The Art of the Chinese Compliment

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I pulled a real Chinese parent move recently. My eldest’s piano teacher told me he was playing very well but instead of turning to my eldest and saying: “Hey! Did you hear that? That’s excellent! Good Job!” I said: “Hey! Did you hear what your teacher said? If you concentrated and practiced more, you could be even better.”

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what I had done.

Oh my God, I thought – I am my father’s son! I’m not the cool American parent hanging his child’s drawing on the refrigerator – Good job Timmy! Let’s go for ice cream! I’m the Chinese parent saying, Is that it? You’re going to do better than that, right? 

There should be a special category in parenting dedicated to the art of the “Chinese Compliment” – An 80, son? Well, I guess that’s good if that’s the best you can do. Sometimes it isn’t even what they say but how they’re saying it. I imagine an American parent saying the same thing but the tone is all different. In my head I am hearing a more excited pitch (akin to awe or expectance) – An 80, son? Well, I guess that’s good if that’s the best you can do. Now, let’s go for ice cream. There’s no ice cream when the Chinese voice in my head says it.

A friend and I joke about the extreme differences in our upbringing when it came to compliments. He says when he came home with 60s on his tests, his parents would say, “That’s Great! You did good this time! You know a 60 is more than half way to a 100! Let’s go out for ice cream!”

I’ve failed more than my fair share of tests – passing is a 75 – and can say with great confidence that I’ve never gotten ice cream.

I want to say here that (ice cream or not) I love my parents. As a parent now myself, I have learned that sometimes it is not so much about being fair or liked by my children but about what is necessary to insure good habits – Sometimes you need to be the bad guy in order to raise a good child.

And there are sacrifices. I like ice cream too but there is the proper moment for it – There is an appropriate time – An appropriate time that I (as father) need to choose and stick with – My children don’t need mixed messages from me regarding treats and rewards – I think in Parenting 101, most experts agree that consistency is important.

Maintaining consistency and good habits is hard. Complicating the process is determining when. Just like the cliché of the punishment fitting the crime, the reward must fit the deed. What’s an ice cream occasion and what warrants a visit to the toy store? Every parent has his own measure of success and this measure is incremented by that parent’s expectations of his child.

I expect my children to strive to be the best at whatever they decide to do. This is different from expecting them to be the best. I make the distinction because I feel too often children as students get too comfortable. They define a set of skills and academic subjects they are immediately successful at and cease to strive for more. As a parent, it’s my responsibility to nudge my children along so they can develop the necessary habits to achieve greater successes and learn to cope with their failures.

Now, I am certainly not justifying my words to my eldest when his piano teacher complimented him. It’s also my responsibility to inspire my children. There is a time to relish the moment – as in an instance of a compliment – and a time to be pragmatic – as I was trying to be when I told my son he could be even better if he practiced more.

I guess I got too comfortable in my role as a Chinese parent. I guess I need to take my own advice and stop being comfortable. I need to take my own advice and strive to be the best dad I can be.

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