Outward affection was not part of my culture growing up. I made a different decision as a mother | Parents and parenthood

VSan you imagine not kissing your children to wish them good night? Or not give them a big hug before dropping them off at school? My parents didn’t do any of those things. I was born in Australia and thought it was normal until I started primary school, where I was one of only three Chinese girls. I started noticing my Western friends’ parents hugging them and saying, “I love you” at the school gates.

At the same time, I noticed that other Chinese families, like ours, didn’t show that kind of affection. I slowly accepted that it was not part of my Chinese culture and never questioned it.

Kelly*, also Chinese, moved to Australia from Vietnam when she was nine and had a similar experience growing up. She says the affection was reserved for birthdays only. “Maybe it was a quick hug,” she said. “Then I saw on TV western people hugging and kissing. I didn’t mind, I just accepted that it was their culture.

Similarly, Gianna, who came to Australia from Taiwan when she was three, said she noticed more affection on Western TV shows and tried to do the same. “When I went to bed, I kissed Mom on the cheek. It was very rare for her to return the favor.

Even though I noticed the affection I wasn’t receiving, I never thought that my parents didn’t love me. I felt supported through their gestures. For example, if I was traveling, they gave me medicine packets, in case I got sick on the plane.

Kelly also felt her parents’ love in other ways. “After I migrated here, we moved in with Grandma and my parents worked hard to save money so we could move. That’s all for me. They always bought stuff for me, kept my room clean , just little things.

But, she says, “they didn’t say anything affectionate. They normally denounced me.

Kelly, an only child, also observed a gender difference in how children were treated. “My father’s mother often cooked her favorite dishes for the boys, but less often for the girls. They never asked the boys to clean or cook. When girls were supposed to.

“Mum told me she had to drop out of college because she needed to find a job to support her family. The boys had to join the army. Back then, unless you were smart or rich, it was hard to get into college or even finish high school. Mom studied hard and got a scholarship to go to college, but she had to turn it down.

Yingjie Guo, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney, and Joanna Zhu, a clinical psychologist at Chinese Psychological Services in Melbourne, both use the word “stoicism” to describe the Chinese approach to parenting. Guo thinks this stoic way of teaching may be because parents feel the need to toughen up their children for the world, having had to overcome their own challenges of living in a country with a huge population and fierce competition for the resources.

Anthropologist Dr. Monika Winarnita calls this style of parenting “tiger parenting.”

“Many studies characterize this as … authoritative and rigorous tactics to teach skills and work habits, to guide children towards academic success and prepare them for their future.”

This parenting style has deep roots, she says. “It goes back in part to Confucianism, an ancient Chinese philosophy, that investing in their children’s education was a way of showing affection.”

Personally, I make sense of my upbringing through Gary Chapman’s concept of the five languages ​​of love – how people communicate love and prefer to receive it. I realized that my parents’ primary love language was through acts of service. The other languages ​​are physical touch, affirmation, quality time, and gifts.

Zhu explains, “Chinese parents usually express their love through acts of service or sacrifice, such as making food. [and] work hard so that their children can have the best education. But, she says, “for children, showing more affection is critically important.”

It’s something she found in her clinical work. “Often, Chinese children say, ‘I know my parents love me, but when I’m upset, I can’t open up to them. Either they give me a solution I don’t quite agree with, or they tell me to be strong.

“When children’s feelings aren’t heard, validated, and supported, they have a harder time sharing their inner experiences with their parents.”

It’s an experience Gianna can relate to. Growing up, she says, “I felt like my problems were insignificant or a burden if I said [my parents]. I think that’s why I’m so introverted, because I’ve kept a lot of feelings to myself.

Kelly also struggled to open up with her parents. “I think I was more afraid of getting in trouble.”

Zhu says, “Chinese parents tend to assume that if they work hard to provide for their children and take care of them as best they can, their children should feel loved and will naturally bond with them. . Unfortunately, this is not always the case. »

Although Zhu says expressions of affection were not common for previous generations, she noted that “parenting practices have changed significantly over the past 20 years.”

Guo explains how here in Australia, Chinese parents seem more relaxed and are selectively adopting Western parenting techniques. In China, with a higher standard of living, less social competition, and less need to toughen up their children, parents are also more willing to show affection.

Zhu explains that aside from cultural factors, “on an individual level, if someone hasn’t received this overt expression of affection in childhood, it may be difficult for them to express it as an adult.” . But “becoming a parent allows us to reflect and decide if we are going to do something different with our children”.

Sign up to receive Guardian Australia’s weekend culture and lifestyle emails.

Gianna, who now has three children, says: “I tell my children I love them, I kiss them and hug them all the time. It’s different because we were brought up to see it happening around us.

“I feel like it was something I lacked growing up and it meant I lacked confidence. I would like to give this to my children, to make them feel more confident.

Seeing how my parents showed me their love, among other cultures here in Australia, I learned that people express their love for each other in different ways and sometimes we have to decipher it. However, as Zhu puts it, “from a child’s perspective, it’s difficult, because he hasn’t yet developed the cognitive ability to understand the unspoken loving intention.”

Like Gianna, I chose to show a lot of affection towards my own daughter. Even though I hadn’t questioned it at the time and knew my parents loved me, I made a different decision. I can feel my parents’ tiger parenting style coming out sometimes.

In a way, I became grateful to have that to pass on to him, to toughen him up for the world. However, I balance this with twice the heat. I want her to come to me if she needs help emotionally; and at four years old, I’m happy to see that she already does.

*Names have been changed

James C. Tibbs