Sun Sun Lim on her book, Transcendent Parenting

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: In Transcendent Parenting, you argue that middle-class parents in Asia have to transcend themselves bodily, virtually, and temporally because of the increasing proliferation of mobile device usage. Could you explain a bit what you mean by transcendence, and how these mobile devices might encourage the transcendence of parenting obligation, surveillance, and time?

Sun Sun Lim: Essentially, the use of technology has lubricated our lives but also intensified the parenting burden and complicated parent-child relationships. This heightened connectivity thus enables but also encourages parents to transcend the physical distance between them and their kids, to transcend every online and offline environment their children travel through, and to also transcend timeless time and parent relentlessly.

For example, parent must now manage their children’s lives through multiple platforms including apps for parent-teacher communication, and online gradebooks that provide parents with data on their children’s in-class and test performance. Parents can therefore accompany their children into the classroom virtually, and even quiz them on why their in-class performance this week paled in comparison to the last. Such connectivity between parents and teachers, while seemingly helpful, can complicate the parent-child relationship and over-involve parents in their children’s lives.

Besides these official communication channels there are messaging platforms such as WhatsApp that parents are using to communicate with teachers, as well as with other parents. While these massive chat groups can inundate their members with messages, they can be a useful resource. But these groups do not confine themselves to such instrumental communication and that parents can become too immersed in their children’s lives and allow playground politics to seep into adult interactions. My research uncovered some disputes between children that took place in school continued to be waged by their parents in the online chats, with other parents taking sides and even offering support and solidarity, solicited or otherwise. These exchanges exacerbated tensions within the group and spilled over into the parents’ and children’s face-to-face interactions as well.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout your book, you show how parents (and schools) transcend themselves for children’s successes, a process that sometimes crosses the personal line. Is this phenomenon particular to Asian middle-class families? Will it be different from working-class families in Asia, or even middle-class families elsewhere? What are some underlying cultural ideologies driving this phenomenon?

Sun Sun Lim: This rise in digitally intensified parent-school, parent-child, parent-parent interaction has also been noted in many other urban, digitally-connected cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. I have shared my research with multi-national audiences across Asia and Europe and it struck a chord with parents of many nationalities because all middle-class parents are now digitally connected to their children and the family’s broader network. This connectivity, coupled with middle-class families’ aspirations for upward mobility that translate into significant investment in children and their positive development, manifests itself in transcendent parenting.  

Kevin Laddapong: Many applications in the book, such as homework and grade tracking, and group chats for parents, intensify psychological and affective pressure. It seems that you imply these had gone wrong and parents should restrain themselves from over-parenting. How should parents consider abating such stress for children growing up?

Sun Sun Lim: Parents should refrain from being too concerned with in-class performance metrics, or using them to demand more zealous participation by their children, or greater care by the teachers. Separately, some of our interviewees would message teachers over trivial matters that their children could easily have managed on their own in school. But when parents take over such tasks, they rob their children of the precious opportunity to develop their own problem-solving abilities. Resisting parental intervention in every situation is key to nurturing independence in children. 

In a parent chat groups, some parents share tips on effective tuition programmes or enrichment classes, thereby raising the parenting stakes among all the parents in the chat. Indeed, some of our interviewees admitted to feeling pressured when reading such posts, wondering if they should enrol their children in such classes to avoid disadvantaging them. Others steadfastly refused to cave in to such pressures, even if they acknowledged the benefits of being connected to other parents. Collectively therefore, we need to dial down this culture of over-sharing and constant comparison, where every post serves to redefine what it means to be a good parent.   

The constant notifications from these apps and chats can also be tremendously stress-inducing, with working parents feeling like they have to constantly keep an eye on their children’s schedules and homework, even while performing their professional duties. Perhaps we need to set some norms around when and how such platforms should be used, and the expectations around how soon we must respond, so that parents and teachers are less overwhelmed by the constant connectivity.

Kevin Laddapong: Most of the sociological studies of the family are highly gendered and male/female divided. However, most of the informants in this book are kept gender-neutral. Gender-neutrality is a surprising analytical choice, and I was wondering if you could discuss what led you to make this decision and what consequences this had for your subsequent analysis?

Sun Sun Lim: Principally, my concerted decision to use “transcendent parenting” encompasses an aspirational dimension that aims to capture the more desired and indeed, more desirable state of shared parenting responsibilities. In societies where dual income households are becoming increasingly common, it no longer makes sense to privilege the mother’s parenting obligation, and more structures must be put in place to ensure that fathers shoulder a more equitable share of parenting responsibilities. Essentially however, given the critical role that mobile media play in the lives of families, I believe that transcendent parenting is already being experienced by both parents, even if to unequal degrees. As conceptions of the parenting duties that fathers and mothers should bear evolve, the experience and practice of transcendent parenting will alter as well. Hence my analysis was undertaken with this aspirational perspective – that inclusive language will encourage an inclusive mindset that paves the way for greater gender parity in raising children.