Get families to start talking again

Rosanna Wong says in far too many Hong Kong families, the pace of modern living and the prevalent use of electronic gadgets are getting in the way of healthy parent-child communication

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 April, 2013, 3:29am


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Hong Kong was recently shocked by three murders uncovered over the course of three days. For a city that prides itself on having one of the lowest homicide rates in the world - police statistics show 27 last year - it is not surprising that much public anguish arose as a result. People, especially through social media, blogs and radio talk shows, desperately sought to find explanations of the hows and whys. Reasons postulated included internet addiction, poverty and parent-child conflict.

This paper carried out an online poll asking whether the "spate of gruesome murders within families signal a crisis in Hong Kong's family values". It was perhaps more than a little alarmist to make such a sweeping connection, but even more surprising was that 76 per cent of respondents answered "yes".

Each case is unique and we really have no way of knowing the definitive reason for the family violence. We are not party to the internal situations within each family that might have led to accumulated anger or caused someone to lash out.

However, whether or not a "breakdown of family values" was to blame, clearly there is deep public concern about the state of familial relations in the city.

Our modern world is in constant flux. Not only are our lives busier and more competitive than even a generation ago, the extent to which we all rely on technology as our main source of information, communication and even leisure is frightening.

So caught up in the virtual and real-time world through smaller and smaller screens, we have lost or are losing our ability to engage people directly, face to face. This is a dilemma that I see growing particularly among young people, whose lives today revolve around technological devices.

These youth are far more comfortable with their fingers doing the talking, through abbreviated forms of text speech and blogs, than they are through verbal communication. They are far readier to post an opinion through a tweet than they are with constructing an argument. They are also far less able to handle verbal criticism and reprimand; it's much easier to delete a critical e-mail or block out a perceived foe in social media. When this is coupled with the fact that parents themselves very often have work lives that leave them with little time to spend with their children, it adds to the disappearance of nurturing family relationships.

Unfortunately, this is our reality. It's not unique to Hong Kong, but given our close and dense living conditions, as well as our very intense style of work and play, losing very fundamental tools in direct and personal engagement is directly affecting our family relationships and hence our family values.

I think we understand the basic tenets of what "family values" means: respect, responsibility, acceptance, tolerance, patience … the list goes on. I am more concerned with opening up the space of communication within families, as this form of communication leads not only to the management of expectations between generations, but also reinforces mutual responsibility and respect.

What we in Hong Kong need right now is more time. Not time to work or blog or sit in isolation in front of computer terminals, but more time to interact with our families. I hear constantly from young people that their parents are too busy, working to provide for them, to sit down and discuss the child's day. Instead, there is a checklist of things to be accomplished, which is often comprised entirely of homework and after-school activities. Many young people feel their parents are interested only in their achievements and results.

Parents, on the other hand, complain that their children are forever chatting with outsiders and respond to their questions with irritation and annoyance, but most of all in monosyllables. They feel cut off from their children's' daily lives because of the barrier of unfamiliar technology or interests.

So both sides either just ignore each other to avoid argument and discord, or end up screaming into a vacuum, resulting in little or no communication, eroding any semblance of family relations and values.

Yes, in our culture, "family" is sacred and does not respond positively to outside intervention. However, things cannot continue as they are. We need to acknowledge that if there is a problem, we need to be open-minded enough to seek a solution. For some families, this might be as simple as making concerted adjustments, like leaving office tensions outside the home or for young people to switch off their computers when the rest of the family is at home. It might mean simply eating together without the television on and chatting about the day. For other families, opening up the lines of communication may not be as easy. Family relations could be at such a point that storming out of the house, conflict or violence are the first responses.

But even for these families, the crisis is not irresolvable. There are options that should be sought out. Schools, non- governmental organisations, community agencies and even religious bodies all offer the space, expertise and guidance to help resolve parent-child conflict.

Parents and young people, no matter where they live and what circumstances they are in, must be encouraged and supported in what has become a critical situation in Hong Kong. We need to act - all of us - now.

While the breakdown of family communication and values might not necessarily result in further gruesome murders, the ramifications for the future are just as troubling: the inability to manage disappointment or reprimand and the lack of respect and responsibility towards others. How we behave in the family will always be reflected in how we behave in the community, and the values that we learn at home will be those we enact in public.

Dr Rosanna Wong is executive director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups