Teaching My Asian Kids The Power of “No”

IMG_0949I come from a culture where the word no is a bit of a taboo.

It’s not that we don’t have the word no in Japanese. It is iie (pronounced ee-ee-yeh).  The trouble is, we don’t often come right out and say it.  Our culture is really big on saving face, both our own and that of the other party, so to just say no without much padding around it is not very cool.

So, we Japanese have perfected the art of beating around the bush.

Thank you so much for inviting me.  I really don’t deserve such kindness. (i.e., I really don’t care to go to your party)

That certainly is a colorful dress! (It’s actually quite dreadful)

I have never tasted such an interesting dish. (Ewwww)

I’ve seen some beautiful ladies with that same haircut. (Bad style on you)

Both parties are adept at reading between the lines, so they dance in unison around the truth until they both get the clue.  Yeah, it’s like speaking code half the time.  For the people within the Japanese society, however, this is normal and everyone totally gets each other. Often, one caves and ends up saying yes out of obligation, but at least no one loses face.

Imagine our shock, then, when my family emigrated here when I was a child.  Americans are so direct!  From our perspective, our new neighbors seemed completely rude and cruel for being so straightforward.  It took quite a while to stop feeling personally wounded by every direct answer.

In time, though, I began to appreciate the honesty of this culture.  It was rather freeing not having to read between the lines and guessing what people were truly saying.  We actually saw the value in coming right out and saying yes or no, thereby extinguishing false hopes and expectations.

I realize I am generalizing here, as I have since met indirect speakers in the US as well as blunt people in Japan.  But in any culture, I see a keen need to balance honesty with kindness — “Speaking the truth in love,” as it says in Ephesians 4:15.

Having grown up in both cultures, I now prefer hearing straight answers over indirect ones, and I certainly prefer it over lies.  More often than not, though, I still have trouble speaking directly, which drives my husband up the wall. “You’re being cryptic again.  Just tell me what you want,” he tells me in frustration. I also still end up doing something out of obligation occasionally because I just could not say no, but I’m making progress.  It’s still important to be considerate of others, but not at the expense of my own sanity.

For my own kids, therefore, I am trying to raise them up in the best of both cultures.  I want them to be honest with their feelings while being gentle. The word tactfulness comes to mind here.  More importantly, however, I want them to be able to say “no” when they need to, especially to bad people:

“No, I don’t want to try drugs.”

“No, I don’t want to go out with you.”

“No, that is not a nice way to speak to me.  Please stop.”

The best way for them to learn to do this is at home.  In order to accomplish this, therefore, I have to resist busting through their no‘s.   I can allow them to not like my new recipe, return outfits I bought for them on my own if they don’t like it, and, someday when they’re grown adults, to let them choose to go on a trip with their friends instead or coming home for the Holidays.  Of course, we wouldn’t allow “No, I don’t want to go to bed!” when they’re 5 years old, but you get the idea — incremental no‘s at age appropriate steps.

I have learned a great deal on this topic through an insightful book called Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.  I highly recommend it for everyone but especially for parents.  After all, we have to be healthy to raise healthy kids.

I don’t know about you, but becoming a parent has forced me to grow up.  Hasn’t it, for you?

Yes or no?

What We Did At Summer Camp



We exercised together...

We exercised together…

I hung out with some of my biggest fans.

I hung out with some of my biggest fans.

I gathered a few other moms for some late night workouts!

I gathered a few other moms for some late night workouts!


We spent quality time with some friends.

...And learned great lessons about God from wonderful speakers like Pastor Rene Schlaepfer of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, CA.

…And learned great lessons about God from wonderful speakers like Pastor Rene Schlaepfer of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, CA.

After the week, we had our traditional dinner out at Alexander's Steakhouse in Cupertino, CA.

After the week, we had our traditional dinner out at Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino, CA.

Here's one of the best parts -- we FLEW home instead of driving 8 hours this year!

Here’s one of the best parts — we FLEW home instead of driving 8 hours this year!

Summer Camp and How We Parents Grow

20130710-224513.jpgOur family just returned from a week-long camp at Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center in Northern California.  This is our 11th year of what has become our family tradition.

When we arrived at Mt. Hermon for the very first time, our kids were only ages 4 and almost 2.  We were all at Main Camp together in one cabin, sharing two beds amongst the four of us.  We ate every meal together and played ping pong until late at night.  We swam at the pool and hung out at the Fountain for ice cream and snacks with new friends.  Except for the times when the kids went off to their own camp programs, we were constantly together and built memories as a family.

As the years went by and our kids grew, it became increasingly uncomfortable to share beds, even if they were queen-size.  They became a little more independent, roaming the camp ground with their friends like pack animals and hanging out at the Fountain until the wee hours.  They found other friends to sit with at meals and even had a sleepover or two at friends’ cabins, all within the safe confines of Mt. Hermon.

Then, a few years ago, the day finally came when Josh had to go to a separate campground for junior high campers.  Though it was only a few miles away, he was going to be on his own for an entire week for the first time.  Like it or not, he had to adjust to sleeping in his own bunk in a cabin with seven other boys and a counselor. He was not looking forward to it.

Josh doing just fine now with his friends at senior high camp

Josh doing just fine now with his friends at senior high camp

On the appointed visitation day, we arrived to find our junior higher standing at the end of the parking lot craning his neck, eagerly awaiting the arrival of his parents who were 30 minutes late. After a long hug, he showed us his cabin, introduced us to his counselor, and gave us a tour of his camp, dusty and small compared to Main Camp.  He said he was having fun but we could tell he was holding back tears. If it wasn’t for the counselor who invited him to go play a game, Josh would probably have hopped in our trunk to escape back to our cabin.

Fortunately, he sounded much more upbeat when we picked him up on Saturday.  “Meg, you are going to love junior high camp,” he declared to his sister who was enjoying being an only child that week at Main Camp, a luxury afforded only to our firstborn for the first two years of his life.

Meg having a great time at inter-high camp.

Meg having a great time at inter-high camp.

We weren’t quite so concerned about Meg going off to her own camp the next year, partly because her brother had already paved the way and also because she is a natural social butterfly.  Sure enough, she enjoyed her independence immensely.  Last week was her second time away at her own camp, and she remarked that it was “the best week of my life!” All 12 years…

What caught us off guard, however, was how lost David and I were going to feel when we first became kid-less.  We wondered around Main Camp the first couple of days in a daze.  Before long, however, we got quite used to being just the two of us again and was almost sad that the week was ending.

And we will continue repeating this tradition for at least a few more years.  Both kids love their youth camps so much that visitations are now very brief.  “Hi mom and dad!  Thanks for coming.  Well, bye!” is about the extent of it.  We’re glad.

We learn a lot about God while we are at Mt. Hermon, but most of all it has been a great lesson in parenting.  We hold them close, then we gradually let go with each passing year and watch our own children build faiths of their own.  Within the safe haven of Mt. Hermon, surrounded by other parents leading the way or walking alongside us, David and I have learned to grow as parents.

What are your summer family traditions?  Tell me here or I’ll see you at the Fountain!