March 12, 2017    PhilosophyEducationEast vs. West

What Role Should a Parent Play in Making Life-Determining Decisions for a 12-Year-Old?

In grade school, my parents insisted that I join a swim team. Other than that, strangely, they were completely hands-off. It was not their choice or suggestion for me to come to the US. They had no part in deciding to study art. They never helped me or even encouraged me to study to get into a good school. I don’t know if they even had any image of me in the future. I do, however, remember my dad saying I should open a noodle shop, but it was pretty clear that it was his own fantasy. I didn’t feel any pressure to learn how to make noodles.

When I did get accepted into a relatively prestigious high school in Japan, I was surprised to learn that my father went by himself to check the board that listed the accepted students. I didn’t know that he cared. Perhaps their indifference was only on the facade. Perhaps they were secretly itching to intervene or influence my future. When I told them that I wanted to study art in New York, my mother at least raised a token amount of objection. She probably felt that it was her duty to make sure I was serious. My dad said nothing. He just okayed it. It’s not like they were rich. Financially speaking, sending me to a foreign country, especially to the one for which the foreign exchange rate was unfavorable (in the 80s), was certainly not a casual decision they could have made. They had to pay for it all. No student loans or scholarships were available to foreign students. On top of it, because I could not legally work, even the summer time was expensive. Going back to Japan every summer would have been expensive too.

They did, however, intervene for my sister at the last minute. She is two years older than me, and she had always been my protector throughout my childhood. She was a badass at school and most of my schoolmates feared her, so nobody dared to pick on me. In middle school, she seemed rather lost, and that was probably the reason why my father intervened, which surely made a lasting impact on her life. With his autistic intensity, he conducted research and dug out a specialized high school in Tokyo to train nurses. My sister complied without resistance, and eventually became a nurse. She married a doctor and they now have their own clinic. I still revere my big sister.

So, my natural tendency is to be hands-off with my own child because that’s how I grew up and what I’m familiar with. But then I realize that every child is different. Perhaps hands-off was the right strategy for me but not for my daughter. I wonder.

For whatever reason, I had always assumed that she would go to art school like my wife and I did. But as soon as she could reason, she was like hell no. She indignantly asked why she should go to art school when it didn’t work out well for her parents or her grandparents (my wife’s side). My wife and I were cornered, forced to reality-check our assumptions. OK. So, she is going mainstream which is not a familiar territory for us.

At her age, twelve, it’s far too early to be talking about what she wants to be when she grows up. Chances are, by the time she is out of college, any career or profession she can name today wouldn’t exist. She says she wants to be a lawyer but who knows in what form it would still exist then.

The way I see it, at this stage, the only choice she could make is whether to choose the path of singularity or superiority.

The challenge with the former is to be as unique as you can be so that you could not be measured by any existing standards. You defy categorization. Steve Jobs was a good example of that, more unique than any conventional artists in galleries and museums. After all, the latter play by the rules of the pre-existing institutions. Jobs played by his own rules.

The challenge with pursuing superiority is that you have to be constantly ahead of everyone, which means you have to be bored at school. You cannot rely on your teachers to teach you anything at school because they are busy attending to everyone else behind you. Your peers could only drag you down until you get into a good school where everyone around you is suddenly as smart as or smarter than you are.

What I don’t like about the path of superiority, the reason why I wanted my daughter to pursue the path of singularity, is that it’s alienating. The standards by which you measure yourself and others were not created by you. They don’t take into account your singularity, what makes you unique and special in this world. For instance, a career in the academia can be very easily and quickly measured by the name of the institution you are affiliated with. People do not need to know anything about the subject you teach and study; if you stand next to a professor from Harvard or Stanford, they know you are supposed to be inferior. It only takes the second to pronounce the word “Harvard” to judge your whole life.

But the path of singularity is not for everyone either. Looking at my daughter’s friends, I can already see who will and won’t pursue that path. It doesn’t make sense to go down that road unless you are already somehow different in immeasurable ways, which commonly means you are neurotic, eccentric, odd, weird, or have some sort of disorders like ADHD or autism. For my generation and before, homosexuality was included in that list too.

The path of superiority is certainly the mainstream and is perceived as the safer choice, but with the global competition ahead of us, it’s a risky choice too. The people who live in less wealthy countries are going to choose the safer option because they cannot afford to take any chances. They are not going to spend their hard-earned money on sending their kids to art school. The path of superiority will be filled with, for instance, the billions of kids from China who will directly compete with the American kids in the globalized market.

Given that every industry is being disrupted by technologies, and every job is being automated, I’m not sure what value the future generations would have if they are, say, below ten percent of any standards. Every market will only need the top ten percent or less. Since measuring them is so easy, the ninety percent would be eliminated in a matter of seconds. In today’s market, human resource is not about quantity but quality. This is why people complain about not being able to find any jobs, and at the same time, the employers complain about not being able to find any qualified candidates. For the latter, only the top ten percent has any value.

But the path of singularity isn’t any safer either. Just because you are absolutely unique, it does not mean that your uniqueness has any market value. There is a lot of luck involved in the two coinciding. So, it’s more than likely that you end up in a career where you feel alienated anyway, just to make ends meet.

I feel bad for my daughter’s generation; they have absolutely no visibility into the future. I’m glad that she at least knows which path she wants to take, and that’s a big decision. Now, I just need to support her in her decision. It would be interesting to see what the path of the mainstream is like, the path I abandoned back in Japan.