March 24, 2005    Education

Pursuit of Becoming a Selfish Parent

Almost everything I thought was going to be was wrong. It’s rather pointless to make a long-term plan about having a child, because you change and so do your values and judgment. Before the birth of my baby girl, “child” meant “responsibility”, which in turn meant “compromise”, “self-sacrifice”, and “conservatism.” I figured I had to be ready to put my child before anything else. I prepared myself to work hard even if I hated my job. I accepted that my creative life would be substantially compromised, mainly because I would have no time, money, or energy to do anything else other than working and taking care of the child. Now, I realize that I need to behave exactly the opposite of what I expected.

I need to act more selfishly; thinking of my own happiness first, and everything else second. If I cannot make myself happy, I won’t be able to make anyone else happy. If I’m not happy, the quality of my work will go down. If I’m not happy, people are not going to want to work with me. It seems wrong to be selfish when you have a child, especially because we were culturally conditioned to think the opposite. Once you have a child, your own life is supposed to end there, but this is so wrong. More than before, you have to think about yourself first, and you have to take risks, and be radical in your thinking.

If you act conservatively, and make career choices based on job security, your soul will gradually die. Your job performance will be mediocre, which will lead to less money, which in turn will make you feel more miserable, and that will affect your job performance further, and so on... Conservatism will only start a downward spiral of misery, and, in the end, that is the worst thing for your child.

Furthermore, in today’s business environment, anything that can be achieved with hard work, high IQ, academic knowledge, efficiency, consistency, and dependability, can be achieved by anyone else in the developing world with a tenth of your pay. There is no point in trying to compete with them. What is valued in today’s business is your creativity, and you cannot foster creativity by sacrificing yourself.

The other day, I was listening to two strangers at a film screening talking about a brand new handheld device, which costs 600 dollars. My first thought was, “Now with the baby, I won’t be able to justify buying something like that.” Then, I immediately realized how wrong I was to think that way. If I buy this device, and fall in love with it, I might start creating my own content for it, which may eventually turn into a lucrative business. If I don’t foster my own passion, everything I do would be mediocre. If what I do is not out of my own passion, anyone else in the developing world would be able to do it far cheaper than I could.

I am particularly susceptible to self-sacrificial thinking because I grew up in Japan where discipline and self-sacrifice were the highest virtues of the business world. That made Japan very successful in the 80’s, but not anymore. Their cohesive society was perfect for manufacturing precision goods, which required reliability, predictability, and consistency. Their tendency to self-sacrifice, and to suppress individuality, was exactly what was needed to produce reliable goods in mass quantities. Now, if they cannot shift their thinking, and allow individual creativity to flourish, they will have a grim future. In the 80’s, the US was acting as Japan’s parent. As a child, Japan just needed to listen to the US and work hard. Now Japan is a mature adult just like the US. It needs to be a parent for developing countries. To step up to that role, it needs to go beyond being consistent, reliable, and disciplined. It needs to be creative. It needs to find itself, and be a source of inspiration for the developing countries.

The reason why many parents choose the path of self-sacrifice is because they want to take their focus away from themselves. If their lives are not going so well, or if they haven’t achieved what they hoped to achieve in their lives, they can forget about all those problems by directing their attentions to their own kids. To be more accurate, they are not self-sacrificing; they are self-denying. They are using their kids as an excuse to be in denial. And, I must say, it’s a great excuse because it sounds so noble to say, “My kids come first.” But, what the kids are getting in reality are parents who are in denial about their own shortcomings.

People who are in denial are obsessed with perfection, because one admission of fault would quickly collapse the house of cards. This is why many parents are obsessed with doing everything perfectly for their kids. During the first half of the last century, parents left their babies to cry until they were exhausted. This flipped at some point, and now the trend is the exact opposite. You would be labeled a bad parent if you left your baby to cry on her own. Some doctors are political about this issue, and you can find many passionate articles on it, which give off the impression that if you leave your baby to cry for more than a few minutes, her life will be forever ruined.

If this issue was so critical in the development of a child, a huge chunk of the population who were born in the first half of the last century would be noticeably more neurotic, or psychologically deficient in some way, but this is not the case. Obviously, in the long run, it makes no material difference. There are so many issues like this about child rearing. Books and TV programs authoritatively tell you what is good or bad for kids, and the trend constantly shifts. And, every time it shifts, parents obsessively follow the new rules. They want to take their focus away from their own imperfection and lose themselves in perfecting their own children. Many of them even become competitive with other parents.

After all, what is a perfect child? What is a perfect parent? If you had no emotional baggage from childhood to conquer, how would you ever be a strong, compassionate person? It is the process of confronting and conquering your own shortcomings that makes you wiser, stronger, and more capable of love. My goal as a parent isn’t to raise my child perfectly. I’m sure I will make all sorts of mistakes, and my baby girl will have all sorts of emotional and psychological problems from them. It’s unavoidable. What I strive for, instead, is to be strong enough to listen attentively to her criticism, when she confronts me about my shortcomings in her adult life, just as my parents did for me. If the point of having a child was to take the focus away from your own shortcomings, by the time your child is a grown adult, you will have no courage left to listen to your own child. The focus should always remain on yourself. In this sense, having a child is a selfish pursuit of bettering your imperfect self.