Father (and mother) really did know best

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 1:08AM

My prior post about honesty and loyalty elicited several thoughtful comments. One reader asked about the contrast between Confucian doctrine and values and modern China.

There are two periods in the history of China where education and nurturing were put to the test.

The first was during the reign of the Qin emperor who first unified China. He was an absolute ruler who built the Great Wall to keep China safe from the nomadic tribes in the north and northwest and also constructed the Grand Canal establishing transport links between the northern and southern provinces in his realm, which is still recognized as one of the great feats of ancient engineering.

Qin's foresight to unify China with standardized measures, currency and a common language probably explains why the Chinese empire still remains intact when other ancient empires have disintegrated.

His adoption of the philosopher Xunzi’s (荀子) legalist approach to governance meant the abolishment of philosophies of the ancient sages -- accomplished by burning books and burying alive many scholars. Qin prohibited the teaching of Confucian classics, but fortunately with parental nurturing, the young preserved ethics and values. Hence the substance of Confucius’ philosophy survived in China for centuries after the Qin dynasty.

The second challenge came during Mao ZeDong’s Cultural Revolution, when parents were dispatched to hard labor camps and children were pressed into the peasant revolution. The young were deprived of both schooling and parental nurturing. This was further exacerbated by the one child policy, the brainchild of economist Ma Yinchu.

When the Confucian beliefs, values and age old wisdom of the sages fell by the wayside, they may have been irretrievably lost.

The crucial message is that parental nurturing is vitally important. Five hundred years before Confucius, King Solomon recorded in the book of Proverbs an exhortation "to train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6) and a warning that “the rod of correction imparts wisdom; but a child left to himself disgraces his mother” (Proverbs 29:15). Treat children with love and respect by all means but not as equals.

The question that begs an answer is: Could there be a link between the degradation of family values in modern China and a preponderance of cases of non-compliance?

Let us compare this with the United States, where there has been obvious evolution of the role of parents in home nurturing of the young. How have the new practices departed from the model proposed by Confucius and other sages like King Solomon?

In the past, the role of men was to provide for the family financially, whereas the role of women in the home was to be the guardian of morality.

Before 1930, only young and unmarried women worked while married women entered the workforce only out of necessity. The women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s saw a shift as more women sought long term gainful employment with increasing numbers receiving college and graduate education. Women in increasing numbers worked whether or not out of necessity, compared with past generations who worked intermittently owing to marriage and childbirth. Today, it has almost become a stigma to be labeled a housewife or a stay-at-home mom.

TV in the 1950s provided a convenient moral babysitter. Entertainment was used to convey Puritan-based values and ethics: Respect your elders; always tell the truth; lying never works; crime does not pay; sin has its consequences; be patriotic. Programs like Leave it to Beaver, Father knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Bonanza, Truth or Consequences and others provided moral content which lasted through to the 1960s, mainly impacting today’s Baby Boomer generation. Compare this with the violence and vitriol seen in programs today.

With both parents at work and as jobs globalized, business travel took parents further away from home for longer periods, and away from their duties of nurturing the young. (In the 1970s, the airlines even created a separate class of travel for these working parents which we commonly refer to now as Business Class.)

Along with the dual incomes came the benefits of economic self-sufficiency, materialism, a bigger house, a second car, extravagant holidays, and easy credit. In the 1980s, Greed is Good symbolized the excesses of modern life.

Meanwhile, time spent nurturing children declined. More meals out and fewer at home loosened family ties further. (The fast food culture also began causing long-term health problems, signaled by child obesity.)

Today, the virtual world of online games, cell phones, tablets and the like has further distanced parents from their children. Indeed, values now come from that virtual world, which are often dark and violent. The role of the family declines further, as do gatherings around the kitchen table or in a house of worship.

"Family values" is now a code-phrase in political banter. Real family values and the nurturing of children is now outsourced digitally.

Neglected today is this simple wisdom from Plato: Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.