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Once upon a time there was a pupil and a dog made of stone. Everyday when the pupil passed by the village pavilion, the stone dog wagged its tail to greet him. Puzzled, the pupil did not know what to make of this. Then one day, he gathered his courage and asked the dog why it kept greeting him? The dog replied, “I wag my tail to greet the celebrated Mandarin.” The pupil told this story to his parents. After much conjecture, the parents concluded that their son would triumphantly pass the national examination and become the new mandarin in the future. Since that day, his parents boasted to everyone that they were going to be parents of a great mandarin. Those who had not been treating us properly better mend their ways. The two parents were so arrogant that nobody in the village could stand them. Yet nobody said anything since they knew for a fact that the boy was a talented student. It’s better not to to get on their bad side, or we lowly people will not stand a chance of survival!

The happy ending of the story revealed that one day when passing by the village pavilion, the pupil was surprised to find that the dog stopped wagging its tail. The conclusion of the story – somewhat legendary though – must be obvious to us.

Our ancestors often warned us about how we shouldn’t “intimidate people before you get power” or simply: “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”. In the past, under the feudal regimes, those who passed the national exams were granted the status of mandarin. With the title that came with immeasurable power, parents and even relatives had a hard time confining the manifestations of their arrogance. When my son (grandson, husband, brother, cousin, friend…) becomes a mandarin, revenge will be sweet.

Nowadays and in North America, though students, after successfully defending their Ph.D.’s, may not necessarily become mandarins (unless they choose to enter politics). Yet parents, overflowed with ego, still annoy others incessantly with their ostentatious display of pride.

Many parents praise their kids and boast about them to the point of making the listeners blush. When the son of an acquaintance of mine entered the first year of Natural Science in a university; though he had not made up his mind about his future direction, his parents assured everyone that he would become a neurosurgeon. During a visit to a relative, whose old mother had been under the weather for a while, his mother said to him: “My Doc, could you examine grandma and make a diagnosis please?” The young man hesitated but indulged his mother by doing a ‘clinical examination’ on the old lady. Prying open her eyelids, asking her to open her mouth and say: ahhhh, knocking here, squeezing there. Does it hurt here? How long ago? etc.  

Fifteen minutes had passed. The young man slowly stepped out of the patient’s bedroom and was swarmed with the mother’s infatuated look. After listening to her son’s cursory explanation, the mother eagerly dictated, “Write a prescription for grandma so that she doesn’t have to see the family doctor.” The diploma-granted-by-his-own-mother doctor hesitated a while and said: “There’s water in her lungs.” It was fortunate that he did neither prescribe her medications nor perform a lung puncture on her to withdraw liquid.

At a young age, children usually “play doctor”, and when the “kid doctor” is ceremoniously greeted by his or her peers: “Hello Doctor!” he or she feels proud to perform his or her “duty”. However, when the game is over, the kids go home, the imaginary white doctor’s coats don’t go home with the kids. The desire to be a doctor will not keep him or her up at night, except those kids who strongly aspire to become doctors, in which case, the fascination will become the burning fuel to light his or her doctor-dream.

How about that fresh-out-of-high school student whose mother brags incessantly “my son is a doctor-to-be”? How does he feel? Probably awkward and embarrassed. He might protest nicely that it is not true, “Mom, I’ve just entered the university.” However for those who like to boast (like the parents), after the initial uneasiness, they would be elated with such adulation. And deep in their mind, a learned behaviour of egotism is formed. Such distorted feelings will drive the student in the wrong direction. Instead of trying their best to become a real doctor, or simply to reach their goal, they will become complaisant with the tenuous pride their parents helped establish. Their parents are inadvertently harming them, turning them into small persons with giant egos; the egomaniacs.

Everybody, especially children, always need encouragement when trying to reach or obtain a goal. And when the goal is reached, such fulfillment needs recognition. But recognition should function as a milestone for an accomplished dream. It should mark a beginning of the next step, not represent a shrine for the achiever to lay his or her effigy. Both Canadian and Vietnamese parents are proud of their children’s achievements, but Vietnamese parents often blow the importance of those achievements out of proportion, probably because deep down inside, they believe their children have helped them fulfil the shattered dreams of their own youth.

In his speech during the 2012 high-school graduation ceremony at Wellesley High (Boston, MA), David McCullough, a teacher, raised controversy when he said something so true, so matter-of-fact:

“And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, we all have gathered here for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first ones to emerge from this magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea that you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

Upon hearing those words many students must have been surprised because their ears had been used to the melodious compliment: “You are special!”

In our Vietnamese community, there are countless numbers of “Supreme Court Judges of Canada”, “Cardiologists of the University of Toronto”… with titles (and diplomas) awarded by their own parents since the day they were toddlers. Those kinds of “diplomas” make others feel uneasy. However, the uneasiness others feel is not as injurious as the impact the stone of arrogance parents tie around the neck of their child. Free your children. Let them humbly grow to become who they want to become. That, in itself, is special already.

Nearly twenty years later, I accidentally ran into that “mommy’s doctor”. He is currently an assembly line worker for a company that produces electronic parts. His biggest achievement had been his collection of nearly two hundred pairs of sports shoes. All different brands, from all over the world. Perhaps the stone dog stopped wagging its tail the day he pressed the chest of his grandmother, and diagnosed that she had a pleural effusion.