the house and talk to someone outside the family.) She tends to be authoritarian, and tends to micromanage her kids’ lives with what looks, from a Western perspective, like an iron fist.
  • The kids are overschooled in the standard Korean way. That is to say, they’re schooled, and then when they finish school, they’re either hakwonized, shipped off to tutors, or sequestered to their rooms to study for long periods of time. This, by the way, is relatively consistent between kids in either system, though it’s consistently more extreme with the kids in the Korean-International schools.

To be fair, I should also note that the families we’re dealing with are, more often than not, embroiled in a crisis that nobody seems willing to directly acknowledge, something that I think is probably universal in families that move abroad. Adjusting to living in another society, far from friends and family support networks, and marooned in a much smaller and more limited social circle, is difficult and stressful enough, but moms–whose behaviour I describe as extreme–are sometimes also struggling to accept the sacrifices they’ve ended up making as part of the move, like effectively giving up their jobs or careers and unwillingly becoming stay-at-home moms for the duration of their stay abroad… and often seem to end up compensating for their own self-perceived sacrifice and boredom by focusing on the kids… or end up taking out their stress and frustration on the kids. That’s not especially a Korean thing: I know because my family experienced it when I was young too…  So, it’s important to bear in mind that these crazed tiger moms I’m talking about are human beings in difficult circumstances, who deserve some compassion.

It doesn’t make the acting out, or the sometimes abusive behaviours, any less problematic or damaging to the kids: I mean, they’re so isolated and stressed about it that they bring it up and ask for advice from their English tutor. That certainly says something. But it is a context, at least.

Context is important. It’s really central to what I’m trying to say here, so maybe that’s a good place to stop for today. Tomorrow, I’ll be back with more context, and explain what the Bloom Effect actually is, and why I think it’s happening.

Series Navigation<< Two Disconcerting Trends: Korean Kids, School Systems, and Parental AppraisalThe Bloom Effect, Part 2: Tiger Mom Retcon, The Bloom Effect, “Middle 2 Syndrome”, and Resistance in Context >>

4 thoughts on “The Bloom Effect, Part 1: Context, Context, and More Context

  1. I experienced the difficulties of immigrant life as a child, and my mother did as well for me and my siblings as I imagine any mother possibly could in that situation. But I experienced my fair share of abusive experiences, and they definitely made their mark on me. Just because I wasn’t destroyed or because my mother was well-intentioned or that her actions did not drive a permanent rift between us doesn’t mean that those actions were okay (which included giving an eight-year old the silent treatment for several days).

    (To be fair, the episode that provoked the act was me talking back to my mother in a way that deeply wounded her, at a time when her psychological reserves were pretty much depleted. But I have spent a lot of time pondering how I could handle the same situation better. I’ve come to the conclusion had my mother avoided the very human mistake of taking a child’s careless remark personally, and taken a non-punitive, disciplinary approach, I wouldn’t have that scar in my psyche. Then again, I’m not sure how much better I could do for my own child, at the same level of stress.)

    Obviously problematic is the overemphasis in many societies (including Korea) on preserving “family integrity” that gives abused children nowhere to turn. However, I think the (what I feel to be a very American) misconception that “abuse” stems purely out of bad intentions or an innate character flaw on the part of the parents is no less dangerous, albeit a far more banal evil. It cuts off the perpetrators (who are often victims themselves, in many ways) from avenues for help to change their lives for the better. It also trivializes the reality of violence, because it implies that abuse is the “other” experience, and not something a lot of us live with, even the outwardly “successful” ones.

    1. It’s also interesting that what I said to bring on the silent treatment was a direct result of our experience as an immigrant. My mother was neurotic about her English ability, and relied on me to translate the notices and reports the school sent home every week. The process of sitting down with my mother and translating English that was meant for adults’ eyes could take hours, and it meant I had no playtime on Mondays.

      Feeling resentful of the fact, I one day lashed out at my mother, “why can’t you do even this?” Which touched on her complex, over not being able to communicate and her “failure” as a parent, and I think she basically imploded. It’s worth noting that her refusal to speak to me was at least as much fear that she would lash out at me if she opened her mouth, as a revenge of sorts.

      1. On parental neurosis: yeah, well, that’s part of it. But also, parents sometimes make it someone else’s job to deal with stuff they should be dealing with. I’ve heard enough stories about mom bitching to the kids about dad to know that sometimes, parents sometimes unfairly enlist their kids in the work of managing and handling their own feelings. (“I need to vent to you about dad because I have nobody else to talk to!”)

        Obviously, it’s possible your mom was unable to attain fluency in English soon enough to cope with the notices and stuff, and maybe there were other restrictions on what was possible, but it seems there are other options beyond the one your mom went with, especially if it was creating enough tension that you lashed out. That is to say, it’s not necessarily the case that she opted for that simply for reasons other than it being logical or easy: perhaps resentment, or a feeling of dependency, or even loneliness, factored into it. Because, I mean, those kinds of unconscious, sometimes unacknowledged factors do feature in so many of the kids of decisions people make, and often they don’t even realize it unless it’s pointed out. The unconscious is such a baffling, slippery thing.

        That’s not to accuse your mother: those factors would be very human, and unsurprising. As Richard Schnarch points out, a degree of emotional sadism is actually so common in marriages that he terms it “normal marital sadism,” as you’ll probably recall from this post long ago. (An idea that also supports your point in the earlier comment that linking “abuse” to “evil” or a character flaw is unproductive: if we reframe it as a common behavioral problem among human beings, or as some kind of “normal” (widespread) but unhealthy behavioral dynamic built into human beings, we can at least start to admit it’s there, and come to terms with it.)

        (But, in fact, when it comes to school notices, I would have thought the subject of the notices would be the last person who should be translating them, because some of the communication might be sensitive, or because the kid would be an unreliable filter when it comes to, say, absences from class or discipline problems in school.)

        All parents have their soft spots and hairtrigger buttons. So do kids, though, and the fact is that lots of families in all cultures seem to default toward autocracy. We’ve made great strides in revealing how unhealthy and destructive autocracy can be in the political realm, in the operation of institutions and organizations… but we’ve been somewhat more reticent to extend that critique to the structure of families in any way that is applicable in the real world. In those societies where people have an inkling, what you get is not more active engagement with the question, but just a reticence, anxiety, and a sense of shame about the more extreme screw-ups… but no real movement on how we need to reenvision family structure, or reconceptualize both “childhood” and the overly monolithic “adulthood” (as well as the grey areas between and throughout).

        (I’ve long had Robert Epstein’s Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence on my shelf as a place to start rethinking all that, and even have it down here in Saigon, but I haven’t dug too deeply into it yet. Deeply enough to see he’s very much a radical and committed to arguing his side of the argument–a polemicist with an opinion very contrary to accepted attitudes–and to see that it’s not a perfect book (what book is?), but not yet deeply enough to have gleaned everything of use from it. Maybe when we get back from Seoul.)

    2. Anne,

      Thanks for sharing that, and you touch on some things I think I get into more in the second half of this, including the fact that it’s not necessarily helpful to demonize parental screw-ups. Everyone screws up, and that’s something I spend a lot of time trying to get students to accept–because errors and mistakes and flubs are such a big part of practicing and learning–and it would be hypocritical to not extend that understanding and compassion and realism to some degree into the realm of parenting. You’re right about it cutting off avenues for people to change for the better. Part of that, though, also is tied to our ageist biases.

      I sincerely believe that kids are the least respected human beings on the planet. Nobody talks about adult privilege, but it’s pretty starkly obvious when you talk to adults just how disrespectful they often are about or toward kids. The bias cuts two ways, of course: kids are immature, ignorant, and stupid, and adults are… what? Most adults are also immature, ignorant, and stupid about most things. (Opinion polls are frighteningly illuminating regarding this.)

      I often tell my students kids, “Unless you actively fight it or get really lazy, growing up is a process that will continue until the day you die. People who think they’re grown up because they hit a certain age are fooling themselves.” That is usually in the context of talking about parental mistakes and failures, but also the necessity, sometimes, to intelligently defy one’s parents. Marrying the person you really want to marry, pursuing the career you really, truly want, instead of caving to parental pressure, is a way of treating both yourself and your parents well: yourself, because you have to live your own life, but also your parents, because it’s only through you doing what you want that you teach them the strength to accept your differences and teach them to let go of the reins. It sometimes requires a fight, or harsh words, but it can be done out of love and respect and compassion, even so. “Your parents need your help if they’re to continue growing up and developing into the people they need to become.”

      Of course, there are parental habits that I see that I feel cross the line from screw-ups to habitual abuse, of course: things that, in Canada, I think probably would warrant a call to the police or Social Services, at least to rebuke the excesses. The bruises, or the kids who show up exhausted or depressed once every couple of weeks, because they were screamed for reasons beyond their ken, or because mom decided to wake them at 4am for no reason, or to keep them up till 1 am two days in a row just to study something that they didn’t learn any better for the time spent. I’m dubious about the idea that an outsider has no right to judge, because clearly everyone would agree at some point, outsiders do. (People who lock their kids in basements for decades on end are universally reviled.) We haven’t really had a truly public conversation about where that line is yet, and especially not one that takes into account what the media don’t seem ready to admit: that bullying is a universal human phenomenon, and not just limited to schools or the internet… and that bullying ends up being effectively common in families when crises and trauma and problems are in full swing. (And I’m talking about all families, regardless of culture, though my thesis is that certain institutions and social norms and cultural mores can help counterbalance the impact and effects of them.)

      Parents are, of course, human. It just seems that social circumstances and context can either exacerbate the excesses in a given home, and disenfranchise the child, or else can counterbalance the excesses and enfranchise the child. (Something I’ll get into more in the second half.)

      I agree about the idea that an overemphasis on “family integrity”–or even just on de facto “respect” (deference) to one’s parents, even when they’re demonstrably wrong about something, or keeping up appearances: these two I have personal experience with myself–can definitely create the problem of kids having nowhere to turn. I remember Kids’ Help Line being this new thing in Canada when I was young, and remember being disappointed when, during the time when I taught kids in Korea, I couldn’t find a similar service there to give out numbers for to the kids who seemed to need it.

      And I agree–and it’s a good point–that hotwiring “abuse” to “evil” sort of makes it hard for people to admit when they have a problem, makes it also hard for people who’ve endured abuse to admit that it was abuse. The song Blowing Bubbles by The Pursuit of Happiness comes to mind:

      The sentiment is interesting–and a response to the time when TV talk shows were exploiting families’ struggles to come to terms with abuse for a lot of “Awwww” and ratings bumps–but there’s something a little off about the lines:

      Mom I won’t cry / ‘bout how you raised me / Things weren’t perfect / But I’m not crazy / You did alright / I’ve got my troubles / But my inner child is blowing bubbles /
      I’ll never go on / Sally or Oprah / And say it’s your fault / That I can’t cope / You did your best / For that I am grateful / Those selfish-helpers / Are cruel and hateful /

      Especially when it comes to the background lyrics, cited here, “Don’t be a baby, don’t be a baby.” That seems to me to be sort of spitting in the face of the struggle too, perhaps more even then the cynical exploitation of the TV shows, since it infantilizes what is, for some, an understandable struggle to deal with the fallout of serious physical or emotional abuse.

      It’s particularly odd coming from a band that so effectively voiced the frustration of the teenager in the face of the universal, unacknowledged denigration they face, just a few years earlier, with “I’m an Adult Now”:

      I wasn’t much of a rocker by the point it came out, but this song seemed anthemic to me (and friends my age) nonetheless… despite the fact that the lyrics seem to draw a hard line between teenager and adult. That meant much less to use than the repeated insistence, “I’m an adult now!”… because teenagers are so tired after a decade and a half or more of being treated like a kid.

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