Naka Nathaniel: What's Best For Our Kids Isn't Always What's Best For Our Ohana - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Family is so important to life in Hawaii that it makes choosing to leave the islands for school or other opportunities all the more difficult.

There are roughly 11,000 students a year who complete high school in Hawaii, so 11,000 families have been having conversations about what, and where, comes next for their keiki. 

I’ve been very interested in this issue since I was drawn into one of these discussions this spring. In that process, I had my mindset changed and began having a series of discussions about how those of us who graduated in the last several decades should revamp the counsel and support we give to young people here in Hawaii who have just weathered the difficulties of the pandemic.

As I was having these conversations, I heard a profound idea from Janice Ikeda, executive director of Vibrant Hawaii. She told me that the fellows at her nonprofit organization had been working on changing the narrative that “the best and the brightest were destined to leave Hawaii.”

Those fellows have written an article for Civil Beat’s Community Voices section and it will run later this week. 

Hopefully, it will help kickstart the needed change. They helpfully included conversation starters that can help parents and teachers counseling students finishing high school and college. 

I told the Vibrant Hawaii fellows that I’ve always thought the label “the best and the brightest” was a terrible label for “high achievers.”

The “best and brightest” phrase has contributed to the issue of ohana versus individualism. (Photo illustration: Naka Nathaniel/2023)

One of my favorite journalists, David Halberstam, had helped the phrase enter our vernacular when he published his book, “The Best and Brightest” about the hot-shot business and academic leaders who counseled President John F. Kennedy into escalating the Vietnam War. 

Halberstam’s use of the title was intended to be ironic, but the alliterative shorthand stuck and has become a crutch phrase.

Of course, it’s easier to change language than it is to change reality. But we all know that language and narratives matter in how we see the world. 

Sadly, the pressure of the phrase has contributed to the more profound issue of ohana versus individualism. 

Fundamentally, the narrative of best and brightest pushes individualism. However, so much of Hawaii’s social structure is based on our ohanas. 

Even if the “best and bright” phrase persists, with the connotation that individuals can be ranked or classified as the “best and brightest,” then it’s important to embrace the idea and create paths for those “best and brightest” to stay, or to return.

I can’t stop thinking about how Jacy Waiau, in last week’s column, said that it was important to give up our selfish notions of wanting to keep our kids close. 

The selfishness that Jacy spoke about is a familial selfishness that’s hard to label or put on a dashboard. It’s an ohana-first mentality that’s hard to square with the notion of individualism that is prevalent on the continent and was fitfully imported to Hawaii.

There are 11,000 families here in Hawaii facing the gut-wrenching prospect of coming apart.

The importance of family was emphasized during the pandemic. I know for my octogenarian father our extended family video chats were some of his happiest moments. It was a reminder of who is special to us. 

When my sister in Texas (one the most individualistic places in the United States) asked about my experience at Merrie Monarch this year, I didn’t talk about the hula. Instead I told U’ilani about the great feeling I had after I got out of the car, and in rapid succession, ran into friends, then cousins, before going inside the stadium to see our sister, ‘Auli’i. 

Family is so important to life here in Hawaii and that’s why these choices are so very hard. We want what’s best for our kids, but is that what’s best for our ohanas? There are 11,000 families here in Hawaii facing the gut-wrenching prospect of coming apart.

I remember the moment when I left for college and our family bond was loosened. I am the hiapo, or first born, of five kids, so my departure that August afternoon was the end of our day-in, day-out together.

The car was packed up to take me away, but we postponed the moment of separation. My sisters and I did something we rarely did and played a board game on the floor of the living room. My parents let us linger and savored that final moment. 

We were doing our best to treasure our last moments together as an ohana. We were being selfish in the way Jacy counseled against, but it felt so very good to be together.

Sunday night, I had dinner with a friend, Keli’i, who was lined up at the table next to his brother and sister and across from his cousin. I have to admit to a hint of jealousy at Keli’i’s being able to be surrounded with his ohana. However, it was a long journey for him to be there with his siblings. 

Keli’i was one of the “best and the brightest” who left Oahu for an Ivy League school. It took him 30 years to return to Hawaii to be with his ohana. I consider it a cautionary tale of the tradeoffs that are present in the question of what, and where, comes next.

I feel for the 11,000 families that are contemplating the reality that they’re about to possibly embark on a decades-long journey that will keep them from the true togetherness that they’ve had as an ohana. I hope their discussions lead to compassionate choices. 

And in the meantime, the rest of us can heed the advice to stop perpetuating the notion “the best and the brightest are leaving Hawaii.” 

Read this next:

America Pivots From One Insurgency To Another

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Can you imagine if a county of ~1.5mm people in Iowa had the group mentality that children should educate in their county, then grow to live and work in their county, raise a family in their county, retire in their county, and die in their county…while using an age-old local motto of "Family comes first" to perpetuate the cycle with the children?One extreme would be to laugh at it, while the other extreme would be to be aghast at it…while the majority middle would have an amalgamated feeling of sadness, pity and disdain.Underlying all those feelings would be the intuitive sense that the lack of diverse mixing of blood, beliefs, ideology, experiences, talents, etc. would doom that population to a living Hell straight out of a Twilight Zone episode.The timeless phrase "You can’t go home again" refers to the fact most people live, grow and learn under one roof with their family, and wish life was so simple when older to return to those idyllic days. But you can’t, people have to broaden their wings like birds do and fly.To suggest that the bird stay in their nest forever is literally frightening…

Gus_Levy · 4 weeks ago

A question deserves to be asked: are the ones who come (often called transplants) received with the same welcoming grace we hope our loved ones will receive when they arrive in their new homes? Or is there underlying resentment toward anyone who tries to make it here when some of our ‘ohana could not? Hawaii nei has a complicated history with malihini, but it is sometimes overlooked that the places we go also have history. My unsolicited advice to anyone coming or going is to take time to listen. Bring yourself and your culture, but don’t try to turn the place you are going into the place you left. Also, to those who stay: it would be kind to accept that it is possible for someone not born here to love it.

See_Jane · 4 weeks ago

My niece was considered one of the best and brightest of her class, chose to remain here in Hawaiʻi for college and her career. Both she the other student with the highest GPA of their class went this route - possibly to the chagrin of their school counselors. Both of them had multiple opportunities to go to prestigious schools on the mainland but opted to stay home. I can't speak for the other, but my niece did not stay home due to financial reasons nor for ʻohana, but because it was her choice to follow her heart, and her heart was telling her she would not be happy anywhere else but on her ʻāina. Were we as an ʻohana happy she stayed home? Of course? But am I as the person who raised her sad to see that she now faces the same kind of financial struggles I have faced all my adult life as well? Also yes. It is not easy to remain here in Hawaiʻi. I still would not change a thing. This is HOME. It is a difficult thing for all ʻohana to work through and there is no one right answer, but the narrative does need to shift. Leaving home opens doors and broadens horizons but it is not the be-all, end-all, either.

MamaIpo · 4 weeks ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.