Editor’s note: China Partnership recently spoke with Hong Laoshi (a pseudonym), a Chinese American biblical counselor living in a large city in China with her family. She hopes to transform Chinese culture and communities through the gospel of Christ. She is actively involved in her local church, and enjoys having personal relationships and deep conversations with women in her community.
Last month, she shared about why biblical counseling is a need in Chinese society. In this two part series, she shares about how she encourages and comes alongside modern Chinese parents, walking with them in the difficult but joyful journey of raising and discipling their children.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
China Partnership: You have talked about the focus on legalism in Chinese society and how parents have a desire to be perfect and do things right. From where does this deep compulsion toward perfection come? What does that look like for Chinese families?
Hong Laoshi: “Face” is an important concept in Chinese culture for both Christians and non-Christians. When kids exhibit certain inappropriate behaviors, some parents tend to correct them more in the presence of others than in private. This inconsistency is related to preserving “face” in public, wanting to present a specific image as parents to others. I ask parents to consider whether they are parenting out of love, because they want their kids to change and learn, or out of their own desire to look good in front of other people.
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We all do this to a certain extent. When we are outside with other people, we want to put on our best self. When we are at home, we are in pajamas all the time. However, if we adapt this into our parenting, then what kinds of things do parents address? When parents address kids’ issues or behavior problems because they want the kids to behave so they save face, that is legalism. That is not really the gospel.
Yesterday I was talking to a parent that expects their three-year-old to sit in the church service for an hour without talking or doing anything. I asked them where this expectation came from? Their justification was that the child needed to listen to God and behave during the sermon. It is true, we are striving for our kids to sit through the sermons, but it is unrealistic to expect a three-year-old to sit without talking, moving, or doing other things. We need to teach our children how to properly worship God and enjoy worshiping him with our whole body and our heart.
The reason I had that conversation with the parents was, you could see that as soon as the music started, the kid just sat there. But when his parents moved a bit, he shivered. For me, that is outward obedience out of fear. Who knows what he was thinking about? Parents must think about ten years down the line. They are raising kids to outwardly do what they are supposed to do, yet their heart is not there. Biblical parenting is not about that. The Bible specifically talks about training up our children outwardly—training them to have manners and be good stewards, and addressing the heart. Both are equally important. Although Christian parents agree that they need to address their children’s hearts, they tend to focus more on behaviors, rather than understanding their children’s heart and desires.
Because of the importance of having face—wanting to present themselves in the best way—a lot of times they focus on what is happening on the outside, but miss the heart. That is a big gap we see. They parent their kids the way they were taught as a child. Chinese emphasize doing good for others in order to maintain relationships, and the goal of personal duty is to achieve good in community. There is a heavy emphasis on personal behavior and sacrifice. We also grew up in the teaching that if we did not do well outwardly, we would be punished. These values affect the understanding of the connection between God and themselves when they become Christians. They understand God in a very legalistic way: “I have to do this; if I don’t, God will punish me.” Although their theology tells them otherwise, they live their lives focusing, not on God’s grace, but on that they did something wrong. “God is punishing me, that is why I lost my job. This is happening because I am not doing well and I’m not pleasing God.” We are indoctrinated into that way of living.
Parents love their children, and they want to give their children the best things they can provide. They want to give their offspring things they did not have while they were growing up, and they don’t want their children to be behind compared with other children their age. For example, my older kids are struggling to make friends in the local church. Part of it is because of their language issues, and part of it is because other local kids are quite busy with extracurricular activities. Many families are busy on the weekends because they have to take their children to different classes. Some choose to miss church worship to free up more times for those classes, and some do not mingle after worship because the kids have classes after worship.
The way they want to bring up the perfect child is tainted by culture. They focus more on those [cultural expectations]. However, they rarely ask children their opinions or know their interests. Their desire to be perfect parents is defined by how much they can materially provide for their children according to what they think their children want. On the other side, they define “good and perfect parents” by how well the children do in front of others. Either way, the focus of parenting is not on children, but on themselves. This is ego-centric.
Even coming from the same parents, children are different in so many ways. They have different strengths and weaknesses, different sin tendencies, different likes and dislikes. The principles are the same, but the way we interact with or address individual kids is so different. Even the way we approach discipline is supposed to be different. When they do not really understand their children but blindly offer them things the parents value as important, or when they primarily address outward behaviors but miss the heart, these parents miss the opportunity to build relationships with their children.
Chinese parents are eager to learn how to be better parents. However, they want a method and a set of formula to make their children better behaved. I have to challenge parents that it is not about method. You can learn methods, but you also have to understand your own child, understand where he or she is and what he or she needs in order to offer discipline. This is something these parents are wrestling with. They want to have model, perfect answers. They really want to do well in their parenting, but when they focus so much on doing well, they forget the process of training up kids is not just about formulas. They also forgot that our loving Father isn’t just interested in our children’s hearts. He also loves us and tenderly calls us to go back to him and have a personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. God uses our parenting to ask us to reflect on our hearts: are we for God, or do we put other things above him?