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If you’re like me, an Asian-American parent of teenagers, you might be thinking about using Thanksgiving week to take stock of what your kids need to do in the remaining weeks of this semester to improve their grades. Because if they don’t, it might tank their chances of getting into a good college, right?
No doubt that’s important, but I’d like to raise another issue to consider: to also take note of the stress that our adolescent children may be under, and what our culture and parenting have to do with it. On Halloween night, an Asian-American student from my kids’ high school disappeared for five days. His distraught mother pleaded with him on social media to come home, conveying deep regret for the pressures she might have placed on him. When he thankfully returned, he said that he had left in an unhealthy frame of mind and had been contemplating suicide.
Rising Rates of Depression and Anxiety: What’s Behind the Trend?
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Among Asian-Americans, depression diagnoses rose 104% and anxiety disorders 97% after the onset of the COVID pandemic, the highest increase among any ethnic/racial group, with 64% of Asian-American adolescents reporting being targets of racism, also the highest of any group. At the same time, the vulnerability of Asian-American youth is compounded by several other factors. First, the model minority stereotype, which, paradoxically, may lead educators and others to neglect and ignore their problems, under the mistaken assumption that Asian-Americans are all doing fine and don’t need help or support. Second, the high achievement orientation among many Asian-American parents — the drive to succeed as measured by grades and admission into elite colleges — may place a heavier burden than we might realize. Children absorb our expectations keenly; the “succeed at all costs” mentality creates tunnel vision in which other essential aspects of their development and well-being are overlooked, by us and by them. Finally, many Asian cultures are collectivistic, placing the well-being of the group above the individual. Each individual is like one part of a whole body. I’ve explained this perspective to westernized friends like this: I’m just an arm. The arm is important but not as important as the whole body. Asian-American kids therefore learn to adapt their individual needs to fit into the family’s values, which means living up to parental expectations.
What Can Parents Do?
Many Asian-American parents naturally follow the template from which we ourselves were raised. As immigrants or children of immigrants, we single-mindedly pursued educational achievement, often at the expense of social and emotional development, because economic survival was at stake. While we have made it into the middle class and our kids don’t have the same economic imperatives, they live in a world that’s much different, with arguably more threats to their sense of security. The COVID pandemic; overt, blatantly racist attacks; fear and uncertainty about a world threatened by the global climate crisis, and so on.
The night that the high school senior returned home, I asked my kids to talk to me if they ever felt like they couldn’t manage or felt too stressed, that there were solutions that I could help them with. I told them that in our home, we’re not going to define success by grades or GPA, or whether they get into Harvard or Stanford. We will define success by how they manage and balance their lives, with all the elements that are important in addition to school: participating in their respective sports, pursuing other interests (which includes video games!), time with friends and family, and most importantly, sleep. (Above all, I insist on sleep.) I might have added: ethics, kindness, and integrity, but that is embedded in everything you do rather than what you say.
The Costs of Relentless Striving
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Do I really mean it? If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I might have mentally crossed my fingers behind my back. Now, it is my daily striving and practice. Sure, I would love for them to get into Harvard or Stanford, but more than that, I want them to be their whole selves and not splinter off the social and emotional parts in the service of a narrow and costly definition of success. In the documentary film Try Harder!, students at Lowell High, an elite public high school in San Francisco, most of whom are Asian-American, deal with unrelenting pressure to achieve and get into an elite college. (Full disclosure: I attended Lowell in the 1980s.) At the same time, parents and alumni of the school are fighting a holistic admission policy into the school that would take into account factors other than GPA and standardized scores, for fear that Asian American students would lose out. Regardless of where one stands on the admission policy question, the underlying whiff of the relentless drive for achievement is unmistakable, the sense that admission into elite schools is the ultimate success that justifies everything, including costs to mental health or the health of a community.
As Chinese immigrants to this country, Thanksgiving was a new holiday for my family that we easily adopted because it fit so well into our culture — a family gathering centered around enormous amounts of food! We just added the turkey alongside the sticky rice with sausage. This Thanksgiving, I’m hoping our community can adopt a more westernized view of the primacy of the individual, seeing our children as whole, individual beings with their own paths of development, alongside the eastern value of family harmony. I’m particularly thankful that my boys and I are enjoying time together, taking a breather from the work we each have. We are taking in the desert air and views of the mountains. They tease me and each other mercilessly like teenagers, and I can see that they’re pretty happy. That’s worth everything.