Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Kohn Head

[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]

Whenever the subject of Asian parents and discipline comes up, I think of Russell Peters’ skit about his dad and spankings.

BigWOWO posted a reaction to Alfie Kohn’s article on “unconditional parenting.” As Daniel Willingham aptly points out, Alfie Kohn “has made a virtual industry out of finding interesting and provocative insights” on education and child development. On the Britannica blog (Yes, the encyclopedia people), the comments to Kohn’s reaction to Willingham’s reaction to his work is the best indication of how successful he is at what he does.

I don’t believe his critics. In fact, I agree with most of Kohn’s initial assertions. He’s right when he says that parents should love their children unconditionally. He makes a good point in his criticism of the Supernanny. Her solutions do seem superficial and temporary. And I do agree that homework for homework’s sake is counterproductive. The purpose of homework is to practice skills (both newly acquired and existing).

I like the ideas of student-directed curriculum and child-centered parenting. The former being the consideration of students’ interests and concerns in the application of classroom curriculum. The latter being the inclusion of the child’s voice in serious family decisions.

However, as practice they are flawed. Student-directed and child-centered approaches place premature burdens on the audience they seek to serve. Children do not yet have the life experiences for the cognition Kohn is demanding of them. In the case of the former, consistently appealing to a child’s interest does not provide him or her with the strategies needed to contend with moments of tedium or instances when other’s interests supersede his or her own. Without strategies for tedium, the child will most likely give up when a problem is too hard and he or she feels bored and frustrated.

In the latter, the child is thrown into a sink-or-swim situation. Without the prior experiences to navigate the nuances of social relationships or the powers at play, children can easily make potentially harmful decisions. Or they are simply expected “to know” without reasonable preparation or experience. It is the difference between asking a five year old: “Do you know why what you did was wrong?” and telling that five year old: “What you did was wrong because XYZ could have gotten hurt.”

Kohn was the daddy I wanted when I was 13. The permissive daddy who never shouted and never spanked. Who would coo and coddle me even when I failed my tests. My Baba is the daddy I am happy I got at 21. Unlike a Kohn Daddy, my Baba set down rules and helped me understand that rationality and morality were subjective. They rely heavily on a person’s cultural sensibilities and understanding of the world. And the world is often very Kafka-esque, possessed of a hermetic logic.

Now, a father myself, I have an even greater respect for the sacrifices my parents made for me. And I don't mean material sacrifices. I mean the emotional ones of denying me a car when I was a teenager because they knew I liked to go out and more often than not over do it in libations. I hated them at the time but now it's different. Now I have a context for the past. Now I realize that they made tough choices and placed themselves in the roles of villains because they were guarding my well being and nurturing my potential.

I believe our children depend on us to make decisions when they are either unprepared to or unwilling to. They depend on us as parents to willingly be the bad guys for their greater good. I am not a fan of “free range” parenting promoted by Kohn. And I can’t help wondering how many of the college students Assor, Roth, and Deci interviewed were culturally Asian. I bring culture up because I wonder if the interviewee's feelings of estrangement are consequences of something other than their failures or a lack of coddling.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

“Gwoye Fan”

[Cross posted at Cranial Gunk]

When you make fried rice, you use rice that’s been in the fridge overnight (“gwoye faan” in Cantonese). You don’t use fresh rice right out of the cooker.

The other thing you don’t do when making fried rice is you don’t cook everything all together, all at once. I mean you can, but I’m pretty sure my Dad would give you his patented WTF-look. It’s not a look of anger or reproach. It’s more on the lines of “if you’re not going to do it right, please step out of my kitchen.”

It’s been so long since I posted to Rice Daddies that it didn’t feel right to repost or cross-post something from Cranial Gunk (my personal blog). Happily, other Rice Daddies have been composing some really thoughtful pieces and sharing some really interesting links. I tried to leave comments on the posts that really struck me, but had too much to say for just a line or two.

So here I am with my gwoye faan, my eggs, spring onions, and my Birds Eye Classic Mixed Vegetables, to make you some of my Dad’s “chaau faan.”

How do other Rice Daddies feel about Jon Gosselin? I think he is making some very foolish decisions right now in a belated effort to assert his identity and redirect the course his family has taken. I feel that a lot of unflattering reports are a result of his being a public figure without a savvy public relations team.

Obiwanhavanese posted about his anxieties regarding his son not learning his parents’ native language. I’ve also had the same fears. Currently, despite starting early with my eldest, we cannot say that he speaks Chinese. He remembers numbers and a phrase here and there but not well enough to actually use them with any automaticity.

However, it’s not his problem or his brother’s. It’s our problem, their mother and mine. The children want to learn but among the hindrances is the fact that neither their mother or I speak Mandarin (the Chinese that their mother and my parents say the kids should learn). Their mother speaks Vietnamese and I speak Cantonese. My parents (native Cantonese speakers) speak a little Mandarin but are not fluent enough to help the children learn. In fact, part of the problem is that my own Asian-born immigrant parents prefer to speak English to the children!

Malcolm Gladwell spends a good deal of Outliers speaking to the impact of “cultural legacy” in shaping success and Karen the Californian alludes to the social expectations of an Asian face mouthing Asian words. While I maintain my belief that learning Chinese is important for my children, I also acknowledge language is only one cultural transmitter. Language helps but there are other ways to perpetuate a cultural legacy.

In the opening of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a pregnant Indian woman living in Boston, combines

Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl. She adds salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chili pepper, wishing there were mustard oil to pour into the mix… a humble approximation of a snack sold of pennies on Calcutta sidewalks.

There are differences between Asian culture and Asian American culture. Food is another cultural transmitter. Lahiri’s description of a woman’s attempt to recall her home country through a self-concocted recipe is an example of this difference.

Now let’s go back to Jon. Current circus aside, there was a painful episode of Jon & Kate Plus 8 where he “teaches” his children about his culture. Jon’s mother is Korean (which brings up the interesting question – Why doesn’t he assume his father’s culture as his culture?)

I agree with Racialious, the episode was atrocious and upsetting because it promoted several Asian stereotypes. In this day and age, it is not outrageous to expect both Jon and Kate to be more racially sensitive. In the show, Jon talks to the camera about his “culture.” I wonder if he identifies himself as an Asian American or if the designation was put upon him by the show’s producers seeking to expand the show’s demographics?

Back to Obiwanhavanese’s dilemma, as Asian Americans how important is it for our children to speak our parent’s language? Do you think the Gosselin children will learn Korean? Does their father?

Assuming our children do not speak the ancestral “mother tongue” (it is a given that mine don’t because Mandarin is not my mother’s tongue) can what is lost be replaced by another cultural transmitter?

Part of the challenge of identifying yourself as Asian American is determining which is Asian and which is American? Identifying yourself as Asian American necessitates the establishment of new common “norms,” traditions, or practices that distinguish the categorization from identifying yourself as Asian.