What happens at the playground when Asian parents come to play

On the struggle to figure out what my parenting style is

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I took my kids out to play at a local playground, one that we fondly call, “the school yard,” situated behind an elementary school two blocks from our home. As we arrived, we saw two familiar faces — a little girl, whom I’ll call Lucy, and her father. Lucy lives with her parents and a younger sibling in an apartment around the corner of ours, but it wasn’t until the past three weeks when the weather has taken a turn for the better that I began to see the two of them at the playground. In the past, he would usually let her play by herself while he pushed a baby around in a stroller. This time, it was different.

On this particular day, there was no baby in a stroller, just Lucy and her dad. When we arrived, she was sitting on a pink and teal bike, fully equipped with knee pads and a sturdy helmet. She sat there solemnly while her dad glared at her from a distance.

Where we live, I don’t usually see Asian families with small children playing outside. My neighborhood is considered one of the most affluent neighborhoods in town, and the children that typically frequent the school’s playground are Caucasian children, sometimes Indian. For all the years that I’ve gone to this place, there’s hardly been any Asian children playing there on a regular basis. Because of this fact, Lucy and her dad piqued my interest. And what I witnessed there in the next ten minutes was such a profound difference in parenting, one that I haven’t seen for a very long time. It made me question my own parenting style.

As Lucy continued to sit on her bike, refusing to move, her dad barked at her from afar. At that moment, I wish I understood what he was saying, but I presumed that it must be instructions in Chinese. Such words must’ve been harsh, for she started crying. She cried and cried and cried. She’s freaking out. It’s clear that she was in distress and didn’t want to try anymore.

At this moment in time, an American parent would feel bad and say, “It’s okay. I can help you,” and he or she would stand next to the child and hold the handle bars, guiding her while verbally explaining how to keep herself balanced while pedaling. And together, with words of encouragement, they would ride off into the sunset.

But for this Chinese father and his 5 ½ year old daughter, it was the opposite. He refused to help her no matter how much she cried. Instead, he yelled at her some more in Chinese, and she spewed back some angry responses.

Was his method harsh? Of course it is. But it works, for just thirty minutes after I began observing her, Lucy was able to ride her bike from one end of the playground to the other without falling. It was an incredible sight.

This example of harsh parenting practices reminds me of a scene in the movie “The Glass Castle,” based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls, of her inauspicious upbringing in the West Virginia mountains. There’s a scene where Jeannette is at the pool with her father on a hot summer day, and he’s trying to teach her how to swim. Instead of teaching her the old-fashioned way — slow and steady — he throws her into the water several times without any warning. Finally, she emerged from the pool and runs away from her father, all the while gasping for air and crying uncontrollably.

When he finally caught up with her in the parking lot, they had a conversation, in which she said, “You tried to kill me!”

He assured her that he would never hurt her.

“I can’t let you cling to the side your whole life just ’cause you’re scared. If you don’t want to sink then you gotta learn how to swim,” he told her.

I remember thinking back then, as I watched the scene, that her father was being harsh, cruel even. I didn’t realize at the time, but the words uttered by Jeannette’s father was a lesson in resilience and about overcoming your struggles. Not only did Jeannette learn how to swim, she escaped her poverty-stricken environment and became a successful journalist.

Now, as I was standing there watching Lucy and her father, the scene from the movie played again in my mind, because I think Lucy’s father is also trying to teach her a very important lesson — that success doesn’t happen overnight. Struggles are inevitable, and patience is virtue. He knew, just like Jeannette’s father, that she is fully and physically capable of learning a new skill, but in order to be successful, she has to actually try. After all, practice makes perfect. She shouldn’t let failure stop her from wanting to try again.

This is an important lesson that I want to teach my kids early in life, but as an Asian American parent raising two biracial kids in America, I struggle with figuring out which mode of parenting would be the most suitable for them. Avoiding trauma and keeping your children safe are the core tenements of any modern parent. Despite the number of parenting books that exists, there is not a single guide on how to be a perfect parent. It is a “learn as you go” type of experience. There are different types of parenting styles, and most of us can be classified into one of the four styles — authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved.

It’s no surprise that today’s parents are extremely involved in their children’s lives. From actively engaging at the playground to chaperoning field trips to helping their adult children with finances, there isn’t anything that a modern parent won’t do. To me, though, that style of parenting can be very detrimental because it teaches them that when things get tough, mom and dad will come to the rescue. Humans, as mammals, are equipped with survival tendencies — we do whatever is necessary to stay alive in the face of adversity, when choices are limited. We all know that there is not enough resources to go around, so struggles are a part of life.

Nowadays, it’s generally not socially acceptable to leave your children by themselves. That’s why many parents, including myself, play with their children at the park, the library, and any place that’s designed for children. I remember the first time I saw Lucy at the school yard with her father, he was a disengaged parent. He sat far away, on a bench and browsed his phone, while his daughter played with other children, including my daughter. And surprisingly, this little girl proved to be an outgoing and independent spirit. She didn’t need her father to play with her at all. They were both perfectly content in their locations.

But to an observer, this would be considered “distracted parenting” and would be frowned upon by other parents. I admit, I was one of those parents. Now, upon reflecting on my own upbringing, I understood, as a fellow Asian parent, that what he is doing is not such a bad thing. He’s teaching her independence. He’s allowing her to socialize with other children without help, so long as she stays within the confines of the playground.

I remember as a little kid growing up in Vietnam, I was allowed to roam free. It was what one might call “free range parenting” today. My mom worked a lot, and my dad wasn’t exactly the best at supervision. Still, he knew that in our small community where everyone knew each other, there wasn’t many places that I could go. It was either a neighbor’s, a relative, or my grandparents’ house. Otherwise, I was at school.

However, I also realized that at home, my parents had completely opposite parenting styles. While my dad was more permissive, my mom was more authoritarian. And because I had grown up under such differences, I strive to be a different type of parent — somewhere in the middle. I don’t want to be permissive, and yet I am sometimes. I also don’t want to be so strict, and yet I am sometimes. I can’t seem to figure out which direction I should go.

What I do want is for my daughter to be a free roaming, independent spirit who’s not afraid of failure. But how can I expect her to be that way when her childhood is so incredibly different than mine? As a parent, one must bridge the gap between their own personal values and what their society values.

Currently, my husband is also teaching Lily how to ride a bike. And so far, she’s doing good. But for what it’s worth, she needs a little extra push. She’s very hesitant of new people and new things. As of late, he and I have been slowly inching our way back, away from her and her brother at the playground, to allow the two of them to do as they please, while other (Caucasian) parents continue to be involved.

I realize that this not how everyone wishes to parent, but for us, two individuals who came from a combination of permissive and authoritarian parenting styles, we think that children should be children, and one of the best things that you can do for them is allow them to figure things out on their own and to learn how to get along with others without help, for these skills will no doubt help them spread their wings and fly away in the future.

Editor @ BooknBrunch. Writer who focuses on Asian American identity, language & culture; occasionally business and finance. More at hoangsamuelson.com

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