Sunday, January 1, 2012

Raising Children in South Korea: Ideals Governing Childraising

Before I came to Korea I believed that Asians in general were very strict parents. I think most Westerners stereotype Asian parents as super pushy demanding hardcore dictators whose only goal in life is to get their children into the best universities so they can become doctors or lawyers.  You can see this stereotype on a recent Glee Season 3 Episode 3 where Mike Chang receives an A- or Asian F and his father goes ballistic.

While there is truth to the stereotype - Korean parents spend loads of money on their children's education and try their darndest to get them into the best universities around the world - it does not mean that they are very strict when it comes to childraising.  In fact, the opposite is true and it causes a lot of problems in our home and in other homes where Western and Eastern "deep culture" (Hanley, 1999) ideals of childraising are converging.

To illustrate my point I'll share a couple of my own experiences with you:

Gomo #1

A couple of months ago our family went to visit our ‘Gomo’ (my husband’s paternal aunt) for the first time in a satelite city near Seoul.  While there my child was acting like a typical toddler.  He was swinging a broom around lots of glass, playing with glass figurines, throwing his pens everywhere, screaming at the top of his lungs.  I kept on telling him ‘no’ but all the adults there, excluding my husband, kept on stopping me and encouraged my son to do whatever he liked.  There came a point when he purposefully peed on me and I lost it and put him in time out and very sternly talked to him.
Well, my Gomo was so upset with me.  She gave me the look of death, picked up my son, and took him out of the house.  Then she came back with him to get something, I tried to get J, but she wouldn’t let me touch him.  Remember – I had just met her that day.
I felt really embarrassed at that time, like I had committed a serious crime.  I wondered what they thought of me and I also felt angry that Gomo just took my son and wouldn’t let me touch him. I wondered if my mother-in-law would chew me out later or if my husband would give me what for, for losing face or something.
In the end, everything was fine.  No one chewed me out, Gomo gave me back J eventually with a smile on her face.
Gomo #2
In the summer we went to visit another Gomo in Jellonam-do.  Now for the past 2 years my son has been taking a nap at 1pm but as soon as he got to Gomo's house he knew he wouldn't have to listen to me anymore so everytime I took him for his nap he would scream and cry his lungs out. 
 Of course Gomo came into the bedroom and gave me a slap like I was an evil mother and took my son out of the room.  Gomo's husband gave me what for "He's just a baby.  He should do what he wants.  He doesn't want to sleep so let him play."
Well the results were that three days late my little son was a monster.  He started crying all the time, hitting people, and in general was miserable.  I could tell he was so tired but there was nothing I could do about it. 
Sleep Training
If any of you have ever tried to sleep train your child then you can feel my pain.  I've been co-sleeping with J for about two years but am getting real tired of it.  I have tried on several occasions to get him to sleep by himself which always results in his crying and a rescue from daddy or grandmother@@ 

So there are two things here: 1. Children should be treated gently and be allowed to do whatever they want. 2. Elders can do whatever they want and feel they have the say in how a child is raised, even if they are not related to you or don’t know you.  
I don't disagree with the way Koreans raise their children.  It is a very gentle, loving approach to childrearing.  I always feel good when J is at a Korean home or around Koreans because I know that no one will scold him or give him a dirty look for acting like a child.
BUT I have been raised in the West where there are very strict rules regarding children and I find that I cannot accept the Korean way totally.  I like J to have a routine, I like him to be respectful, I don't think he should do whatever he wants, and I believe he should sit in time out if he is out of control. 
What is going on is that I am experiencing an aspect of the "deep culture" of Korea - something that most outsiders are not aware of.   Hanley uses the illustration of an iceberg to show the difference between surface culture and deep culture.  He (1999) states" ..the journey toward cultural competence is both lifelong and painful" (p. 9).  I agree that it can be painful but very interesting as well. 

Hanley, J. (1999). Beyond the tip of the iceberg: Five stages toward cultural competence.  Reaching Today's Youth, National Education Service, 9 - 12.


  1. I can very much disagree and this may be just a tradition within the family you are part of.
    I am a full-Korean, and while I was growing up, corporeal punishment was implemented if I did anything that would be considered dangerous and extremely wrong. Otherwise, I was punished with more corner duty like of punishments just as American children were. Grounding however, was not a concept that my family understood or thought was logical. Children will always find ways around being bored.

  2. I agree with Aislinn21...I am half Korean (mother is Korean and father is American), and corporal punishment was the norm with us, as well. Although Koreans do very much believe in the "It Takes a Village" approach to childrearing, there is a marked difference between how a woman acts as "oma," and how she acts as "halmoni." My mom was extremely strict with us growing up. Anything less than an A was unacceptable, I was not to focus on relationships because school was more important, and I was constantly reminded that everything I did reflected on her as a parent. Now that I'm grown and have my own son, she has done a complete 180. She is much more permissive with my son, and tells me to relax on discipline all the time.

  3. Does the gender of the child not play a role? More lenient and less overprotective with boys, no?

  4. I married a Korean woman with an 8 year old son, and I wholly agree with the author. The kid eats what he wants when he wants. If he doesn't want what's on the menu, what he does want is then prepared. If he demands french fries at 11 pm, he gets french fries at 11:15 pm. I suggested that this was unhealthy, but was told that a Korean mother doesn't refuse food to her children. Discipline is near zilch, unless she really gets angry, then she'll hit him with a bamboo stick a couple of times, which seems to bring him to heel. But it's hardly a world of strict discipline.

  5. SO true! My wife is Korean and we have a 3 year old boy. My wife is very well traveled and doesn't like the Korean parenting style. Neither do I. But like the author said, which was spot on, elders feel they have a say in your childrens' upbringing. The author is VERY tolerant. I am not at all when it comes to others interfering with my parenting. Suggestions and advice are welcome. My wife and I read parenting books and discuss all the time. We are open to change...but only if we agree to it. There's nothing that infuriates me (and my wife too) than people cutting in on our parenting rights. That's just something we don't allow, which is exactly why we're leaving Korea. We want our kids to be in touch with their Korean roots, but we can't raise our kids here and keep our sanity at the same time. You can't have your cake and eat it too.