To See Them Grow, Let Go
All parents believe they are doing what's best for their child. But through shared mentoring, one group of parents has elected to pull back, allow others to take the lead, and challenge their kids to become more independent.
To See Them Grow, Let GoBy Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 419 )
It's a powerful memory: when your child lets go of your hand for the first time and takes his or her first few steps, your first impulse is to hold tight, in vain hope of holding their hands through their entire lives.
It's tough letting go. But there is a group of parents that are staunchly determined to continually foster just such an ability.
These parents are now testing their abilities to set their kids free through an approach to raising children different from the traditional, somewhat protective Taiwanese method – the "Bright Bees," a youth scouting group focusing on environmental education, now with 12 chapters island-wide, organized by the Society of Wilderness, Taiwan's biggest environmental conservation organization.
For example, last July's round-the-island cycling trip by 16 junior high school students, all members of the Hsinchu chapter of the Bright Bees, was a real test for the parents after already undergoing a number of lesser moments of letting go.
The challenge was a 1,200 km cycling journey, and the lead actors were a group of "teen bees" – junior high students, troubled by adolescent angst and bursting with energy.
Each of the past two summers, the Hsinchu Bright Bees have set a growth objective for their young members. Two years ago it was building treehouses. Last year was the 12-day round-the-island tour... These outdoor activities are intended to help urban kids accrue physical experiences that teach them about life.
Kids and Adults ‘Mature' Together
But when these ordinarily mollycoddled kids set out into a 20-km hilly stretch in the first leg of their journey and the inevitable puking and crashing started, parents would have been inclined to intervene had they been there.
The Bright Bees are all too aware of parental weaknesses. So all activities are headed by scout leaders, and scout leaders are not permitted to lead their own kids.
For example, the leader of the cycling journey was Lee Chian-lung, a former Hsinchu tech exec who has watched these kids grow up.
As a "surrogate parent," Lee says, "Our role is somewhat more neutral and open, compared to the parents. Simply put, there's a lot more room for flexibility."
And so it went, with Lee in the role of concerned but not overly anxious leader at the head of a pack of more than a dozen junior-high-age cyclists for twelve days, from sunrise to sunset. Worried parents would sometimes drive support vehicles to provide any necessary aid, but they were not allowed to directly assist in their child's effort.
They could only watch as the group rinsed out their gear at roadside hoses and slept on the floor in temple dormitories. The parents could do no more than pull the masks a little tighter to keep the blazing sun off their kids' faces in the morning.
During the course of the journey, parents were astonished at the personal growth in their kids. Some of the girls were initially a little lazy and eager to retreat to their parents' cars, but soon became infected with a determination to finish the ride on their own after seeing the efforts of their cohorts. Another young rider blew a tire halfway through the ride and, having no spare, was forced to catch a ride to get one. Upon getting the tire fixed, the rider insisted on continuing the ride from the scene of the blowout.
"On a cycling trip around the island, kids and grownups alike do some maturing," says Tang Mau-tsu, a researcher with the National Synchrotron Radiation Research Center who spent a day riding with the group.
Seeing the Strengths in Other People's Kids
Most of the parents involved in the Bright Bees were born around the tail end of the Baby Boom and are in their 40s and 50s.
They grew up in an authoritarian system solely focused on the high-pressure college entrance exam.
When they became parents in an increasingly globalized environment, they aspired to instill in their kids more multicultural values, but the customary way they had been raised was clearly insufficient for the task.
More than a few of these moms and dads willingly describe themselves as "helicopter parents" or even "bomber parents."
A career soldier, Liang Ching-yong initially took somewhat of a military-style approach to parenting, with his three kids subject to possible corporal punishment for failing to carry out orders. Once he became a scout leader, however, he found that he was always particularly patient when instructing other people's kids and was struck by how easy it was to discern the finer qualities of children from other families.
This prompted Liang to re-examine his relationships with his own kids.
"It was then I realized how my past strict standards had put considerable stress on our parent-child relationships," Liang says. He takes a softer approach now, he says, and is a better father for it.
In addition to providing a venue for sharing experiences gained through parenting, the adults can recapture their sense of wonder and appreciation of life through learning more about nature.
Chen Li-chi, an executive at Vanguard International Semiconductor Corporation, his wife Kuo Dong-lan and their four children used to take frequent trips to the countryside to see the butterflies. Now, they raise butterflies at home.
While raising butterflies the family discovered that Taiwan's 400-odd species of butterfly all had distinct habits and processes of metamorphosis. Facing threats from enemies such as spiders and cockroaches, less than one-quarter of them make it from the larval stage to become fully mature butterflies, but they carry on in their fervent pursuit of survival.
This has come as something of an epiphany for the Chen's, who now believe life comes in many variations and are determined that their kids should strive to find themselves, so they will be more resilient in dealing with future setbacks.
"A lot of the Hsinchu tech elite are unhappy, because they've forgotten what it is they're working for," Chen says. "And it's the same with education. We've forgotten that we want to make our children feel happy."
Learning to Watch Your Kids from the Wings
Through the power of this collective mentoring, the parents involved in the Bright Bees are no longer easily given to needless anxiety over their children. They are now able to fully appreciate their children's positive attributes, while trying to let go.
As Tang Mau-tsu says, he is no longer a "helicopter parent." Instead, he now describes himself as a "submarine parent," exercising self-restraint, staying submerged beneath the waves most of the time, and lifting the periscope occasionally to monitor the situation.
It's tough letting go. But this group of parents has now learned to observe their children's continuing development from the proverbial wings. They stand back, and cheer their children on. But when needed, they are always there with open arms to provide strength and support.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy
Chinese Version: 鬆開手才看見長大