Parenting a Nearly Five-Year-Old in China

A Piper-directed photo shoot when she was an “alien” for Halloween. That is not meant to be some kind of racist joke. She really just confuses “alien” and “Indian.” Makes her retelling of the Thanksgiving story a little interesting.

Piper has entered a new phase of development that has me feeling exhausted all the time. I’m not sure how to describe it completely, but it’s fight-for-as-much-independence-as-possible-at-all-times. I don’t know if you’ve read “Parenting with Love and Logic” but I really think it’s the best approach to parenting for our family, at least in most life situations. It’s basically about giving your children options (that you can abide by) and letting them learn from the consequences of their decisions as much as possible, rather than discipline that isn’t necessarily even related to the situation.

One of the most difficult manifestations of Piper’s newfound desire for independence is not wanting to wear appropriate attire outside. It’s cold enough that the puddles outside have ice on them, and the wind really cuts into you. And the sight of an under-clad child is enough to put any Chinese grandma on the warpath. So for the winter, I have decide that Piper’s only two choices are to wear her coat or carry it. Now, if we lived in America, I might let her just leave her coat at home and learn that lesson the hard way (and we allowed that before it got quite so cold), but I cannot cope with Chinese-grandma scorn. I need to like living here, and that is the fastest route to fantasizing about buying a ticket home. Also, we live in a skyscraper, so Piper has no way to actually make an educated guess about what it’ll be like without a coat. Of course, Piper doesn’t like either of these choices, so every single time we go out the door, it still manages to be an ordeal.

I think living in China makes her feel even more like her life is out of her control than she would feel if we lived in the US. She has to submit to a lot of unwanted attention every time she goes outside, she has to go to Chinese school which she hates (more on that later), she has to walk a lot of places she’d rather ride, and of course, Mommy won’t budge on the wear-or-carry rule with coats. It’s so hard to know what’s just developmental, and what’s affected by life here.

How can such a sweet thing be so difficult some times?

Our parenting style is almost diametrically opposed to Chinese parenting (or grand-parenting, as the case may be). Children are bundled up to their eyeballs, fed like baby birds every time they pass their parents, given drinks of water by parents or grandparents holding a water bottle to their lips whenever their caretakers think they might be thirsty (kind of creepy to watch after a while, being more accustomed to Western parenting styles), and generally submitting to life in a way that can be almost eerie. Don’t get me wrong, there are also children who throw fits that would put most of the kids I know to shame, who are so clearly over-stimulated and tired and have gotten so much of everything they want that they get no pleasure in life, even at the tender age of three. Watching child-rearing in China is just a fascinating dichotomy between tight control and over-indulgence. However, I’m not saying that I think they are wrong (yes, I realize I’m being judgmental here, and I don’t even know half the story – these are my observations, so take them all with a whole shaker of salt). I mean, their children like to eat VEGETABLES! And they sit SILENTLY at tables at Kindergarten at the age of 2.5. And they are often very generous with my children. I should also give credit to the many Chinese people who simply dismiss our parenting oddities with the fact that we’re foreigners. The most convenient one is “Měiguórén bù pà lěng.” (American’s aren’t afraid of cold.)

Piper’s first artwork from Chinese kindergarten. She made a “fangzi” (I hope it’s obvious the Chinese characters are not by her).

Oh, as I was meaning to say, trying to allow your child to live with the consequences is really hard when everyone around you wants to protect them from those consequences. They have occasionally been saved from post-refused-breakfast hunger by the sweet cleaning ladies downstairs who always pull out chips or fruit or candy when they see my children coming. Then there is the attempted coaxing into coats that makes me feel so embarrassed because I care so much about what people think of me, and I don’t want them thinking I am so negligent and uncaring. How dare I let my daughter walk around with her jacket in her hands? I guess even some Westerners are a bit appalled that I don’t force her to put her coat on. Man I’m so jealous of people who don’t care what other people think! I hope Piper’s instincts to do, as often as possible, exactly the opposite of what I’d prefer is just a phase, at least in this extreme.

I love this picture she made me.

I feel I ought to say two nice things about the dear girl before I close, because she is still wonderful in so many ways, in spite of how often she makes me feel like pulling out my hair these days. That girl can organize! I am so impressed with how, when she feels so inclined, she can so thoroughly clean her room, putting everything in its exactly right place and leave nothing undone. She has also had an occasional inclination to do this in the boys’ room, as well, and has been trying to teach them to categorize the toys. Also, when confronted with an aggressive playmate, or when witnessing an angry child while we’re out, she often tries to reason out why they might be behaving badly (not enough sleep is usually the conclusion), and thinking of theoretical ways she could make them happy (having them over for a play date and sharing her toys). Finally, and this isn’t exactly positive, but it is certainly a skill that I cannot help admiring, she is quite adept at getting her way with the boys. If she wants, say, a particular movie or game on the computer, and they all have to agree, she puts on her most cheerful, obliging tone of voice and talks about how exciting the one she wants is, and throws in lots of, “Isn’t that nice?” or “Isn’t that exciting?” She really hams it up and it works on the boys almost every time. She has them believing that they love watching Barbie or Tinkerbell, and they love to play mermaid computer games. I hope she still gets plenty of opportunities to learn how to cope with disappointment, too, just for her sake (speaking as a once very manipulative oldest sister myself).

Here it is: Piper’s strongest skill. Shall we call it…coercion?

I love this picture. I’m not quite clear on what’s happening. Someone was poisoned so they’re dead and snoring and other people are coming to see, but they will die, too, and the sun will cry.



  1. That picture of the three of them just makes me laugh. 🙂

  2. What am amazing Piper you have! Her assertiveness and confidence causes hair tearing now (speaking from experience here), but think how well those traits will serve her as a bigger kid and adult. It must be SO hard to parent under the cultural spotlight there, but you’re doing great, as evidenced by the fact that you have children who are still strong and confident despite moving an ocean away from everything they knew before! I love the photos and I agree, Love and Logic is awesome!

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