IT IS easy to send mixed signals to your children. One minute you allow them to make decisions for themselves, the next, you are disciplining them for the consequences of their choices.
Many Malaysian parents in the city face the dilemma of which parenting style to follow – Asian or western. They are overwhelmed by what they read in parenting books and online. Everyone seems to be an expert and each one suggests a different way to parent your children. So, which should you choose – Asian or western?
Charis Wong, counselling psychologist, and marriage and family therapist at Kin & Kids, says that parents need to sit down and strategise which values and cultures they want to adopt in their family and work on that, rather than choosing one particular style of parenting.
Wong worked in the US for the first three years of her working life, at a family-based centre, where she mainly counselled parents and teens. She dealt with only one Asian family during that time. On returning to Malaysia, she had to adapt to working with local families and understanding the local culture.
“Although I am from Malaysia, sometimes when you have been abroad for some time, you look at things differently. When I started my practice in Malaysia six years ago, I was in Mont Kiara. About 50% of my clients were expatriates. So, I dealt more with the western parenting style. Now, because we have moved the office to Petaling Jaya, we get more Malaysian clients,” says the mum of four-year-old triplets.
Our parents’ generation might have been very Asian-based but today’s parents are very much exposed to western culture. Many have studied abroad and with TV, movies and the Internet, western culture has crept into our daily lives, and the western parenting style has influenced many young parents. However, being in Malaysia where our elders still crow about the benefits of Asian parenting, young parents are divided over which is better.
The consequence of which is that parents sometimes try to blend the western style with Asian parenting. The result is a confused child trying to make sense of their parents’ stance.
“The classic Asian parent is pretty much involved in their children’s lives and make a lot of decisions for them. Whereas with western parenting, because it is more individualistic and independence is valued, parents tend to encourage their children to be more independent,” says Wong.
An example of this is how parents deal with a baby who doesn’t want to sleep and keeps crying. Western parents tend to let their babies cry a bit longer so they can soothe themselves to sleep, while Asian parents would prefer to pick up their babies immediately, fearing the child will fall ill if he cries for a long period of time.
Another example is the use of corporal punishment. In western countries it is deemed as child abuse, while spanking and caning are still acceptable in Asian countries like Malaysia, except for extreme cases.
When she worked in the US, Wong was trained on what amounts to child abuse. If she noted any physical harm or injury to a child, she had to report it to the Child Protective Services.
“This is very different in Malaysia where these things do not amount to a crime unless you have a very serious case of abuse. It’s considered more of a family issue here. So, if your child gets caned and there are cane marks on his leg and he runs to the police here, they are not going to do anything about it. In the US, there will be a hue and cry and Child Protective Services will open an investigation and if they’re not happy with what they find, they will take your kids away. Then they will make you go for parenting classes. You will have to go to court and say that you are now ready to take your kids back. There will then be a case worker to make random visits to make sure you are no longer abusing your kids,” says Wong.
While many children were caned in the 60s and 70s, today some parents no longer believe in the power of the cane, preferring to reason with their children and use other forms of punishment like removing privileges.
“There are some things which are not just a matter of perception, such as physical punishment. For psychologists, we go on validated research, and research has shown time and again that physical punishment is detrimental to a child,” explains Wong.
Dealing with conflict
“Different parenting styles have their pros and cons. Which is better really depends on your individual culture and values.
“The big problem with conflicting parenting styles is the risk of inconsistent parenting which is very confusing for children. The child will think on one hand you give me so much freedom to decide, but then after that you get frustrated with me and cane me or scold me. So, the child gets confused. That is the danger when blending parenting styles,” says Wong.
She believes it is very normal for parents to want the best for their children by taking elements of the west and east. However, if parents feel they are not consistent or if they are unsure of how to deal with an issue, then they should look at research findings for the best parenting strategies.
“There are established parenting strategies that I think will work across the board. As a parent coach, I often tell parents which strategies will work. It is my responsibility as a parent coach to be able to say that this is what research has shown us.
“For example, parents should give their children choices but within limits. One of the things I tell parents is, little kids, little choices; bigger kids, bigger choices. So, we only give them choices that are within their capacity to decide.
“For a small child you can ask them to decide if they want to have their bath or dinner first. That is something they can decide.
“I think we have to take the best from both the Asian and western parenting styles especially now that the world has become smaller. We can learn from each other’s cultures,” says Wong.
It helps to strategise your parenting style from the time your children are small.
“We should aim for conscious parenting – knowing why you do something and whether it fits your family.
“There are so many parenting books that people can get confused; which method do I use? A lot of these books will say the same thing, and in that case if you use these strategies you will probably not go wrong. But if some books are a little stricter or a little lax, then you need to sit down and think about which one would work for you and your child.
“Some principles are universal like parent-child attachment. It is so important for the child to have a strong and meaningful bond with the parents,” says Wong.
While parents pick and choose what they want to implement in their family, they should be mindful that what worked for their parents may not work for them because the children of today are very different from those of the past.
For example, our children are digital natives. So children today learn faster and know more. Some things that were effective for you as a child, may no longer be effective on your children.
In addition, each child’s personality is different so what works in one family may not work in another. There are some kids who are more sensitive and harsh punishment may not work on them. Instead, it may have an adverse effect as it may hurt them to the core and break their spirit.
Keep in mind that consistency is key when it comes to parenting. Take time out on a regular basis to ponder if you have been sending mixed signals to your child.