Here's hoping kids pass bedpan test of filial piety

Updated: 2011-11-15 11:09

By Dinah Chong Watkins (China Daily)

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Filial piety is a cornerstone of Chinese culture. So much so that a senior's "retirement home" here is otherwise known as their grown kid's "third bedroom".

Here's hoping kids pass bedpan test of filial piety

But recent news about parental abuse - by a son stabbing his mother and a civil servant son beating his parents - has soon-to-be parents alarmed about whether the assumed safety net of their twilight years will be ripped to shreds by ungrateful children.

In response to this, the China National Association for Ethnical Studies just announced a program to teach filial piety to 1 million children between the ages of 4 and 6.

This has come under pointed criticism. First, parents must be hoping their child will be one of those million or think instead, "I must spend all my money before my child does". Second, teaching filial piety is not like a no littering campaign. While teaching small children to bow to their parents may be a fun game, the chance of your teenager washing your feet is less than winning the national lottery.

I obtained my first real job by that tried and true method, nepotism. It was a stressful environment with suppliers coming up short, partners changing contractual terms and clients demanding what was hastily promised to them. Then there was my boss - my mother.

The mother-daughter relationship is like the act of giving birth, only relived every day. There's the pain, the screaming, the need to separate, the ecstasy of love, more pain and much more screaming. Throw in a salary dispute, a hardship posting and parental disapproval of my boyfriend and it was no wonder that I contemplated the early demise of my mother.

Of course, filial piety and the fact that with her gone, there would be no one to sign my paycheck dissipated my tantrum into less rebellious moves like clocking in after 10 am and not recycling used paper.

It wasn't until the birth of my first child that I really understood and appreciated all the things that my parents had done for me. Some were great sacrifices, some were not, but most of their lives were steered in one way or another by the care and upbringing of my sister and myself.

Sure they made mistakes, and did too much or too little at one time or another. But I am who I am in many ways because of who they are and who their parents were. Blood may be thicker than water but our characteristics, values and principles are even more viscous, because like DNA, that's what replicates from generation to generation.

The 24 Filial Exemplars is a classic text of Confucian filial piety with stories like He Fed His Parents Doe's Milk, He Strangled a Tiger to Save His Father and, of course what we all hope from our children someday, He Washed His Mother's Bedpan.

But let's be realistic and not expect this from a teenage son or daughter who can find a myriad of excuses for not taking out the garbage. No, the children who have best shown filial piety to their parents are usually grandparents themselves.

In the end, can filial piety be taught? You can teach a kid to play the piano but that doesn't mean they'll like it or want to play for the rest of their life.

Filial piety in its purest form comes down to sacrificing oneself for another. It's borne out of love, loyalty and respect, not guilt or fear. The idea can be taught in the classroom but it's only in the home where it's nurtured and grown.

Which reminds me, I need to call my mom - collect