Growing up, I’ve always been scared of leaving my bedroom. I knew my parents were always on the other side of the door, a long list of accusatory questions and remarks at the ready. Whether it’s about a towel that wasn’t hung out evenly enough or about the cutting boards that weren’t placed at the right angle, a small mistake often led into full-blown confrontations about how I wasn’t being a good, dutiful daughter.
They called it “tough love”, and for many years, I believed them. After all, in many Asian family households, the parents’ word is law.
Most of the time, it’s to teach children the concept of filial piety— a traditional Chinese moral value where children should respect, love and take care of parents to give back and honour them.
But at what point does filial piety go from being an age-old cultural tradition, to parents misusing their superiority and shaping their children into what they want?
I’ve always felt the immense pressure to please my parents growing up, so much so that I’ve suppressed my own identity, voice and dreams in order to keep my parents happy. Whether it’s diminishing my views on a topic I’m passionate about, or giving up a boyfriend due to my parents’ disapproval of non-Chinese partners— my subconscious kept a tally each time I betrayed myself, leading to a series of unhealthy coping mechanisms that I’m still trying to undo.
I shared my thoughts in a self-reflection essay that I wrote a few months ago, arguing that filial piety should be done out of love instead of obligation and tradition. At the very least, it certainly shouldn’t be guilted out of children as a way to “test” their love and dedication. The comments on the article sparked heavy debate and divided opinions.
The comments made me question myself. Was I wrong for feeling so conflicted toward my parents? Should I love them unconditionally, mould myself into the daughter that my parents want, and sacrifice my own happiness—especially since they sacrificed so much for me? Is this Asian culture the way of life and should I just accept it? Is it unfair for me to bring my Westernized values to my family?
Under every angry comment, however, were strangers coming together to defend and support me. My inbox flooded from readers telling me how trapped they feel in the tradition of filial piety, overwhelmed with responsibility and pressure but unable to start a conversation out of fear that their parents would interpret it as disrespect and disloyalty to the family.
For many third-culture kids like myself, or first-generation children living in Western countries, the difference in culture between a parent and a child sometimes leads to an intergenerational acculturation gap which causes difficulties in family communication. According to research, this can lead to family conflict, discord, and possibly cause children psychological difficulty with adjusting at school and other parts of their lives.
“When you’re living it every day and you go to school in a Western environment, you go home and it’s a completely different set of expectations, and you get shamed for certain things that you thought was normal,” said Mihoko Maru, a doctoral candidate at Boston University who conducted research on Asian American parenting styles and emotional abuse in parent-children relationships, told VICE. This makes it even harder for children to communicate their thoughts and feelings with their parents.
If the comments showed me anything, it’s this: filial piety is deeply-rooted in Asian tradition and it isn’t going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Filial piety is a Chinese value that I’m proud of as long as it’s taught and implemented in a healthy way. To do that, we have to first understand the two different forms of filial piety: reciprocal and authoritative.
Out of the two, reciprocal filial piety is by far the healthier one, where the parents “are kind of directing a child, telling the child what to do, asking the child to honour them, asking the child to see them as an authority,” said Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “They do it with warmth and love...while in some ways still honouring the individuality of their child.”
On the other hand, authoritative filial piety is when a parent suppresses the individual nature of a child completely, said Earnshaw, “So when that happens the child will still honour the parent and do what they’re supposed to do but they won’t do it based out feelings of gratitude and warmth but based out of feelings of obligation.”
I recognised myself within Earnshaw’s definition of authoritative filial piety and worked with my therapist to understand the underlying reasons for my parents’ actions that caused me emotional pain as a child. While reliving these memories were painful and sometimes even triggering, I understood that my parents are human, and they were only doing what they thought was best for me at the time.
“I think that it is really important to come to terms with why parents do what they do, not as a form of giving them a free pass, but to understand that it is not personal, even though it impacted you personally,” said Earnshaw.
My parents would often repeat “this is for your own good” every time my trust and values were violated and I would repeat this to myself in an attempt to justify the physical and emotional pain they caused me. Children see their parents as superheroes growing up, and I was no different. As a child, I put my parents on a pedestal and decided that they could do no wrong.
I allowed my desire to please my parents cloud my vision and excuse my parents’ hurtful behaviour because of filial piety. As a young adult, I wish I could go back in time to console 14-year-old me, telling her that my parents’ parenting tactics are flawed and to not let their words get into her head.
As I reached my teens, I hadn’t learned about mental health, nor had I learned that mine was quickly deteriorating. According to Earnshaw, impacts of damaged mental health can come out anywhere in your life: in relationships, at work, or a general lack of motivation or self-confidence. More seriously, it can manifest itself as thoughts of unworthiness or self-harm.
“If anybody is having thoughts of ‘I can’t live up to what I’m supposed to live up to', 'I might as well not be alive anymore because I’ve shamed my family', or 'I’ve let them down’, that’s a huge sign that you’ve been impacted by this, and has gone to a point that it’s unhealthy,” she explained. “When there’s no balance anymore— when there’s no self and you’re only operating on honouring of parents, I think that’s when the line gets crossed.”
To those with a similar relationship with their parents, Earnshaw suggests to ask the following questions: Do I have any say in my life at all? When I make choices to honour my parents, is it at my own free will? Is it because it feels good to me, because I have gratitude and because I love them, or is it because if I don’t do it, I feel like I’m going to be shamed, guilted or cut out of my family?
In its purest form, filial piety is a method of honouring and thanking elders for the sacrifices they have made. It is a value passed from generation to generation to respect those that came before. At the heart of it all, healthy practices of filial piety can greatly deepen the relationship and respect children have for their parents. Oftentimes, however, it takes the form of a poison apple, used to excuse damaging parenting behaviour and held above a child as a warning or reminder to make them behave.
It is crucial to differentiate between the two.