Parenting is all about choosing the right battles

Discover a unique way of parenting. Avoiding the battles without losing the war.

TOKYO, October 20, 2011 - Parenting is a series of battles, and a good parent chooses which battles to fight. Some battles, though, are just unavoidable. 

One battle I had to win – non-negotiable – was the battle with Maia’s scoliosis.

Doctors diagnosed Maia with scoliosis in seventh grade. It was severe enough to warrant spinal surgery, but Maia chose to wear a brace instead, hoping to prevent her curved spine from curving any further. She was instructed to wear the brace twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, but I insisted that Maia only wear the brace at home. Sixteen hours a day, instead of twenty-four.

The doctor didn’t protest – he probably assumed that like most teenage girls who braced, Maia would give up after wearing the brace for a few weeks at the most.  Maia braced for six years.

But she didn’t wear her brace to school. She didn’t want to walk around in a suit of made-to-fit, hard plastic body armor, under baggy clothes that were several sizes too big.  She wanted to be free to look and dress like any other teenager.  As soon as she came home, though, she put on her brace.

To be more precise, I strapped her into it. As tight as I could. So tight that when I took the brace off the next morning, the skin on her back was bright red and raw.

Maia chose to wear a brace, but Maia was also a twelve-year-old who wanted to avoid the pain and discomfort of the brace. She found ways to prolong her freedom, to postpone bracing. She took her time walking home. She found endless things to tell me while slowly eating her after school snack.

I was painfully aware of her delaying tactics, and it broke my heart to hurry her just so I could inflict pain on her.

There were days when she refused to hurry, sitting quietly in her room, probably hoping that I would be too busy to brace her, and days when she pretended not to hear me calling her. Sometimes, I would lose my temper and yell at her in frustration. Most of the time, I simply gritted my teeth and encased her small body in the hard plastic armor. And then I would go to the kitchen, and chop onions – a convenient excuse for tears.

I had no choice but to fight the scoliosis battle. But when the dentist suggested that I take Maia to the orthodontist for dental braces, I politely refused. One brace was enough.

Another battle that I did not have the stomach to fight was the struggle with her mother tongue, the war with the Japanese language that waxed and waned over the years but remained a constant source of friction between Maia and me.

After three years in Tokyo, Maia’s Japanese was far from perfect but she was able to read and write the required number of Kanji characters for her age and get the occasional perfect score on her Japanese tests. She even survived the month-long experience of going to a local Japanese school where like all the other Japanese school children, she had to clean the classroom, and put on a white uniform to serve lunch.

Upon arrival in Vienna, our next port of call, I looked for a Japanese language tutor with the same zeal I applied to apartment-hunting. I found the tutor first:  Kubo-sensei, who conveniently taught Japanese at Vienna International School, the school Maia was eager to attend.

Kubo-sensei suggested that Maia substitute Japanese for French, but Maia was excited to start studying French again. Kubo-sensei also suggested two 90-minute after-school lessons each week, but Maia was in a new environment, and I wanted her to have time to adjust and explore.

The one suggestion that I agreed to was to make sure that Maia read in Japanese ten minutes every day. Ten minutes. Piece of cake. Walk in the park. Maia enjoyed reading. She spent hours reading. At home, in airports and planes, at the dentist’s and doctor’s, Maia was always reading.

Maia was a voracious reader, but she did not like reading in Japanese. The Kanji characters slowed her down, and she got bored. Reading in Japanese for ten minutes a day was a chore she left ‘til last – after snack, after homework, after bath, after dinner, after everything. And she hoped for bedtime to save her from the endless ten minutes.

Being the reasonable mother that I was (or thought I was), I encouraged her. But soon, words of encouragement turned into reminders, reprimands, commands, threats, begging, cajoling, yelling, and sure enough, I had become the hysterical mother I vowed never to be!

That was when I threw in the towel! I surrendered. I refused to fight this battle of tongues. I declared to Maia that I had given up hope of her ever being literate in Japanese. She no longer had to read in Japanese for ten minutes every day. She didn’t have to read in Japanese for the rest of her life if that was what she wanted.

And I stuck to my word ­– I never asked her to read in Japanese again.

I turned my back on the Japanese language battle, but looking back, all I did was switch strategies – from open warfare to guerilla tactics.

I made sure we celebrated all the Japanese festivals, big and small, from the elaborate Hina Matsuri (Doll’s Festival) – when I invited all of Maia’s friends to view the full set of Hina dolls that I put out on display like a Christmas tree ­– to the simple Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival) when we went around the apartment throwing soy beans, all the while chanting, “Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi, out with the demons, in with good luck!”

I learned to serve very traditional Japanese dinners, using ingredients that have no Western equivalents. In English, “hijiki,” “wakame,” and “konbu” are all lumped together as “sea vegetables.”

Whenever we went back to Japan for the holidays, we flew ANA (All Nippon Airways), or JAL (Japan Airlines) just so Maia could be in Japan as soon as she boarded the plane. From the welcoming smile of the cabin attendants to the authentic Japanese cuisine and midnight snack of onigiri (rice balls), we were in Japan even before we landed there.

In the midst of all these Japanese charms, though, the most important weapon in my arsenal was the television – and my main allies were the Japanese actors and actresses who appeared in the many soap operas we watched while eating dinner. We spent at least two hours every night watching the silly escapades of nurses and flight attendants, and weekends were reserved for marathon viewings of romantic comedies.

When Maia left for college, Japanese was the weakest of her four languages. She could barely read the most basic of Kanji characters. Still, she was very much Japanese at heart – for her, a lazy summer day meant enjoying a meal of somen (cold noodles dipped in sauce), while listening to the sound of a traditional wind chime.

During her freshman year in college, Maia wasn’t able to convince her fellow college students that she was Japanese, not American, and she came home that summer intent on studying Japanese.  Her goal for the summer was to be able to read the entire Nikkei Shimbun, Japan’s version of the Wall Street Journal.

After two months of 90-minute Japanese lessons, twice a week – just as Kubo-sensei had suggested in Vienna – and hours and hours of grappling with the Kanji characters, Maia was able to read and write like any other Japanese high school graduate.

She was finally literate in Japanese.

Recently, soon after receiving her first paycheck, Maia treated me to lunch at Tamasaka Marunouchi, a Japanese restaurant in the heart of Tokyo’s financial district. As I sat across from Maia, watching her read the menu which was all in Japanese, I almost forgot that there was once a time when we couldn’t go to Japanese restaurants without English translations, or at least photos of the food.  Now, she was able to take control and order with confidence.

All those years ago, I surrendered and refused to fight with Maia about her mother tongue.  Instead, I gave her the freedom to do what she liked – and in the end, she used that freedom well. 

I turned my back on the battle, but as it turned out, I didn’t lose the war.

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Cynthia Lim

Cynthia has lived, studied, worked and parented in more than a dozen cities in four continents.  Born in the Philippines, she is of Chinese heritage -- although she has never been to China, unless we count a few stopovers in Hong Kong -- and is now a Japanese citizen living in New York City.

She has a hard time answering the question, "Where are you from?"  She likes to think of herself as a nomad, or even a hermit crab, toting her home around on her back.

Even while traveling all over the world, Cynthia was able to raise a fantastic daughter -- kind, easy-going, and with admission offers from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to boot!  Right now, she's looking forward to attending her daughter's college graduation in the spring, but in the meantime, she is keeping busy, taking classes at the French Culinary Institute, and offering seminars on international parenting and child-rearing in general. 

Contact Cynthia Lim


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