Picture this: An American Woman and her Mongolian Husband attend parent-teacher conferences for their 16 year old son. His biological son, hers by marriage. He is in the 10th grade at an international school in Ulaanbaatar where the woman works. Previously the teen had attended a traditional Russian school. The couple meets with four teachers; one for each of his four classes. The reports are similar: while he has excellent behavior and is always respectful and kind, the student is lazy or unmotivated, he’s sleepy, distracted, or off-task in class, and he often turns work in late or “forgets” to do it at all.
After the meeting the wife stays to complete her work day while the husband goes home where he yells at and then “beats” (spanks) the 16 year old. The woman was afraid it would happen. She told her husband NOT to do it. And it happened anyway.
This is a true tale of what happened this past November. I was furious. Not because I’m against spanking, in principle. My parents spanked me when I was young. It was a deterrent for bad behaviors or choices. My mother slapped me across the face (only once!) when I was 13 or 14 for swearing at my sister. I thank her for the swift punishment. The shock and embarrassment (it happened in front of siblings) impacted me far more than the physical sting on the cheek! No, I’m not against corporal punishment as a general idea.
But I do not believe a 16 year old with poor study/school habits (aka learned habits) will be positively motivated by yelling and spanking. First of all, corporal punishment loses it’s impact on an older child. Shoot, I remember being nine years old and deciding that it WOULD NOT HURT when dad spanked me. And therefore, it didn’t. I didn’t cry. I walked in and out of that room smirking in triumph. I was never spanked again.
Secondly, screaming and beating do nothing to teach a child about what SHOULD be done. The punishment is completely unrelated to the behavior that needs modifying. And in this case, I’d argue that his poor behavior impacts only himself, and his future. They don’t impact my job or payment or my well being. I would argue that Dad’s poor reaction is somewhat motivated by his embarrassment or shame at his son for not representing the family in a positive or honorable light. For an only child (our son), there are no siblings to be embarrassed or ashamed in front of when spanking occurs.
What I have described here is, unfortunately, the common way to discipline children in Mongolia. It’s anchored in a belief that fear and being strict or hard with a child will motivate him or her to do better. There is less knowledge or education arount teaching, mentoring, coaching, or modeling that which we want our child to do. Parents yell, beat, and then it’s done and forgotten. Until the next time.
When I got home and heard what happened, I made an appeal. I objected and said, please, let’s try it MY WAY. No more beating/spanking! I know that for teenagers it’s all about privileges, freedoms, access, and things. For our son, this means technology. His PlayStation. An iPhone. Now a Chromebook. Also, no friend sleepovers unless grades are at a certain level. These are all privileges to be earned. And the things our son considers desirable. My husband agreed to try it.
Being an interracial, intercultural, and blended family can have many challenges. (I’d argue being blended is the toughest component!) Thankfully, my stepson has accepted me completely. He sees and treats me as his mother. The end. We’ve never had those “you’re not my real mom” outbursts. I am honored and respected and cared for by him. And I, in return, love and admire and appreciate the man he is becoming. I value the responsibility that comes with being his mom.
Therefore, the struggle in my particular case has NOT been the bonding of mother and child. It has been in the clashing of two adults who have different beliefs and expectations about what parenting looks like. Or rather, what GOOD parenting looks like. It can be difficult in that my husband has been a parent for 16 years; I have been a stepparent for two, and only one actively. But I’d argue that because of my work in education and with teenagers for the past twelve years, and as someone raised by what I feel were/are excellent parents!, I feel better “trained” for the role.
My husband and I have had numerous arguments around the topic. They usually end with my husband saying something like: “I am Mongol, I don’t parent like an American! He is Mongol kid; he should know me as his father, should respect me.” To which I reply that having the same nationality has nothing to do with how we mentor young people to change their behaviors or habits. Also, how the student does in classes has little to do with the respect he does or does not have for his parents. I also remind my husband that this family is now HALF American or Western and if/when we move to the U.S. that our son will need to be prepared for that culture, lifestyle, and educational system.
Perhaps more frustrating than the Mongolian versus American parenting style is the disinterest my husband has about his son’s schooling. My husband speaks about the “importance of Education” and how modern-day Mongolia is lacking good (aka “strict”) teachers. In my husband’s eyes it was better “during socialism period.” But I feel there is a major disconnect between how he views Education, and how he participates in the education of his child.
I ask our son about his school work, about his teachers, what his assignments are. I ask him what is hard and what is easy. I answer questions and encourage him. I celebrate when he succeeds and does well; I take away his PlayStation when grades drop below the acceptable threshold (70%). Granted, our son is taking all classes in English and as the native speaker I’m the obvious “tutor.” However, I find my husband’s disinterest offensive. When I try to talk with him about what I think he, as a dad, should or could be doing to motivate, support, and encourage his son, the response is: “This is not my deal. This is his life. His decision.” It’s a completely hands-off mentality.
And it makes me see RED! I understand that our son is becoming a young adult, that he wants and desires independence and freedom. I know he can be responsible. However, he is not ready for adulthood. He needs to be shown what good work ethic looks like. He needs to learn about self discipline and time management. He needs support as he adapts to this Western education (it is NOT at all like a Mongolian or Russian school–I’ll discuss that in another post). He needs to be celebrated when his hard work pays off. A kind word of praise or recognition goes far in this modern world where we are quick to criticize or degrade. He needs to know when he is doing well, and to see where he’s getting off track. But it all comes from me, the Western parent.
And so I’ve found myself apologizing to our son for having to live with Jekyll and Hyde parents. I refuse to adopt the Mongolian parenting style; my husband refuses to become American/Western in his parenting (though I can’t help but hope that he’ll come to see that my way has improved results).
I attended the second semester parent-teacher conferences last week. My husband is in the countryside and therefore absent. I’m happy to report that assimilation into the new school and education style is happening. Our son is doing better. Most weekends he has earned the privilege of his PlayStation. He’s doing his homework (mostly) on time. There is more progress to be made, but the shift is happening.
So while I hate that my husband can’t see how adopting a different parenting approach would benefit our son (and I’d argue my husband AND their relationship with one another), I am coming to accept that having a Jekyll parent and a Hyde parent, while not ideal, is far better than having two Hydes in the house.
Disclaimer: I know that parenting in Mongolia is shifting and changing in reaction to influences from the West (note above picture about the focus on positive discipline). I do NOT claim that everything about Western parenting is what is best for kids (e.g. helicopter parents, over-scheduled children, etc). I speak only of my own family and experiences. Therefore, it would be great to hear from other blended families about how you parent children with conflicting philosophies or beliefs. Please share your thoughts with us in the Comment section below.