Jane's Mental Health Source Page

One of the Web's Oldest Personal Mental Health Sites [Est. 1998]

Reproduction is a Gift, Parenthood is a Privilege… An Asian Child’s View


I receive many emails from Asian children (many of them grown adults, around my age, which is middle age) who have grown up in emotionally unhealthy environments. They usually write me after visiting this website and reading one of the articles on emotional manipulation and guilt.

Here is my response (unedited) to someone asking for my advice for his girlfriend, who is dealing with an emotionally manipulative mother. The (grown) daughter wants to stop living with her mother to regain sanity, but:

“… she is having difficulty being guilty that she is leaving her mom. She knows that her mom is the one that has spent all her life taking care of her and her other 3 siblings. She can’t help the fact that she feels indebted to her and must follow filial piety. She is Asian so therefore you understand how you always feel indebted to your family. It is ingrained into our culture. I don’t know what to tell her to make her more at ease and to tell her that she is not being a bad person if she leaves her home.”

My response:

That cultural indebtedness is something that she may need counseling or therapy on, it’s not something you ‘get over’ in a week or even a month.

Speaking as an Asian daughter and now an Asian mother, I have perspective from both sides – as child and parent.

I can say that I’m at peace knowing that I do not “owe” my parents beyond courtesy and basic human respect that all people deserve. I feel more compassion and understanding over why they did what they did, but it does not change my behavior or action toward them. It certainly does not mean I become an emotional prisoner to them. Then it becomes a master-servant/slave relationship.

When she has a child she will realize that SHE IS OBLIGATED TO THE CHILD, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND. Asian culture is screwed up this way – by manipulating the child into believing that they owe their life to their parents.

Yet I can tell you that I’ve met many Asian parents who think the world of their children and do everything for them WITHOUT expecting the same in return. That is the kind of parent I am to my son and want to continue to be for him. I do not believe that he is obligated to my livelihood or mental health or emotional fulfillment. THAT IS MY OWN JOB AS A HUMAN BEING, not the job of another human being (this includes my husband, by the way, I don’t expect him to come rescue me from my life).

The reason why I was determined to “unscrew” myself in this convoluted cultural shadow is because I looked at how I felt and how I grew up, and I asked myself if that is the kind of mother I want to be, if that is the kind of parent I want to be. And I don’t.

My biggest expectation of my child is that he learns self reliance, critical thinking, and courage as a self-directed compassionate human being. His job is to make sure that when he is ‘released’ to the world as an independent adult, that he does something valuable with his life and that he is content. That is the greatest honor he can give to my name and our relationship – not by living a life that I have written for him.

Filial piety only works when your parents treat you like a human being and a child that came from them, it does not work in cases of emotional and physical abuse or with prisoners of an kind. Unfortunately, most children who are abused are loyal to their abusers because they have been brainwashed to believe that their whole identity is based on ‘whether mom or dad is happy with me’.

It becomes a waste of one’s gift of life, it enables the abuser by teaching her that ‘if you keep doing this, it will work and you will get what you want’, and in fact it is harmful to that person because you continue to enable the abusive behavior. I can even say that if your girlfriend wants to honor her mother, she should leave and learn how to be an independent thinker and do something honorable with her life and be the break in the chain of psychological abuse.

You may want to share with her Kalil Gibran’s poem about children in his book The Prophet, where he talks about children coming “through” parents – they do not come ‘from’ parents.

For me personally, I find it is my privilege that I have my son in my life, it is a huge responsibility when a human soul trusts itself to your care, and allow you to guide it through the human experience. I would be criminal to abuse this trust by making this soul “my property” and my prisoner.

[If anything, I should be the one to encourage my son to go out into the world and be the true author of his life, and do himself proud, and know how to pass this onto his children. I give value to whatever suffering I had experienced as a child when I spare my own child from this same suffering – and it requires me to work on myself. Not the other person, whom you should never hope to change, because it is not your job.]

I broke this chain of psychological abuse within my family, and whatever I give to my parents now, it is only because I want to, not because I feel guilty or owe them or because of filial piety. In my opinion, giving of my own free will is the greatest sign of respect I can give to my parents, whether they understand it or not. I am treating them like a whole person whom I believe can do better and know better, and I am giving them their right to live the life they have chosen to live.

I’m 38, and have processed this for many years, to get to where I am, I know it is not easy and takes tremendous self-work and soul searching.

Written by Jane Chin

October 27th, 2010 at 10:57 am

  • Jane, thanks for this article! It is quite rare to find an Asian adult writing about her experiences with “filial piety”. As an Asian-American woman with immigrant parents, I realize now what a challenge it was for my parents to come to terms with raising their children in the independent style of American culture, while trying to preserve the filial piety traditions of their Asian culture.

    From both personal and professional experience, I absolutely agree with you that “giving of my own free will is the greatest sign of respect I can give to my parents”, and that our children our NOT obligated to us. And yes, counseling DOES help, because it takes a long time to process and heal from a childhood where we have been taught that we “owe” our entire lives to our parents.

    • Hi Ceci,

      Thanks for your comment. I think filial piety is a virtue, but virtue is valued only by the virtuous, and wasted on those who do not practice it. On the one hand, I can recount many stories of people whose virtues move those who are not virtuous so that they become virtuous. One the other hand, I also know there are many people whose virtues are squandered by those who abuse their trust and frankly do not deserve virtue!

      I’m glad that you are serving the Asian community with counseling services. I know that in the Asian culture, mental illness is still seen as a personal weakness or a character flaw. As a result, people do not seek help when there is help available, and they do not take steps to improve their own lives.

      People need to seek help so that they will “be better” for their family or loved ones – if those serve as motivators to get help – that’s wonderful. I believe that people need to seek help because they have decided that they DO deserve better, and that they do not have to accept a painful life when there is help available. When they improve their lives by seeking help for their mental illness, they will automatically become a “better” friend/spouse/parent/employee.

      I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Mental illness is a pain that for some of us born with that genetic disposition, is inevitable. But we are fortunate that we live in a time when suffering CAN be optional, because we have come a long way in the treatment and awareness of mental illness.

  • Ann

    WOW! I am not an Asian American…..but your article spoke to my heart! I grew up as a 2nd generation american, the culture of the family was laced with guilt and manipulation, I felt like the property of my mother, not a whole person. The quote ” When she has a child she will realize that SHE IS OBLIGATED TO THE CHILD, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.” sums it up! Having my own children I certainly understand better the love my parents must have for me (healthy) but I have also been shocked at many of their choices. I remember when I moved away at 20 years old my parents called me to tell me how to vote in the next election! Independant fostering relationship? Not at all!