Be a Co-Pilot, Not a Backseat Driver

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Photo by SplitShire on

I recently went on a road-trip with a friend’s family. There we were, three adult Tiger Cubs, crammed into the back of a mini-van driven by my friend’s parents. It was pretty much how you’d expect it to go: between the sightseeing, the friend got berated for choosing an Unapproved Profession and lectured about this and that. It drove her nuts.

It got me thinking about Asian-American children’s relationships with their parents.

I used to feel like I was stuck in the parent-child dynamic where my parents gave the instructions/commands and my only choices were to obey or to rebel. It was like my parents drove the bus and I was a mere passenger.

We tend to fall into old roles and patterns with our parents, particularly when we’re thrown back into familiar environments, such as our childhood homes. No matter how old I get, when I visit my parents, I often find myself being treated like, and subsequently behaving like, a teenager.

I would sleep in my old bed surrounded by my childhood furniture. If I go out with friends, it would be the Spanish inquisition: “Who is this friend? Are they a guy or a girl? What do they do? Do they know them? Who are their parents?” My parents were expert interrogators.

My mom also set curfews. Once (not so long ago), my mother required me to be home by sundown. Since this was in June, that meant 6.30pm. I was a twenty-something-year-old for god’s sake!

The thing is – we are culpable. We let it happen to us. We enable them. If we don’t examine the state of our relationship with our parents and don’t actively consider what kind of relationship we want with our parents, we are doomed to default to the relationship we currently have.

We end up feeling like we have no control over the relationship (or for that matter, our own life), like our voice is not heard, like our opinions and views don’t matter. We end up letting the parents drive the bus. And we just sit in the back, feeling helpless, commiserating with our friends about it.

But I’m not a kid anymore and you’re not a kid anymore. Step up to the front of that bus and start co-piloting. Decide what kind of relationship you want with your parents.

Is the relationship irreparable? Do you want to maintain some sort of relationship with your parents but also a bit of distance or space? Do you want to be viewed by your parents as an equal? [I make no comments here about what kind of relationship you should want. I’ll talk about that another day.]

Now look at what kind of relationship you have with your parents right now. What aspect of your relationship needs to change?

A while ago, I realized that I wanted to develop a healthier and closer relationship with my parents. For me, this meant getting them to really see me as an adult. To that end, I’ve become more aware of aspects of my behavior that enable my parents to continue to treat me as a child.

Case in point: A few years ago, there was an imperceptible but seismic shift in my relationship with my mother. I was going out for dinner with friends and just as I was out the door, my mother invoked the Spanish inquisition (as usual). I dutifully answered each question in turn – dinner with a high school friend, yes you’ve met her, yes this is a female friend, and she’s in an Approved Profession. Satisfied, my mother wished me a fun evening and turned to leave.

Immediately, I felt the urge to ask her “what time should I be home by?” but I caught myself just in time. For the first time ever, in the history of this Tiger Cub’s life, Tiger Mom did not set a curfew. And I had almost blown it by voluntarily asking her to set one!

It had become a habit. If my mother didn’t set a curfew, I asked her. I had, over time, acknowledged my mom’s authority to set curfews for my adult self. Only by realizing that I had done that, did I manage to break the cycle.

I’m happy to report that I no longer have a curfew when I visit my parents. Hooray! Achievement unlocked.

Are you letting your parents drive the bus on your relationship with them (or with respect to your life generally)? Did you also have ridiculous curfews or other similar revelations? I’d love to hear your stories. Let me know in the comments box or send me an email at

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