Even Flawed Parents Can Raise Good (Bicultural) Kids

More Obligatory Disclaimers

Don’t want to come across as a sanctimonious, childrearing know-it-all, so let’s start with this: I’m as flawed as the next parent. Maybe more. By now I’ve made every parental mistake known to man. Truly wish I could lay claim to being a great dad. Not saying I was a bad dad, mind you, maybe a tad above average. C+ is a fair grade.

Of course a C+ is nothing to brag about, but it comes under the heading, “it is what it is”. The good news is I’ve since evolved beyond a C+, or at least that’s my subjective self-critique at this moment in time. In the end, how my kids turn out–and how they “grade” me–is really all that matters. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to get better.

I wasn’t always so critical of my parenting skills. In the heat of parenthood you’re not sure if you’re doing a good job or not, so you just do what seems right at the time and hope for the best.

But if you pay attention, the great learning moments come from your children, as they tend to reflect back at you your own attributes and imperfections. (It’s kind of creepy, like looking at your younger self in a mirror.) But it’s always a priceless “aha” moment, because it makes you realize you could be a better parent by modeling better behavior.

It took awhile but I eventually learned that getting crazy and emotional is both ineffective and counterproductive, certainly in raising children. Learning to remove emotionally charged feelings (anger, frustration, disappointment, etc.) from interactions was a huge challenge, particularly when administering discipline.

It’s hard to shake old habits and behaviors, and indeed I grew up in an emotionally demonstrative, Irish-American family: when things were going well we all smiled and laughed and hugged. But when things got contentious, it was fireworks and drama!

Life in a traditional Japanese household is a far cry from the emotional ups and downs endemic to American culture, certainly when I compare childhood memories to my wife’s low-key family in the sleepy hills of Atami Japan.

For better or for worse, I eventually adopted the Japanese tendency to control (and mask) emotions in contentious situations, although I’m not nearly as effective as my wife in pulling it off. Looking at how my children turned out, both are firmly in control of their emotions. In fact I can’t remember the last time either of them had an emotional outburst. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Grady has ever had an outburst, even as a young child. Creepy. A Stepford child!

The Missing Child Manual

To paraphrase the old cliché, “they don’t give you a manual with your newborns”. Parents are indeed stuck learning their craft on the job.

So like all parents I went through some challenging times with my kids.  Made so many mistakes, not realizing at the time that I had the power and influence to mitigate these challenges. I just hadn’t yet met that “aha” moment that happens went you stop focusing on the fault of others and look in the mirror. If you’re really paying attention then time has a way of humbling you. It was just a matter of time before I saw the light.

I also got some help from childrearing literature that’s available in print and on the Internet. I started reading up on the subject about nine months before my first was born. I’ve been reading psychology and related literature off and on since. Some good information is out there. So is a lot of crap. My take is that there’s way too much complexity in the field of psychology–specifically in the cryptic, inaccessible verbiage they use–and not nearly enough common-sense-straight-talk. It reminds me of my college major, Cultural Anthropology, an art trying to be “legit” by masquerading as a science. It’s easy: just make up a bunch of fancy words, emphasize  the use of scientific method, and poof, you’re now officially a science!

All the fancy words in the world don’t change the fact that childrearing is an art.

Admittedly that claim doesn’t make raising children any easier. But let’s not pretend it’s rocket science either.

And granted, some so-called “experts” oversimplify childrearing. How about those defenders of corporeal punishment? (“Just keep smacking the child until he stops doing it!”) Just when I thought we were past that, it seems to be making a comeback in some circles.

When my children were still in their late teens I stumbled onto a gem of a book while researching the topic of leadership. Mining for ideas and concepts to use in a leadership seminar for a client, I discovered Leadership and Self-Deception (by Arbinger Group). The book really hit home with me and supplied enough “aha” moments to last a lifetime; it inspired me to reach out to my older son, an action that I believe brought us closer. I still reread the book occasionally just to remind myself of areas I need to work on.

A few years later the same authors published a prequel to Leadership, called Anatomy of Peace. Once again, a worthy, soul-searching read.

Both books are written in an engaging style with interesting characters and a storyline; both books inspired reflection on the nature of my relationship with my family; both books compelled me to look inward and change.

The point of mentioning these books is that I sure wish I had read them 25 years ago! I’d have been a better father and husband for it. That said, it was well worth the read even late into my parenting years. If you’re a reflective type of person like I am, then these books are keepers.

My Wretched Wife

Thankfully for me, my “wretched wife” Kurumi is much closer to perfection than I am. And somehow, with the help of her indomitable Samurai spirit, she’s been able to offset most of my parental deficiencies. She was born to be a great wife and mother, but she’s great in lots of other ways too, including teaching, coordinating, and leading people (to name just a few). My wife is absolutely the rock and foundation of our home, always consistent, always reliable. Without her we’d be lost.

You might remember the quote at the beginning of the previous post: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” I opened with it because luck really applies to my situation, particularly to how my children turned out; I’m extremely lucky to have found a quality mate–a best friend (from a different culture mind you!)–who shares my core values. And it created the ideal situation to raise our children as a cohesive team, and made it effortless in instilling the best of both cultures into our childrearing methods.

Sadly not all families are this lucky.

My Wretched Children

In Japan it’s obligatory to bash your spouse and offspring, especially if they don’t at all deserve it. So here we go, in the spirit of intercultural discourse, indulge me while I verbally flog my two wretched sons.

Indeed the boys are far from perfect. What did you expect? Flawed parents create flawed children and the vicious cycle continues.

Nor is either of our children equally proficient in both Japanese and English languages. Their first language is without a doubt English, although Ry’s early years in Japan combined with six more there as an adult, nudges him to borderline native-level Japanese.

But neither of them make their bed, neither puts the toilet seat down. They are wretched, worthless, no-good sons, and if you ever meet them I sincerely ask for your indulgence! 🙂

Oyabaka Alert

Anyone can raise wretched kids, so why listen to me? This is where I take off my “Japanese hat”, put on my American “oyabaka” hat, and give my kids the credit they deserve. After all, without them I’ve got nothing to hang my words on.

Speaking to the bilingual issue raised in my previous post, even though both sons are functionally bilingual, both are exceptional in spoken and written English.

When Grady was still in 3rd grade, for example, he scored four years ahead of himself on a standardized writing test. Basically he was writing at a middle-school level when he was eight years old. At a school conference his teacher explained Grady’s writing skill as such (I paraphrase): “this level of writing is rare for a third-grader; what’s unusual is Grady’s ability to string together related thoughts in sequence and logically connect the sentences.”

Never really looked at writing that way until then, but when the teacher analyzed an example of Grady’s writing it made total sense; and we realized for the first time, that Grady’s writing ability was well advanced for his age.

Even today this facility with the English language is evident not only in both our sons’ ability to write, but also in their ability to give an extemporaneous speech, and do it in a humorous, engaging way.

As for Grady’s Japanese proficiency, it is functional, a bit lean on vocabulary, but nothing that a couple years in Japan wouldn’t cure. It’s one of several options Grady will explore in the post-college phase of his life.

Grady, a b-boy and dance instructor, wrote the following:

As b-boys, not only do we defy gravity, but we USE the laws of physics. We don’t obey them, we don’t succumb to them, we make them our tools. And with these tools, we use our creativity and our movements to make art like no one has ever seen before. Expression at its finest.

As for Ry, he’s always had the gift of bilingual gab. (Check out Ry’s blog to sample his English gab.) But these last six years in Japan really kicked his Japanese up another notch. He’s now very articulate in both languages, with (of course) a decisive nod to English. Still, his Japanese is impressive. A bit of envy from dad…

So much for the theory of bilingual kids not being able to gain more than marginal ability in either language.

Bottom line is my kids are far from perfect. And yet with all their wretched moments, they’re so much better than their dad was at their age. And with two cultures and languages to draw from they can only keep getting better than dad, evolution in action. What more could a father ask for?

So to tie my parental ramblings together, samurai wife gets all the props for good parenting. My claim to fame is that my kids somehow turned out okay in spite of me.

Indeed, I’d rather be lucky than good.

Parenting Is Easier When Spouses Click

Bicultural issues aside, if you and your spouse are genuinely fond of each other, and spend time to communicate and get on the same page, then raising cool kids gets a whole lot easier. This applies to all spouses of course, although two-culture spouses will in most cases have a tougher time filling the gaps.

Whatever your cultural background may be, if you and your spouse are best friends, then you’re as good as gold.

Short of having a great relationship with your spouse, the next best option is to work on building a loving relationship with said spouse. Admittedly, easier said than done, especially if you’re fighting like cats everyday. Still, it’s always worth a try, if for no other reason than for the good of your  kids. Mutual and sincere self-reflection usually gets the best results, yet another reason to read The Anatomy of Peace.

But we all know that sometimes you just can’t make the relationship work. If you can’t at least get on the same page from a childrearing perspective then the child’s likely better off with one parent playing a dominant role in rearing the child (ideally the more mature and capable of the two). The sad reality is that divorce or separation is sometimes the best option when the relationship is harming the emotional well-being of the children.

Short of the above options, all that’s left is frustrated, dysfunctional parents pulling the kid in different directions, an ideal way to truly “confuse” everyone.

Don’t misunderstand my point: good kids can be raised by single parents, but man, it’s like climbing a mountain with an arm and leg missing: possible, but a much tougher journey. Yes I know single parents who have climbed that mountain and, for the record, I’m in awe of them. (Check out this link for an inspiring article about my son’s friend.)

Most folks would agree that it’s s lot easier to have a loving mate climb that mountain with you.

To be continued…

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2011


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s