Raising Teens in Shanghai: Reflections on Lasting Conversations

Trust your voice

by SHFamily | Mon, January 15, 2018

By Ronni Rowland

Parenting Teenagers

"I’m SO happy I’m getting out of here. There’s no way I’d want to parent a teen in Shanghai."

A friend said that to me three years ago as she prepared to repatriate to the US after five years in Shanghai. At the time, I just shrugged and smiled. Ready or not, I was just beginning my journey of parenting teenagers in the city.

We’ve survived the teen years relatively unscathed, and now I find myself on a different precipice. With my oldest heading back to the US for another year of college, I’m feeling the same fears my friend did, but about my own country.

For the past several weeks, I’ve woken up to US news headlines about colleges like, “Nude and passed out” and “Fraternity closed after racist chant”, as well as others about property damage, gun violence, and increasing numbers of kids not finishing college at all. It feels like I’m throwing my daughter into the Colosseum, wondering what she’ll encounter when the door opens and she walks out.


"I can’t wait to get to college so I can party! Who’s with me?"

This was posted on the Facebook group chat for the college my daughter attends. Subsequent posts chimed in with riotous excitement about leaving home, getting into the party dorms, and other wild plans.

“I’ve kind of already seen the party scene, and it’s not all that,” my daughter said. While it doesn’t work this way for every kid, her exposure to bars and clubs in Shanghai and the ability to talk about it with us has given her breathing room to figure out where she stands. She found her roommate in that group chat; they bonded over favorite fandoms and books, having the same quirky sense of humor . . . and a similar low-key philosophy about partying.

"To go from zero exposure to over-exposure seems insane."

A hotly debated topic among parents in Shanghai is alcohol and its easy access for kids. At as little as ¥10 per drink in popular teen hangouts, it doesn’t take a math genius to realize it’s exceedingly easy to get drunk on the cheap.

People from cultures around the world have a huge range of norms about alcohol, sex, curfews, and other common issues surrounding teen life. Interacting with diverse friends has taught me more about parenting in the gray. Rather than looking at these topics as black and white, it’s important to teach our teens to gauge actions with a clear internal compass, not blind adherence to rules that are just begging to be broken.

"Oh, your kids are teenagers. They don’t need you around much."

This has been said to me many times by Westerners and locals alike. Um, sure, they don’t need me in the way their baby selves did. Our time is distilled into 20-minute chunks: sometimes it’s in taxi rides late at night from a friend’s house. Sometimes it’s on a walk home from a local shop. Or it’s during the rare occasion when everyone’s eating around the table at the same time. It’s funny how some turf is more neutral, safer for random personal conversations. It’s important for parents to find that turf.

They’ll come in the door at 7pm starving from sports practice. You’ve got 20 minutes.

Teenage Flowers

"Our kids are not ours to own. We are just borrowing them."

An old college friend said this to me when my teens were just tots. The time has come for me to start giving my kids back, turning them out into the world.

Shanghai is an excellent place for learning how to “borrow” people for a short time. It’s a city that teaches us how to connect fully – and then let go. Sometimes, it can be easy for parents to clutch kids more tightly at a time when they’re yearning for freedom. It’s time. I’m ready to say goodbye.

Teenage Friendship

"What would make you stop loving me?"

As though tiptoeing through a minefield, teens sometimes discover an explosive issue that seemingly brings a halt to a parent’s love. Stories from friends back home, hot-button topics in the news, popular TV shows, and classroom debates all stir up questions about approval and uncondi- tional love.

And understanding why relationships blast apart can be confusing and contradictory. What’s acceptable in one family can destroy another.

“What if I date someone outside my race? What if I date outside my religion? What if I don’t want to date at all? What if I want to study art? What if I don’t want to study medicine? What if I get a B? What if I don’t get a B?”