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January 25, 2021
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Redefining Success: Letting Your Kids Choose their Own Path

If there is one thing Asian parents are known for, it’s pushing their children to reach the highest levels of
success. Unfortunately, a parent’s definition of success doesn’t always match up with their child’s. Often, Asian parents want their children to get into a prestigious school and have a career in a profession that will bring the entire family more esteem, like doctor, lawyer, engineer or a position in finance. This is slowly changing with second generation immigrant parents who live in western countries. They tend to be more accepting of their children’s ambitions for what they want to do with their lives.

While it is natural to want the best for a child and to share the knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated throughout your life, sometimes pushing kids into careers they don’t want to be in can backfire because they may end up being unhappy and, in worst-case scenarios, it can actually contribute to mental disorders or exacerbate existing ones.

This is something Jason Hung knows well. Hung’s bio certainly makes him sound successful. As a contributor to the South China Morning Post, Hung’s bio states that he: “was an intern at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Paci9c (Unescap). He works as an assistant country director of China at Global Peace Chain and he is a visiting researcher at Stanford University.” However, in an op-ed for the newspaper, Hung recounts how his parents’ nearly impossible expectations led him to developing a mental disorder that has affected his entire life. For example, he received not one, but two offers from the University College London for graduate studies. The response from his mother? “Why are they not Oxbridge offers?” (Oxbridge refers to the college systems of Oxford and Cambridge, the two most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.)

Hung calls this “results-oriented parenting” and says it has directly led to his nearly decade long battle with mental illness. A friend of his who actually did get an offer from Oxford University was also pushed early in life to get the most prestigious degree she could. But, now all she wants in life is to be happy regardless of whether she becomes an Oxford alum or not.

And that’s where changing the definition of success comes into play.

“Asian parents are often concerned about how much glory, pride and money their children can bring home, by studying at a ‘big name’ university and earning substantial sums later on,”

Hung said. “Yet, these parents overlook or forget that success can come in many forms.” Hung says he now strives for happiness and health — mentally, socially and otherwise — as his main drivers of success.

For children who grow up with mental illness, which can often be triggered by high parental expectations, success can be defined as just being “normal” and “able to interact with friends like before they had the psychiatric problems,” according to Dr May Lam, a specialist in psychiatry and co-chair of the Butterfly Programme at Variety Children’s Charity of Hong Kong.

If Asian parents who are obsessed with grades and school results want their children to be happy and want to avoid contributing to a potential mental illness, they have to change their definition of success and allow their children to pursue what brings them joy.

Here is how to do that:

1. Encourage your children to explore their own interests.

Personal interests were low on students’ priority lists when choosing a university course a couple of decades ago. Rather, it was the earning power that was front and center when choosing courses.

However, in the economy of the future, which will be defined by constant innovation and adaptability, workers are not going to be able to do their jobs on “autopilot” for decades like in the past. They will need to stay relevant by constantly learning and developing their skills. This means that only the people who are truly happy with their careers will have the drive to succeed. If you hate your career, you are going to be much less likely to want to further your skills and keep learning.

Rather than focusing solely on boosting grades, allow your children to dabble in different areas that interest them and explore what really gives them happiness.

2. Emphasize education outside of a classroom setting.

Asian students are infamous for asking: “Is this going to be on the exam?” because success is so grades-oriented that they don’t want to bother learning things that won’t affect those grades. What this leads to are excellent test takers and book learners who have trouble functioning in real society because all their knowledge comes from textbooks.

Rather than focusing so much on just learning to take exams, children should be encouraged to fully explore
whatever subject they happen to be interested in, even outside the classroom. Kids are inquisitive and being able to fully explore a subject on their own time will lead to good learning habits for the future. Again, though, this is only possible with subjects that they are truly interested in.

Building a portfolio that shows true interest in a subject is likely to be more important in the future than just having good grades when applying for universities, so putting more focus on outside-the-classroom exploration of a subject will be important.

3. Trust your children.

At the core of most Asian parents’ push for academic success is a lack of trust. Parents don’t trust that their
children will make the “right” decisions that will lead to a successful career with major earning potential. But, major earning potential might not be at the top of your child’s priority list. Like Hung and his friend, happiness might be at the top of their list instead and that may or may not lead to a high-earning career.

Trust your kids to know what’s best for their own happiness and try to understand that happiness is more important for some people than a fat bank account. Success is a multi-faceted idea that does not just have one clear indicator. All parents want their children to have fulfilling careers and be financially secure, but happiness should also factor into what defines success, too.

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