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Asian Parents Who Say 'I Criticize Because I Care'

When disapproval is used as a love language.

I was having a session with Winston, a Chinese male, and his father. Winston was a junior in college who sought counseling because the arguments between him and his father had escalated to the point that they would get into yelling matches. Their fights had turned so epic that one time the neighbors had called the police to report a disturbance. It was at that time that they decided to seek counseling.

During the first session with Winston and his dad, Winston explained to me how their relationship started to fracture. “Dad and I got along really well when I was in elementary school. I remember we would go to baseball games together and would go on camping trips. But once I reached junior high, things fell apart. He started criticizing everything I do: my grades, my friends, my clothes. He even criticizes the way I stand. I can’t slouch for a second or from across the room he’ll yell, “Stand up straight!” Winston had a sad look on his face. “I miss the days when I could just hang out with my dad and the conversation wouldn’t be about my grades or my future career."

Winston’s father looked visibly upset. I asked him, “Winston says that you criticize him a lot. Do you agree?”

Dad’s reply was one I had heard before multiple times in sessions with Asian parents. “It is because he is my son that I criticize him. If he was a random stranger on the street, I wouldn’t bother pointing out his flaws. But since he’s a member of my family, it is my responsibility to tell him how to improve. It’s because I care that I criticize.”

To which Winston responded sarcastically, “Gee, thanks. Lucky me.”

Disapproval as Love

Winston’s father’s response was one I had heard from many Asian parents when their child protests the criticism they receive. The parents, often well-meaning, think that by harshly and continually pointing out their child’s flaws, that they are doing them a favor. They think that if their children were more aware of their shortcomings, they would be more motivated to fix them.

“Otherwise, how else will they know when they’re doing something wrong?” the parents reason.

This criticism-heavy style of parenting falls in the realm of Tiger Parenting where disapproval or the fear of disapproval is used as a tool for motivation. Positive reinforcement or words of approval are doled out very sparingly. Some Tiger Parents even fear that by giving too much praise they risk making their child lazy.

The Eye of the Tiger (Parent)

To be fair, I understand why a parent might resort to this type of parenting style. From the perspective of the Tiger Parent, they see their disapproval-laden style not as problematic, but as absolutely the right thing to do.

One of the reasons they resort to this parenting style is that at times disapproval and criticism-based parenting can be effective, in a sense. When within a child, a seed of self-criticism is planted, I have seen cases where the quest for approval, or the quest to prove themselves, is what drives them to achieve many things — whether it is the admission into a top-ranked school, the obtaining of a high-status career, or the accumulation of wealth. Some of the greatest human achievements were accomplished by those who had something to prove.

Parents, seeing that it can be effective, use the tool of disapproval and criticism in hopes that it motivates them to do better and work harder. As a way to “encourage” their children, a parent might say something like, “You ended up in second place? Shame on you. Next time, it’s first place or nothing.” Children will internalize this message that anything less than perfection is not good enough and, at times, will use the fear of falling short as a fuel source.

But at some point, things break down.

The unfortunate result, I have witnessed, is that at some point, rather than motivating a child, it does more to discourage them. Experience and research have proven how “feeling bad” is a faulty fuel source. Sure, guilt and shame—or rather the drive to rid oneself of these feelings—can help spur you to achieve great things. But more often than not, instead of bringing about growth, success, and achievement, guilt often brings discouragement, feelings of inferiority, and potentially a whole host of psychological issues.

If this psychological toll doesn’t occur in the short term, it will show up sometime down the line. I have seen it in many clients of all ages, from preschoolers to seniors, that disapproval-based motivation will make them feel more miserable, no matter what level of achievement one has achieved. The setbacks occur in some other form whether it is broken relationships, depression, or anxiety.

The most common after-effects of Tiger Parenting I have seen are in two emotional struggles: anxiety and depression. The anxiety is from the fear of not being good enough in the future. The depression from the discouragement of not having achieved enough in the past. Shame, as it turns out, will more often than not sabotage rather than support a person’s success—when success is defined more broadly as emotional, relational, and career thriving.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

My intention is not to put down Tiger Parents. They often mean well. And very often their heart is in the right place. They want their children to succeed and live a happy life. But it is a happy life as they have defined it based on the culture they have grown up in.

A common framework that gets used is the distinction between intent and impact. The intent may be good. But the impact harmful. The saying does ring true that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. The picture gets further complicated when the child becomes an adult later grows to appreciate the tough love from a Tiger Parent and decides to perpetuate the generational pattern with their children.

A Story of Too Much Hand Sanitizer

When a child does get discouraged and either gives up or rebels against their parents, a common response from parents is to double down on their criticism. The parents think if they do not tighten their grip on their child, that they will slip further down into lacking motivation. The parents do not recognize how it was the criticism and the resulting discouragement that contributed to their child’s lack of motivation.

I often cite the example of a client whose children kept getting sick. This parent was overly concerned with germs to the degree that before giving his children water, he would boil it, then run it through a filter. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were always at the ready. Everything in the home was disinfected and wiped down. But strangely, his children got more sick than others.

When his children did get sick, he doubled down on the cleanliness. He didn’t realize that by keeping his home so clean, he may have contributed to his children having a weakened immune system. If I were to ask the father, “do you want to make your child sick?” he would of course say no. But it is ironic that his intended actions were providing the exact opposite of what he wanted—illness in his kids. His path toward achieving a certain goal was the very thing that took him further away from it.

Solutions

For parents I see in my office, I have a few tips to help them undo this style. But first I mention to them how I understand it is hard. There is a deep fear that if they let go of the grip of disapproval, their child will flounder. They think acceptance and praise are paths to failure.

I try my best to encourage parents to incorporate a motivation based on the positive, rather than avoiding a negative. Rather than to live a life based on the fear of disappointing your parents, fear of looking bad in front of others, or fear of judgment, the child needs to seek the joy of victory. The desire to make the world better. Artistic expression. Unconditional love. There should be no hesitation to give praise to their child when they put effort into a project.

When they work based on a foundation of approval, they can do good work out of a full tank. A drive based on love, passion, and from a base of acceptance is a much more effective fuel. And the results are longer lasting. A stable sense of self, a secure attachment to their parents, and the awareness that they are loved will help the child spark their desire to learn, endure failure, and have that grit that so many speak about that helps them fight through the challenges of life.

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