What I learned about raising children from my time in China

When I was a new mother of a baby boy 14 years ago, I vowed to raise him to treat women as equals. And years later when I had a baby girl I promised myself I’d teach her to feel good about herself no matter what.

On the streets of San Francisco with Jake, 1999

So yesterday at the salon, as I leaned back in a chair while a stylist held a hose over my sudsy hair, a mother and a pre-teen girl stood nearby, the daughter in tears.

Another stylist tried to soothe the girl with soft words, saying she’ll be okay, but the girl continued to dab her eyes with a weathered tissue. Once mother and daughter left, the woman in the chair next to me asked her stylist how old that girl was.

“Too young,” I said, butting into their conversation.

“It’s hard for girls these days,” my neighbor’s stylist said. “Kids can be so cruel to girls unless they look perfect.”

Really? But before I could protest, I stopped and realized this is true and is even more pronounced since way back when I was a pre-teen. In fact, I’ve felt pressure over the years to straighten my hair, shape my eyebrows, stay slim, sculpt my arms, and flatten my stomach.

In Hong Kong and China people told me I was fat, whereas in the US I’m considered thin. When I was young, my own relatives said I had a rat’s nest for hair. And because of these things, I turned inward as a teenager and young adult.

Lok Ma Chau, 1990

As I write in my memoir, Good Chinese Wife, I felt incredibly fortunate to gain the attention of an accomplished academic when I was in graduate school and thus rushed into marriage with him six short months after we met.

Fast forward 8-10 years. I was a divorced single mother and realized there was more to life than what’s on the outside. I found inner strength from the time I spent living abroad and at last could walk with confidence into a room of strangers.

When I think of the preteen girl at the salon, I wished I’d given her a hug. I hope she’ll be able to find confidence for who she is, not what she looks like. I’m probably old fashioned about this, and perhaps out of touch with today’s reality, but correct me if I’m wrong about wanting to teach our daughters–and sons–to love themselves for who they are, both on the inside and out.


  1. says

    Between teaching in high school, college, and on a speaking circuit, I have taught over 10,000 youth to date. I am convinced that youth live up to what they believe they deserve.
    Helping a child understand that his/her value is not dependent on anything physical is one of the best things you can do for them. Keep up the good work!

  2. says

    Ok, first let me say: You’re beautiful. Kay. Now, I will go on to state that my lovely six-year-old is struggling with the outside appearance thing because she’s the smallest in her class. She no doubt feels picked on even if she’s not being bullied. She also has vision deficits, so physically, she’s always going to have issues. I would love to enroll her in self-defense. Not because I think she’s currently being bullied, though I expect that will happen, but because self-defense programs tend to increase self-confidence and I think she needs that. Now if I can just find the money….

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Vic, you’re amazing! Thank you so much! About your daughter, I agree that martial arts are wonderful for girls and their confidence. It’s a great way to feel a part of a group. Is there a community center in your area that offers martial classes for a nominal fee? I wonder if you could lobby the school to bring in a teacher for an after-school program? I hope kids are becoming conditioned to treat all kids as equals. Being a parent isn’t easy! In my experience, it’s always worthwhile to talk to the school administration if bullying issues should arise. It took us a long time to get the school to do something about it with our oldest, but they finally did.

  3. says

    My ten-year-old daughter has a strong personality, which can be difficult to handle at times, but I’m thankful because it means other kids are usually afraid to tease her. She was born with a cleft lip and palate and so this lesson is extra pertinent for her. She is so beautiful, but she will never have a face exactly like everyone else’s, and that’s okay! It is very important to show our kids by the way we live that beauty comes first from the inside. Great post, Susan. I hope that pre-teen girl in the salon can stand up to those mean kids who are telling her lies.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, I think a strong personality will help her much more than the alternative. If parents are supportive like you are, then kids will be just fine!

  4. says

    I think I was lucky in that I never gave two hoots to whatever people were saying, whether about me or others. I was in one sense either a cocky self-contained fool or just couldn’t care less. My world was mine and nobody was going to affect it. Maybe being a male child was easier than a female child. I don’t know. Our parents never praised nor assured us, being traditional Chinese parents. They left us very much to our own devices so long as we did not misbehave or caused problems to others. If only children nowadays learned to be more self-confident and have faith in themselves. Maybe the only thing a parent needs do is to tell their children that now matter how they look, to always believe in themselves and not be needing to conform just to be be accepted. After all, at the end of the day, fads and fashion come and go, but you remain.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thank you!! There is some debate in the US about whether it’s good to praise kids for everyday things or better to just let them be because that’s what’s expected. I tend to do the latter and even have a hard time accepting compliments when other people praise my kids. Maybe that’s from my years in a China family? Who knows, but you’re so right about just being yourself and not getting caught up in the fads.

  5. Chandrika says

    Poor kid.

    I remember meeting you for the first time, Susan, and thinking how attractive you were – with your crazy hair, no makeup and your confident smile. And you charmed the whole room at that meeting. It’s such a pleasure to see a woman at ease with herself.
    I’m sure we can all teach our children how to stand proud without trips to the salon and worse, the plastic surgeon.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Wow, thanks so much! I remember meeting you for the first time, too! Thank goodness for that!! Speaking of plastic surgeons, I am very vocal when friends talk about going to one just for looks. Oy!

  6. T says

    I’m of two minds about this. On one hand, I understand that kids face a lot of external pressure these days and they need all the confidence boost they can get. On the other hand, we in the West seem to have developed a culture that offers praise to kids for no other reason than to encourage their “self-esteem”, and one consequence of this is that we now have a bunch of overconfident people who demand respect and adulation without having to earn it.

    But yeah, you’re totally right in that kids should learn not to judge their own worth based on frivolous superficial qualities.

    • Susan Blumberg-Kason says

      Thanks so much! I agree that we shouldn’t praise kids just so we don’t hurt their feelings (I deal with this every day!), but on the other hand when kids are young and impressionable, I think it’s dangerous to teach them that people won’t like them unless they have perfect hair, sculpted eyebrows, etc. It’s also a problem in Asia, too, with specific ideals about eyes, skin tone, weight. It’s all ridiculous.

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