Hyowon Kim and Eric Youngstrom both specialize in child and adolescent development: Kim as a professor of psychiatry in Korea, Youngstrom as a professor of neuroscience and psychology in the States. He has also spent eight summers at Korea University, as an adjunct professor.
In the first part of this conversation, they contrasted Korean and Chinese parenting, and agreed that Korean parenting is warming. Here, they look at parental pressure and the consequences of one common view: “My child is my report card”.
Eric Youngstrom: I must admit I wasn’t familiar with this research until preparing for our interview. I’ve talked with some of my students about it though, and there were a lot of smiles and nods. But they said this is something that is also changing.
That when their parents were teenagers, their parents would hear about parental sacrifice a lot.
Today’s students are still hearing about it some, but I’ve asked them: “Does hearing about your parents’ sacrifices make you want to work harder? Or does it make you feel guilty and stressed? Does it make you feel annoyed?”
And the students nodded a lot about being stressed and annoyed. They nodded less about it making them want to work harder. They are saying that parental sacrifice is still being recognized, but that it’s all changing very, very rapidly.
Then I asked them: “What would you want to do when you are a parent? Would you want to make a list for your kids and say: ‘I’m sacrificing this, this and this, so your job is to make good grades’?”
And my students said: “No, that isn’t what I want to do. I would want recognition, but I won’t be reminding them of my sacrifices.”
So this is something that we’re saying over and over tonight. If we were just taking a picture, a snapshot, we would say yes, the parental sacrifice motivation is there. But if we were looking at a movie, we would say yes, we see a lot of that now, but there was much more of it in the past. It is changing.
I completely agree. Many of my patients’ parents grew up feeling guilty about the sacrifice of their parents. Their mothers, for example, were often trapped in abusive relationships. Many of them stayed with violent husbands for the sake of the kids. Later, their mothers would demand control of their kids’ jobs and marriages: “I stayed with your dad to keep the family together. I sacrificed my whole life for you. So you have to become a doctor.” We have seen this theme over and over again in TV dramas… But it’s definitely changing with this new generation of parents.
Eva Pomerantz suggests that Chinese mothers think, “My child is my report card”. This fits exactly with Korean mothers. What consequences do you see for child development?
I asked my students about this and they smiled and nodded and said, “Yes, I recognize that. Very, very much.” And I think that from a “how-that-will-affect-development” perspective there are probably good things and challenges.
One good thing is that parents care, and are paying a lot of attention to what is happening with their children. There’s a reason that the neglecting style of parenting is so rare in Korea. The idea of being too busy, or not paying attention to your child, not wanting them to do well, would be bizarre.
But this way of thinking does create problems with motivations. Are the big choices being made around how things will look for the parents? Or around what the teenagers want to do? What does my young adult want to do for a job or a partner? Everything can come down to “How does this look?” or “How will this reflect on me?” Parents find themselves making choices around what they want, not what the child wants.
And as the child becomes an adult, at some point the parenting is going to change from being supportive and providing structure to becoming rigid and not letting the young adult become independent.
I absolutely agree that these kinds of ideas can impair a child’s autonomy. I also think a child’s perception of their “mom” makes them feel guilty if they get bad grades. “I got a bad score so I’m not a nice son.” “I need to get an ‘A’… I need to be good at soccer.” “If I get bullied, does that make my mom a bad mother?”
So the kid feels guilty. Additionally, in my clinic, I see many mothers who feel anxious because they cannot make their child perfect. They feel like failures. They’re usually worried and unstable, some of them cry a lot, and they feel insecure when their kids talk about their school grades and lives. Is that how you see it? The kids can’t find security, the mothers can’t either, and all this stunts emotional development. These kinds of ideas have a huge effect, I think.
What the microphone is not recording is all the nodding as I’m agreeing with you. I think you’re absolutely right. And in addition to making it hard to feel secure—to become independent and autonomous—it also becomes a source of conflict as the teenager tries to say, “I want to have more input. I want to make some choices.” And you’re absolutely right, these ideas can also be a source of guilt. “I’m not doing what my parents wanted… what they expected.”
I agree completely. And one of the students today talked about how they have changed majors. They wanted to study psychology but their family had picked something else for them to study. So they spent a year having a lot of arguments. She sums it up as, “I was a bad daughter for a year and then my mother and I were able to talk. She listened and agreed I could change my major.” It wasn’t, “For a year I was trying to make my own choices.” It was, “For a year, I was a bad daughter.”
You can also read Part 1 and Part 3 of this conversation. Hyowon Kim and Eric Youngstrom would be happy to respond to your comments or questions. Feel free to direct any to our Facebook page or firstname.lastname@example.org.