Children and parents relationships in China – “Xiao”

This subject has been in my mind for a long time.  It’s such a big and thorny topic.  I’m not a psychologist or sociologist, and really not qualified to broach it.  But it’s so intriguing that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut either.  Here we are.

Children and parents relationships exist everywhere.  Starting the days we were born, the relationships with our parents began.  It’s not a choice.  Like it or not, we have to deal with it.  If we decide to have kids, the table turns around, and we have to navigate the relationships with our kids as well.  Good luck.

Today, I’m going to talk about the relationships of the Chinese children and parents.

What in the world is “Xiao”?

Xiao in Chinese is 孝.  I know it’s not self-explanatory.  Let me try to explain it.

In the Chinese culture (probably also true in many of the Asian countries), children are expected to obey the parents unconditionally.  It’s the absolute loyalty toward the parents, no matter the parents are right or wrong, young or old.

Yes, Loyalty, what a popular word in US during the last 21 months.  You see?  I’m not a dinosaur (sometimes).  Once a while, I do follow the trend …

This blind loyalty is Xiao. That’s my explanations.  Many people in China may not agree with me.  That’s totally fine.

Aris Teon explained much better than I did.  Please see his great article “Filial Piety (孝) in Chinese Culture” in his blog The Greater China Journal.

Xiao is a non-negotiable and invisible duty that is put on the children’s shoulders from the day one when they were born.  And the duty is getting bigger and more challenging when the children become adults and start having their own families.

Parents are always right.  Don’t argue with them, or challenge them.  Don’t even give it a try, unless you look for troubles.  As a child, make the parents happy, just do it.  Take care of the parents first, as they are the top priority.  Undoubtedly, every child owes tons to his/her parents, and he/she can never ever pay the parents back.  It’s the emotional debt forever, and nobody can claim the emotional bankruptcy.  Want to get away?  Just forget about it.

There is a silly joke in China.  A young guy was asked by a so-called genius: “When your wife, kid, and your mom are all drown down to the river, whom are you going to rescue first?”  The guy might feel his kid should come first.  Wrong answer.  According to that genius, his mom should come first.

And this is Xiao.  It’s ridiculous, isn’t it?

When kids are young in China:

Many of the young kids in China are really busy.  Not because they choose to be busy, but because their parents bombard the kids’ schedule with endless activities.  No parents want their kids to be left behind.  Remember the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua?

Actually the parents’ dragon or phoenix dreams start even before the kid is born.  The fetus can’t even have the freedom to just play inside mom’s belly.  They have to listen to the classical music, Chinese literature, etc.  I’m sure the fetus is getting upset, and putting his/her little hands on the ears, and say: “Shut up, too much noise.  Let me just sleep.”

Once the kid is born, the whole family and grandparents are like planets that are rotating around the sun permanently.  The kid becomes the center of the universe.

As time goes on, the after-school activities just pile up: piano, violin, singing, dancing, drawing, English, sports, on and on.

Well, parents are investing so much time, effort and money on the kids’ early education.  The up side is that, it’s better than negligence for sure.  But the down side is: it’s not free.  Parents feel they have sacrificed so much for the well beings of their kids.  As a result, parents intentionally created the pile of emotional debt for the kids.

How could the kid ever pay back?  Here comes the Xiao to play.  From the kid’s early age, parents keep preaching: “I have done so much just for you.  I’m too busy to have my own life.  My purpose of life is to make you succeed.”  Kid feels so obliged to obey the parents.  No questions asked.

Adult children’s dilemma:

When kids grow up, they have their own life, family, and career.  Guidance from parents?  No more, please.  I’m sure my kid agrees with me on this.

But parents don’t want to just stand on the sideline (including me).  They still want to be needed.  What do they do?  They want to go to the field and play.  Older means wiser, or does it?

Xiao partly means respecting parents.  I agree on this.  Kids should respect parents, and parents should respect kids as well.  Adult kids and parents should treat each other equally, and honestly.  Age seniority does not mean any superiority or entitlement.  Every one’s private space should be honored and protected.

I have a friend.  He lives in Hong Kong.  This is a story he shared with me several years ago.  He was working in a private company, owned by a family (father and daughter).  The father started the business decades ago, and was very successful.

Then the father was getting old (in his 80s) and retired.  The business was taken over by the daughter.  Once a while, the daughter invited my friend and his colleagues over to their house to play Mahjong with the old guy (using the real money).  The daughter wanted to make her dad happy.

I don’t feel that’s appropriate.  It’s not the employees’ job responsibility to make the old guy happy.  Work and personal matters shouldn’t be mixed.  Anyway, my friend didn’t enjoy this after-work gig, but showed up in their house anyway.  After all, the daughter was his boss, what could he say?  He needed that job.

The ridiculous thing was:  the daughter provided some play money (real money) to my friend and his colleagues privately.  The instruction from her was:  try to play dumb, and don’t outsmart the old guy.  Let her dad win, and let him be happy.  What a sham!  That is Xiao, and that is cheating, and hypocrisy.

Xiao is more a burden:

In my eyes, Xiao is more a burden.  It screws up the life priority, and causes more guilt for kids.  It would be nice if adult kids could help the parents physically or financially if possible.  But, everyone’s situation is different.  When the resources are very limited, people have to straighten up the priorities to take care of themselves first, their own family the second, and then the parents.

Parents have to realize that, it’s not the kids’ responsibility to make them happy.  It’s their life, and their choice to be happy.  Develop some hobbies, and enjoy their own life, instead of worrying or blaming kids or grand kids for their own miseries.  Entitlement or bossing around is not a good attitude.

Dear readers, let’s discuss:

  • How do you feel about this Xiao between the Chinese children and parents? Is it a good or bad?
  • Should parents dictate kids’ life forever?
  • Should kids obey the parents unconditionally and forever?
  • What is your advice to parents and adult kids for a healthy and positive relationship?

A quick note: regarding my health insurance for 2019, I selected the 12-month Short-Term Insurance, with the monthly premium of $230.  My application was approved within 3 days.  It’s good to go for 2019.

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10 Responses

  1. Katrin says:

    Again, such a very interesting insight into Chinese traditions, Helen. Thank you very much for sharing!

    I’m a bit reluctant to judge someone else’s culture, but I will say that it always annoyed me when my parents started to meddle with how we raised our son. But then, they helped us a lot as well. Both not to the extent that seems to be common in Asian families, but still… So in theory I felt we just had to take the good with the bad (and in practice it sometimes drove me nuts :-)). I have to admit, though, that I found it quite touching that the daughter of the retired entrepreneur went through so much trouble to arrange that entertainment for her dad. I pictured him sitting quite happily at the games table, getting a bigger challenge/more fun out of playing his former employees rather than his own family (my imagination is probably too vivid, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how old people remain involved and happy). But I can totally understand your friend not wanting to feel obliged to spend his spare time this way…As a business owner, you shouldn’t put your employees in that kind of a dilemma.

    Is all the time and effort Chinese parents ‘invest’ in their children somewhat connected to the one child policy, and then it caught on in other Asian societies? Or is this a much older cultural practice?

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Katrin, this is more an old tradition that has lasted for thousands of years. The one-child policy probably made it even worse, as the parents’ investment became laser-focused, and the love could be suffocating sometimes.

      Yeah, I know what you mean, the relationship with the parents could get very tricky. My parents have lived in this village all their life, and they are not too different from other parents here. Their expectations/attitudes to the kids seem normal to them, but may sound bizarre and intrusive to me sometimes. I lived here for less than 16 years. Since then, I tried to distance myself from this culture, but somehow I still get entangled into it.

      Playing Mahjong with the boss’s father is not fun. I’m sure the old man felt satisfied after beating the young employees. But sadly, that was just a show.

  2. Very deep topic Helen and well done. I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak from that angle. My parents are almost the opposite of Chinese culture. They raised my brother and me to be very independent never wanting anything in return or ever to be a burden in any way. I’m not sure what is right or wrong, it is just different. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tom, I embrace independence. I think that’s the best gift parents could give to the kids. From early on, the kids know how to take care of themselves, and how to make a living. When people get older, being independent is a big blessing, as that requires good physical, mental and financial health.

  3. Joe says:

    I’m lucky. My parents are more modern and they don’t have this rigid expectation. We have disagreements and I feel like I have a bit more freedom. That’s the good thing about growing up in the US. I try to do what I can for my parents and they don’t demand too much of me. Also, I think you really need to help the children first, not the parents.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Joe, that’s cool you got more freedom growing up in US. For the kids growing up in China, they get more obligations. Many times, it’s not what they want to do, but what they have to do. For those middle-aged people, they are sandwiched by the aging parents and young kids, and the struggle is obvious: who should come first? What about their own life and happiness? It’s tough.

  4. Caroline says:

    I expect my kids to respect me but I never want them to feel like they owe me, no matter how much I do for them (it’s my choice). I like to think they will make the right choices based on what is best for them and not because they think it’s what I expect.
    If they want to take care of me in my older days, I am good with it:) But not because they feel obligated!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Caroline, yeah, I don’t feel my kid owes me anything either. I’m very happy to see him becoming independent, and living his own life. I just hope I’m still healthy in the next couple of decades, and can do whatever I like to do.

  5. GYM says:

    I love this piece! Great job explaining filial piety. Interesting that it goes to such length- that one would not save their own children but save their mother! Sometimes I am known to talk back and it made my parents upset. There is so much emphasis on ‘face’ in the Chinese culture- as evidenced by your story about the old boss and Mah Jong.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi GYM, yeah, the priority is screwed up by Xiao. The relationships with parents are very hard to navigate, as they think so differently. The old traditions play such a big role in every day life. “Face” is everything here, which is very hard for me to understand.

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