By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s been many years since Wendy Leung’s parents last struck her with a bamboo stick, but the memories remain with her today.
“My parents hit me at least once a week if I did anything to upset them,” said Leung, an instructor at Everest College. “Hitting kids was common [when I was young], and I didn’t know a schoolmate growing up who hadn’t been hit by their parents.”
As a child growing up in Hong Kong, Leung was hit any time she returned home with a low test score. Being hit with a two-foot long bamboo stick — which also doubled as a common household duster — served as a way for Leung to repent for her failures.
“I felt like I had brought deep shame to my family any time I was hit,” said Leung.
Leung’s mentality and experiences mirror many Asian and Asian American households today that still use corporal punishment to implant personal accountability into children.
Popular forms of corporal punishment can refer to punishing children with objects, like bamboo sticks, broom handles, or plastic hangers, to spanking children.
But is hitting a child effective for correcting long-term misbehavior? And how do kids interpret these punishments?
A new study
According to a recent study from Tulane University that examined 2,500 children, kids who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were more likely to become aggressive by age 5. When compared to children who were not hit, those who were spanked were more likely to be defiant, have temper tantrums, and lash out physically against others.
“The reason for that may be that spanking instills fear rather than understanding,” said Dr. Jayme Singer, in an interview with TIME magazine. Singer is the clinical director of the child and parent program at Children’s Hospital Boston, but was not involved with the studies.
“I just don’t know how you can hit someone you love,” said Ed Ho, a real estate agent in Seattle.
Ho was born in America and has no children, but he was raised in a family where bamboo sticks flew over misplayed notes during piano practice. He ended up disliking the piano because he came to associate it with being hit. As an adult, Ho wonders if he’d still enjoy playing if there hadn’t been physical rebukes.
“You could get results from spanking,” said Ho. “But I believe it’s just an immediate response out of anger. I’d rather have [kids] follow orders out of love and understanding as opposed to doing it out of anger or fear. There’s just no sincerity between the child and the parent otherwise.”
The way many first generation Asian Americans discipline their kids can conflict with U.S. laws concerning child abuse.
Leung immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 8 years old. She was once pulled aside after class by a school administrator who expressed concern after seeing bruises on Leung’s legs.
The administrator arranged for a parent–teacher conference with a Chinese translator, who explained to Leung’s parents that hitting children is frowned upon in the United States. Leung’s parents were shocked to learn this.
“[The meeting] helped my parents begin to understand expectations for them in America,” said Leung.
Although Leung’s parents didn’t stop physically disciplining her, they did it with less frequency after meeting with the school administrator.
“It is a hard learning curve … but it gets easier when [first generation] parents can get educated about their options,” said Souchinda Viradet Khampradith, a clinical supervisor for the children, youth, and families program at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS).
Khampradith aims to build a bridge of understanding between first generation parents and their kids by providing counseling services highlighting appropriate parenting styles for disciplining children in the United States, which may differ from those of the parents’ country of origin. She also counsels children on a one-on-one basis to identify stressors in their lives.
“It’s hard enough to be American and to raise children here, but to do so when you’re used to a completely different culture is tough,” said Khampradith. “Our role isn’t to take away that knowledge, but to enhance their parenting skills and understanding in raising American kids.”
Coming to an understanding
Despite American outcries against spanking, many first- and second-generation children actually empathize with their parents’ choice to use corporal punishment.
Leung acknowledges that her parents favor Confucian beliefs, which place value on the family structure more than the individual. Parents expect children to contribute to the family by doing well in school and obeying. Hitting children is then viewed as a way to keep them in line and to ultimately preserve a family’s achievements.
Leung credits much of her adult success to her parents’ emphasis on supporting the family unit, and notes it also influenced her own parenting styles.
“As I got older, I understood that my parents disciplined me that way to make sure my siblings and I would have the drive to become successful college graduates,” said Leung.
“These expectations our parents set were not just for us but for [the entire family] as well.”
For many Asian parents, hitting children also indicates a deep care for their well-being.
Years after she was no longer spanked, Rosa Le’s parents explained their actions with a Vietnamese proverb promoting Confucian ideals. When translated into English, the proverb states that “to hit [children] is to love [them].”
“The direct translation into English sounds odd,” said Le, a student at the University of Washington. “But my parents believed that to not hit children is to essentially neglect them altogether.”
Although Le was born in the United States, her parents raised her in a strict home environment that rejected American values in favor of upholding Vietnamese language, traditions, and expectations. Le’s upbringing has made her favor corporal punishment, as she believes in its ability to promote independence in kids.
“It’s better for children to learn and receive penalties from parents at home,” said Le. [This] is ultimately more forgiving than any consequences offered by society for more severe forms of misbehavior.”
Khampradith, who has two children under age 10, also understands that discipline breeds independence, but she suggests using alternative forms of punishment, such as consistent time-outs, which allow children to calm down and use their alone time to explore emotions connected to their misbehavior.
“After time-outs, [my husband and I] like to talk with our children about the choices they’ve made and if they understand their mistakes. We’re very hands-off,” said Khampradith.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also vouches for the use of time-outs, noting that the goal of punishment is to get children to understand what they did wrong and what motivated them to do it. The AAP argues that spanking becomes less effective with repeated use and cites that the use of positive reinforcement strategies, such as open communication and time-outs, increases desired behavior among children.
But Khampradith recognizes that her education and personal experience may have influenced her approach to children.
“I’m more conscious and aware of what is happening due to my professional understanding of child development and parenting,” said Khampradith. “I think many parents who are struggling in raising their kids can benefit from counseling, education, or taking a class.” ♦
For more information, visit www.acrs.org.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.