A scientific approach to parenting

Dr Lê Nguyên Phương, who worked as a school psychologist in the US, has returned to Việt Nam to focus on the topic of mental health in families. He shares some insights into parenting with Vân Anh.

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Dr Lê Nguyên Phương. Photo courtesy of Phương

Inner Sanctum: Why did you begin to focus on the topic of mental health in families in Việt Nam?

I believe that healthy citizens make a healthy society, especially mentally-healthy citizens. The older generation of Vietnamese went through war and poverty and experienced trauma. Culturally, in Vietnamese families, corporal punishment (smacking) is used to coerce children into compliance. Socially, parents are too busy with accumulating wealth and spend too little time listening to or accommodating their children’s needs, so the younger generation often feel that their emotions are neglected. “Helicopter parents”, meanwhile, put a lot of pressure on their children to perform and achieve to their own expectations, regardless of the child’s dreams or characteristics. Consequently, as children become adults they may have an identity crisis or other mental health issues due to a lack of support and understanding from the family. What will our society be like in the next 10 or 20 years when this younger generation are leaders?

Inner Sanctum: Can you tell us about your book “Dạy con trong hoang mang” (Raising children in confusion)? How has it been received?

The two-volume book has been warmly received not only by parents but also by critics. Some parents thought my books would provide tips and tricks to help raise children, or address certain types of misbehaviour. It’s actually the opposite, though. It addresses parents’ core values and worldviews, and as a result their parenting approach. I divided each topic into smaller case studies, provided arguments for different parenting approaches, and backed them up with scientific evidence. This approach allows readers to engage in discussions, re-examine their own values and desires, and explore and understand why they raise their children in certain ways.

Inner Sanctum: How do parenting styles in the US and Việt Nam differ?

The US is too large a country and its demographics too complex to generalise, but, certainly, corporal punishment is illegal in most states. But the biggest difference is the abundance of resources such as mental health services and parenting courses in the US. There are even courses for couples preparing to marry. That’s something I’m actually working on, to provide resources on parenting for Vietnamese parents as well as on family and marriage issues for couples.

Inner Sanctum: A lot of professionals have recently focused on childhood trauma. Why do you think this has been on the rise?

Besides professionals, society in general has also been paying greater attention to types of trauma, whether developmental or societal. As a country goes through war, poverty, and other hardships, generation after generation suffers. There is an urgent need for help, but professional services are limited. Equipped with more knowledge about mental health and related disorders, people are now more aware of stress, anxiety, and depression among children. Most children with these challenges have experienced childhood trauma. Society also pays more attention to relations between different personalities and childhood experiences. From an academic perspective, we once focused only on theoretical psychology, not on applied psychology, which provides more information on mental health and treatments. With happiness the goal in a successful life, taking care of one’s mental health and especially childhood trauma becomes significant.

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WISE WORDS: Dr Lê Nguyên Phương speaks at a talk on identifying and healing after childhood trauma. Photo Dr Lê Nguyên Phương

Inner Sanctum: What is a good approach to parenting in Vietnamese society?

I personally believe that throughout our lives we learn through failure. Cultivating wisdom and compassion help us become a better version of ourselves not only as parents but as human beings. For parenting, an approach I hold in high regard is the authoritative approach according to Diane Baumrind’s research, which has four criteria: expectation, discipline, support, and love, all scaled up. High expectations include being aware of children’s needs and being able to provide a lot of love. It’s not an easy approach, and of course you don’t have to wait until you possess all these qualities before you become a parent. But if you choose to try and walk that path as an authoritative parent, you will eventually improve.

Inner Sanctum: Do you think parenting styles have changed significantly across generations? Can you give us some examples?

Parenting styles in Việt Nam have definitely improved. Many parents refrain from corporal punishment and some even refrain from scolding. But what’s most important for Vietnamese parents is to face their own fears and greed, to avoid shaping children into certain models and inadvertently causing them to suffer.

Inner Sanctum: How can families build strong bonds and connections that help grow support, trust, and understanding between parents and children?

It’s an ongoing process and I am designing a programme, which has the acronym HELP: H for Harmony, E for Empathy, L for Learning, and P for Peace. While Harmony and Empathy emphasise relationships between members of a family, Learning and Peace focus more on working to improve oneself. Families need to learn, play, and work together. Parents tend to give up on play once they become parents, so they don’t know how to play with their kids. Entertainment like scrolling through Facebook is not playing. Families should be a team, to foster empathy and harmony among members. Even bedtime stories can be playing. Sharing the household chores also allow family members to have fun together instead of feeling obligated to do so.

Communication is also extremely important. Besides content, communication also includes context, tone, facial expressions, and word choice. Besides communicating to inform, communication can also soothe people’s feelings. You should be aware and reflective of your tone, your attitude, and the purpose of the conversation, to gain knowledge of the way you communicate, so you will be able to transform and grow together with your family.

Inner Sanctum: We’ve talked a lot about parenting. How about methods for children to communicate better with their parents and to negotiate?

Well, I have developed another model called the model of transformation for each individual. It consists of six “selfs”: self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-determination, self-governance, self-constitution, and self-liberation. First you need to be aware of and know yourself well enough to express yourself. Then you can communicate your determination to your parents and take ownership of your life. You need to be polite but, more importantly, assertive when voicing your needs. If you don’t already possess these skills, you can learn them and practise. Remember, submission to your parents is not the same as love and respect. Of course, when communicating, you need to keep an open mind and have no predetermined ideas. When there’s conflict, communication to learn and grow together is crucial. VNS

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