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?

3 thoughts on “Teaching My Asian Kids The Power of “No”

  1. It’s always so refreshing to find other fellow Asian bloggers who still speak about their culture / heritage. I completely agree with you that being a parent has totally made me grow! One thing I find myself struggling with is teaching my son to be more assertive. Like you, this is quite difficult for me. Both my husband and I are Filipinos although my husband grew up here in the States. I didn’t. So for me, asserting myself is still something I’m constantly training myself for, and teaching my son is even harder sometimes. But we just have to keep trying, don’t we? Again, great finding you (through Blogher) and I’m looking forward to reading more! :-))

    • Thank you, Joy! I’ll check out your website too. Great to “meet” another Asian mom going through the same things!

  2. “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.”

    Very nicely put, Junko-San. Helping people find truth is what my work — and the work that you and others do — is all about, yet it has to be done in a way that builds up the person, not just cut them off at the knees (which, at least at my height I can ill afford, but I digress). Sometimes I wonder if even within the church, the three words we’re more likely to hear is”get over it” instead of “God bless you.”

    That being said, I do remember several occasions where we dined at a friend or relative’s house where the food was just putrid, but we were trained to grin and bear it, and then make some (albeit half-hearted) words of appreciation so as not to insult the host. “The chicken dish was quite filling” (did you really use chicken or Play-doh?).