Table of Contents
- ‘Tiger parenting’ doesn’t create child prodigies, finds new research
- I Grew Up With a Tiger Parent and All I Got Was This Lousy Psychological Trauma
- How I Learned, at 29, to Finally Let Go of My Need For Approval
- 1. Unchain Your Mind First
- 2. Reasses the Situation
- 3. Recognize Unkind Behaviors
- 4. Model the Behavior You Wish to See
- 5. Accept That Someone Might Never Approve
- The Tiger Mom Effect Is Real, Says Large Study
- Thank you!
‘Tiger parenting’ doesn’t create child prodigies, finds new research
Strict and emotionally unsupportive “tiger parenting” isn’t common among Chinese-American parents and isn’t the formula for high-achieving child prodigies, finds research published in a special issue of APA’s Asian American Journal of Psychology on “Tiger Parenting, Asian-Heritage Families, and Child/Adolescent Well-Being.”
Researchers say tiger parenting — a term used by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua to describe her parenting style in her 2011 memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” — can be harmful to children’s well-being and academic success. Evidence also suggests that Chinese-American and Chinese parents tend to favor a supportive approach to child-rearing over a strict tiger parenting style. In the book, Chua described how she emphasized her daughters’ academic and musical achievement over their happiness and self-esteem, giving them little independence and using shame to motivate and discipline them.
“Parenting in the Asian-heritage context is far more complex and nuanced than the stereotypical caricature of the tiger parent,” says Michigan State University associate professor Desiree Baolian Qin, EdD, who guest edited the special issue with Linda P. Juang, PhD, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Irene J.K. Park, PhD, of the University of Notre Dame.
In one study, University of Texas at Austin associate professor Su Yeong Kim, PhD, tracked how the parenting practices of 444 Chinese-American families in northern California affected their children’s adjustment over eight years. Comparing child and parent reports, she found parents fit four parenting styles: supportive (45 percent), tiger (28 percent), easygoing (20 percent) or harsh (7 percent).
Kim used four positive and four negative parenting attributes to sort parents by style: Supportive parents, for example, scored high on all positive attributes (such as being warm and explaining why rules are in place) and low on negative ones (such as using shaming to shape behavior). Tiger parents scored high on all eight traits, while easygoing parents scored low on all eight and harsh parents scored high on negative traits and low on positive ones. Supportive parenting was the most common style and linked to the best developmental outcomes and highest grade point averages for the children. Children of tiger parents reported higher rates of depressive symptoms than children with easygoing or supportive parents, as well as high levels of academic pressure and feelings of alienation from parents. “Tiger parenting isn’t as effective as claims it is,” says Kim.
Today’s Chinese parents may have already figured that out, suggests a study in the issue led by New York University psychologist Niobe Way, PhD, who interviewed 24 Chinese mothers of middle school students in Nanjing, China. She found that most mothers encouraged their children to be independent and well-socialized as much as they encouraged them to do well in school. These mothers viewed their shift away from some traditional Chinese parenting practices that Chua, a second-generation Chinese immigrant, described in her book as a response to the country’s rapidly changing culture and society.
“China is changing and our idea of what is Chinese parenting has changed,” says Juang. “There is an emphasis on academic achievement, but that’s not all of what they are about.” Today’s Chinese mothers are equally interested in fostering the traits they believe their children will need to thrive in a market economy, such as self-reliance and confidence, says Juang.
While Chua’s notion of Chinese parenting may be outdated, adds Juang, her book expanded the conversation on parenting and culture and triggered tremendous interest in the topic. Kim’s research has been covered by the Atlantic, Slate, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio. That interest is a move in the right direction for all types of parenting research, says Park.
“Instead of conducting research in the ivory tower, we can speak directly to the lives of people who are in a dilemma about what form of parenting to take,” says Park. “That brings a practical edge to the science.”
— Jamie Chamberlin
In the decades that followed, a large wave of Asian immigrants arrived in the United States. Like my parents, many of these new arrivals brought two cultural values that would carry their children far: a near-religious devotion to education as the key to social mobility and a belief that academic achievement depends mostly on effort rather than inborn ability. Many (though certainly not all, and probably less than half) also came armed with the belief that the best way to instill these values is through harsh methods that other Americans can regard as cruel.
The results have been striking. Today, Asian-Americans fill the nation’s top universities in staggering numbers, enter elite professions like medicine at incredible rates (nearly 20 percent of new doctors have Asian roots) and generally do better in school and make more money than any other demographic slice. Although overall trends mask vast diversity within our community, now 20 million strong, as a group we’ve broken the curve on standard metrics of success.
Because of pre-1965 immigration restrictions, the third-generation stories of most Asian-American families have yet to be written. Today, many second-generation Americans like me are at a parenting crossroads: Do we replicate the severe, controlling parenting styles many of us were raised with — methods that we often assume shaped our own success?
Amy Chua famously answered this question yes. In her memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” she explained that her fanatical parenting choices were driven by the desire to avoid “family decline.” But most second-generation Asian-Americans are not joining her. Rather, studies show that we’re largely abandoning traditional Asian parenting styles in favor of a modern, Western approach focused on developing open and warm relationships with our children.
My wife is also a second-generation Asian-American overachiever (she’s a doctor, the other immigrant-parent-approved profession), and together we’re trying to instill in our daughters the same grit and reverence for learning that our upbringings gave us, but in a happy and supportive home environment. (In this effort, we’ve followed the example of her parents, whose unfailing kindness is also common among Asian immigrants, proving it’s possible to have it both ways.) We’ve also adopted the relationship-driven mind-set common among young parents today but not among most immigrant parents, who emphasize discipline. For example, before my oldest daughter was on an early-morning school schedule, I freely indulged her disregard for bedtime on a condition: The night was firmly earmarked for learning. We’d sometimes stay up past midnight, lying on our stomachs with feet in the air, huddled over a dry-erase board and a bowl of popcorn, practicing phonics or learning about sea creatures. My own father, by contrast, strictly policed bedtime, angrily shutting down my attempts to hide under the sheets with a book and a flashlight.
Studies on second-generation parenting also show that many of us are striving to cultivate individuality and autonomy in our children in a way that we feel was missing from our own childhoods. As the respondent in one study explained: “As a young adult I really struggled with what I wanted to do. I was always told that I would be a doctor and so I never had a chance to really look outside of that and if I did, it wasn’t nurtured at all.” With her own children, she said, “we try to expose them to everything under the sun and then home in on the things that excite them, what they like.”
Amy Chua has been accused of many things – a cruel approach to parenting, gratuitous use of cultural stereotypes, a talent for sensationalism – but cowardice isn’t one of them. She provoked uproar with her 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, charting her unbending rules for raising her daughters, and spent two years dealing with the fallout, including death threats, racial slurs and pitchfork-waving calls for her arrest on child-abuse charges.
She might, therefore, have been expected to take an easier road with her follow-up. Instead, she and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, have written The Triple Package, which is devoted to one of the most inflammatory subjects imaginable – why some cultural groups soar ahead in the US (while others, by implication, fail). The book charts how three specific qualities, which they argue are essential to success, are passed down through the generations, often through the family.
Chua has said she just wants to be liked, that she doesn’t aim to be controversial, and in person, if not her work, this is obvious. In the living room of her family’s large New York apartment, light streaming through the windows, she is every bit the effusive, encouraging professor, just what you’d expect from someone who has won a teaching award for her work at Yale law school. Rubenfeld, also a Yale law professor and bestselling author (his thriller The Interpretation of Murder reached No 1 in the UK), is quite different. Where she is enthusiastic, he is dry and sardonic; where she is clearly keen to ace this interview, he is witty, but much more guarded.
Chua’s memoir might have been more nuanced and self-satirising than some critics suggested, but the firestorm it prompted was completely predictable. It began with a list of child-rearing edicts, including the fact that the couple’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu, were never allowed to attend a sleepover, get any grade less than an A, fail to come first in any class except gym and drama, and had to play the piano or violin. No exceptions, no excuses. It continued through the time she called Sophia “garbage”, and threatened to burn her soft toys. They were pushed to spend so much time practising musical instruments that Rubenfeld once found Sophia’s teeth marks in the piano.
With The Triple Package, says Rubenfeld: “I said, the first headlines are going to be that we’re racist, and it’s ridiculous, because the book is the opposite. Nothing to do with skin colour, groups from every possible skin colour, religious and racial background … Nothing to do with genetics. But I said, you’ll see, they’re going to say that, just to be sensational.”
Rubenfeld’s prediction proved accurate again. The book began generating controversy before it was even published, with an article in the New York Post last month calling it “a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes and it’s meant to do what racist arguments do: scare people.”
Amy Chua with daughters Lulu (left) and Sophia. Photograph: Lorenzo Ciniglio/Polaris
That article was headlined “Tiger Mom: Some cultural groups are superior,” an echo of the Wall Street Journal headline that whipped up such a storm around her memoir: “Why Chinese mothers are superior.” Much of the anger around Chua derives from this idea that she considers herself and her culture better than all others – in her memoir she played constantly on perceived differences between Chinese and western parents, tapping into deep anxiety and insecurity about a rising China and the slide of the west.
Ideas of superiority are central to her new book too, but she says she hopes after reading The Triple Package, people “don’t think we’re saying some groups are better”. She points to the book’s subtitle, “how three unlikely traits explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America”, and stresses the rise and fall element. The couple are providing “a snapshot of who is doing well right now”, she says. “Twenty years from now it could be somebody different … The big thing for us is – I think we say this – anyone from any background, any ethnicity, can have these qualities. It’s just that if you’re in certain groups, it’s almost like the odds are higher.”
Part of the reason for the changing fortunes of some groups, she says, is the immigrant arc, which suggests first-generation immigrants tend to have exceptional drive, a quality passed on to their kids, “but once you get to the third generation, they’re exactly the same as other Americans. So it’s very dynamic.”
As the daughter of Chinese immigrants herself, it was precisely this third generation lapse that Chua was trying to avoid in bringing up her own daughters. In Battle Hymn …, she writes that she was determined “not to raise a soft, entitled child – not to let my family fall”.
The Triple Package identifies eight groups that are particularly successful in the US at the moment – Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Lebanese, Nigerian and Cuban groups, along with Mormons and Jewish people. The couple’s definition of success has riled some readers, revolving, as it does, around the bald data of income and education levels. “We looked at the US census, these income measures,” says Chua, “so very materialistic senses of success, but we’re not saying this is the only way – this doesn’t mean happiness, you know?”
Still, for those wishing to be rich and academically successful, the book defines three essential traits that contribute to drive, all passed down at least partly through the family. The first is a superiority complex, the sense that your particular group is exceptional. This belief, “can be religious”, they write, “as in the case of Mormons. It can be rooted in a story about the magnificence of your people’s history and civilisation, as in the case of Chinese or Persians.” They’re aware how dangerous this quality can be – ambivalence surrounds all the triple-package qualities. “Group superiority is the stuff of racism, colonialism, imperialism, Nazism,” they continue. “Yet every one of America’s extremely successful groups fosters a belief in its own superiority.”
The second essential quality – insecurity – might seem contradictory, but apparently provides the grit in the oyster. “Everyone is probably insecure in one way or another,” they write, “but some groups are more prone to it than others. To be an immigrant is almost by definition to be insecure.” They note that the idea of insecurity as a lever of success is anathema in western society, and that, “the greatest anathema of all would be parents working to instil insecurity in their children. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America’s most successful groups, and these groups not only suffer from insecurity; they tend, consciously or unconsciously, to promote it.”
Amy Chua with her husband Jed, Sophia, left and Lulu.
Finally, the third quality is impulse control, which they define as the ability to resist temptation. “Against the background of a relatively permissive America,” they write, “some groups decidedly place greater emphasis on impulse control than others.” They write that, while there is now a tendency to romanticise childhood, to see it as a time, ideally, of unfettered happiness, “every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood and of impulse control in general, inculcating habits of discipline from an early age – at least they did so when they were on the rise.”
The book is a strange mix. It seems too simplistic to be taken seriously as an academic theory, too dry to fit into the usual notion of a popular ideas book. Much of the deep uneasiness in reading it comes not from what is said about the eight groups in question, but what is unsaid about the hundreds of others. If impulse control is a key marker of success, for instance, then there is an obvious and ugly implication that other groups are simply undisciplined. It seems likely that many groups share the same roster of qualities as the most successful ones – but undermined by a much more difficult history and a different fabric of discrimination. The couple do acknowledge this in the book, and in person, but it feels as if this side of the analysis doesn’t go deep enough.
At times, the book reads most obviously as a defence of the tiger parenting Chua espoused in her memoir. She says they didn’t think of it in this way, but that its message is completely consistent with Battle Hymn …, in that it highlights the positive side of inculcating extreme drive – and the negatives. I ask whether she comes from a triple-package background and she says: “One hundred per cent.”
How would she define this?
“This idea of high expectations,” she says. “The message that my parents sent was definitely, ‘You can be the best student, you are amazing,’ but instead of the more western thing, which is, ‘and we just want you to feel great about yourself’ they’re like ‘but you haven’t done well enough yet!’ There were very high expectations, and also a big insecurity, in that when my parents came to the US they literally had nothing. I mean, they couldn’t afford heat in Boston, which is colder than London, you know? So it was like, you need to be a good student, because otherwise we may not be able to survive.”
When it came to impulse control, she watched her father, a scientist and renowned expert in chaos theory, work until three every morning, “so they didn’t even have to tell me. I used to wake up and my dad was always working.” (Now in his late 70s, her father is still taking up international fellowships, and flying all around the world giving talks.) People made fun of her accent and her looks while she was growing up. “I was an ugly kid, with glasses and braces, and English was my second language, and I remember people saying, ‘Ha, ha, slanty eyes.’ And my mother had a very strong sense of ethnic pride, which was, like: ‘Why do you care what these kids are making fun of you about? We come from the most ancient civilisation, China invented all these things, we have a high culture, who cares what they think?’ So that’s what we call this ethnic armour.”
Rubenfeld says he couldn’t have been raised more differently. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants, and his parents, both brought up in Orthodox families in smalltown Pennsylvania, rebelled against their upbringing, and were much more liberal and permissive with their own children. Still, he also grew up watching his father, a psychotherapist, work until 3am. “I would say that my dad was very much what we describe in the book,” he says, “because he was an immigrant’s kid, and very driven, and had this insecurity of the kind we’re describing.”
Rubenfeld jokes that he provided the insecurity portion of the book, before talking more seriously about one of the problems associated with the triple package – they have a whole chapter on the pathologies associated with the three traits. “I know that I am unhappier,” he says, “because I always feel like whatever I’ve done is not good enough. It doesn’t matter what I do – so that’s painful, and I worry that I’ve communicated that to my kids.”
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When Chua published Battle Hymn …, critics noted Rubenfeld’s absence from the book – an absence he had encouraged. This led to questions about how supportive he was of her parenting techniques, and today he says when she started using them he was shocked. But he clearly respected her approach. “That’s not how I was raised, and if I had been a single parent, my kids would probably just be garbage men or something like that. But when I saw her instincts, I was very much in favour of them, because my parents were a little too permissive.” I ask in what way, and he says he wishes his parents had made him learn a musical instrument. Instead, he was given a choice, “between violin lessons or tennis lessons, and I picked tennis, but we didn’t really follow through with that either”. It has to be said, his parents’ approach doesn’t seem to have worked out too shabbily for him.
He felt very bad for his wife when the memoir was published, “because she was getting dragged through so many ridiculous accusations, and people didn’t understand – because, in part, she left this out of her book – how much her kids love her. They didn’t understand how much she loves her kids. They didn’t know about the four of us in bed watching TV or reading books, how often we just had fun together. I knew Amy could take it, but I felt bad because the kids were being insulted in the media, so I wanted to hack into the accounts of all the people who were saying that, and go and find them, and do something illegal to them.”
Their kids took it all in their stride though. Rubenfeld says he was searching online, “to see what people are saying, and they’re like, ‘Why are you doing that? We don’t care what people are saying!'” Sophia is currently at Harvard and Lulu was recently accepted at Yale.
The member of the family who seems to care most about the backlash is Chua; understandably, given that she was the prime target, but surprisingly, given her image. She says she keeps the hate mail she’s received in an email folder entitled “Do not look”, and as a new round has started coming in, she has stuck to this rule.
In light of that, it’s surprising she’s put her head above the parapet with this new book – she can’t really have been oblivious to the likely reaction. Although in her memoir and her new book, Chua traces some of the problems with what could be called, almost interchangeably, triple-package or tiger parenting, there is no doubt she is essentially in favour of it. “Self-control, discipline, resilience,” she says. “I got that from my parents. I remember once, I got rejected. I was trying to get a professor job, and I applied to, like, 500 places, and I think I got 500 rejections, and I called my dad and said: ‘I don’t think I can be a professor.’ He said: ‘Wait, how many rejections did you get?’ And I said ‘500’. And he said: ‘You got 500 rejections, and you want to give up? You think that’s a LOT?!'” Love her or hate her, she won’t give up.
I Grew Up With a Tiger Parent and All I Got Was This Lousy Psychological Trauma
Have you read Amy Chua’s bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? It’s a must-read if you’re a parent or thinking of having kids, mostly because it quite handily lays out some of the best ways of emotionally and psychologically abusing your child and ensuring they grow up bitter, resentful and crippled by neuroses and insecurity.
I had a Tiger Parent. I don’t think he called himself that (though he’d probably consider the moniker flattering), but all his moves were from the Tiger Parent playbook. Like Ms. Chua, my Tiger Parent (let’s call him my abuser from now on, just to save me from typing that ridiculous phrase over and over) probably thought he was doing me a favor, what with the unattainable standards he held over my head from the age of four, the constant comparisons to “model” children who were much better than me and for whom he would gladly trade me, and the rigorous schedule of all work and no play to which I was held.
Oh, yes. He was a tiger, all right. And I, his child, was a scratching post for his claws.
In tenth grade, when my academic advisor was helping me plan my senior curriculum, she asked what I wanted to do after I graduated. I answered that I wanted to study medicine. (I wanted to be a writer, but my father had made it very clear that firstly, writing was a rubbish profession for lower-class people, and secondly, if I didn’t study medicine, I would find myself out of a home and without a family in short order.) My teacher, who was not stupid and who was also rather fond of me, asked me what I really wanted to do after I graduated. Without so much as a second’s hesitation, I responded, “I want to make my father happy.”
See, growing up, my life was about making my father happy. As a child, I was punished for reading “rubbish” — defined as any book that wasn’t religious, educational or both — and was not allowed to have white friends because their (lax, un-tigerish) parents let them listen to pop music and watch TV and they would therefore surely be a bad influence on me. I was allowed one special treat a week — as a family, we watched National Geographic documentaries together on Saturday nights. When I consistently brought home Cs in handwriting in primary school because as a left-hander, writing lessons didn’t cater to my physical needs, my father bought copies of the handwriting books we used at school, photocopied them (so I wouldn’t sully the originals with my hen-scratch) and made me practice at home for hours, because even a C in handwriting was one C too many.
When I was old enough to begin taking instrumental lessons at school, I wanted to play the saxophone. My father wanted me to play the violin. I played the violin. When I made captain of my school’s trivia team, my father made me study quiz books for hours every day when I got home from school. When I started to cry because I was exhausted, he yelled at me. I kept studying. When I complained, he told me that I was ungrateful, that his father had been really strict, that I didn’t realize how easy I had it. His father used to tie him to a chair in order to make sure he did his math homework. His father once hit him so hard he had to go to the doctor and lie about how he came about his injuries. By comparison, my dad was lenient and I was just weak.
I remember something he used to say to me after yelling at me, when his rage had subsided and he was holding me in his arms as though I were just a lost lamb he was trying to save from herself. “A father’s anger is never really anger, baita-jee,” he would say, stroking my hair as I sobbed. “When a father gets angry, it’s because he loves you.”
(I sometimes wonder if his father told him the same thing. Animals tend to learn by emulating their parents. I doubt tigers are much different.)
When I received a Distinction in a competition, my father would remind me that at my age, he was achieving High Distinctions in everything. An “A” in Math or Chemistry or Physics was cause for consternation, not celebration. (He didn’t care about my straight A-pluses in English, because I wasn’t going to be a writer. He especially didn’t care for the four years in a row that I came first in my Music class, because only incredibly low-class people would ever perform music in public.) As the eldest child, I was both first in his attentions and first to feel his wrath if I proved undeserving of them. I was simultaneously held up as an example for my younger siblings (which definitely didn’t lead to them resenting me at all, oh no) and trundled out as a public whipping-girl to keep them in line. My successes were always slightly under par and not worth celebrating. My failures were proof I was defective. Despite the fact that most of my teachers considered me a very bright and highly capable child — far more so than average, in fact — as years went on and my confidence was slowly worn to tatters, the latter became far more common than the former.
There are many things I love about Asian culture, particularly the South Asian culture in which I was raised. I love the bonds of family and community that we are encouraged to form, and the support and strength we can draw from them. I love our hospitality culture, and I still laugh fondly when my mother (who is most certainly not a parent of the big cat variety, but rather of the fallible-but-altogether-decent human one) won’t let my friends leave without at least staying for one drink. I have fond memories of dinner parties with family friends, of making up games with my siblings because we were encouraged to be each others’ best friends. I remember watching Bollywood movies with my family and sleeping all day on holidays so I could stay up late at night to watch Pakistan play in the Cricket World Cup. I still call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle” out of respect.
But I do not love tiger parenting — not the kind Amy Chua espouses in her how-to on emotionally scarring children for life, and certainly not the kind that my emotionally distant, affection-withholding father practiced over the twenty years I lived at home. It is neither admirable nor worth emulating to hold one’s children to impossible standards and then to make them suffer emotionally and psychologically (or even physically) when they fail to reach the bar. There is nothing brave or bold about forcing one’s sons or daughters into careers they hate, in belittling them for having dreams and ambitions of their own or in making them believe that pleasing their parents is more important than self-fulfillment. “Tiger parenting” is a nice, catchy way of saying “child abuse,” because that’s exactly what it is.
(“Why do you want to please your father so much?” my academic advisor asked me as we pored over the senior curriculum. “Don’t you want to do things that will make you happy?” “Making my father happy will make me happy,” I replied in a monotone, blinking back tears. I knew it wasn’t true and my academic advisor knew that I knew it wasn’t true, but she also knew my father wouldn’t sign any form that went home without his choice of subjects marked on it. She sighed and circled his choices. A dozen careers I wanted but could never have flashed before my eyes. I gained a few more scratches to go with the others.)
Hear the cry of the tiger cub: don’t buy into the toxic idea that the abuse promoted by the likes of Ms. Chua is ideal parenting, or even good parenting, or even adequate parenting. Don’t buy into the idea that to be an Asian parent means one must be a tiger parent. (My mother, also of Asian descent, manages what I call “human parenting” just fine.) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has made Amy Chua a lot of money and gained her a lot of publicity and helped her paint herself as a model minority for white conservatives who like to moan about how undisciplined their unruly brats are. It has also helped validate the abusive behaviour of people like my father, who already didn’t need much of an excuse.
I stood up to my dad and left medical school in 2011. I still carry the scars of the scratches his claws left and I probably always will. I have my own claws, now — a defense mechanism developed so that I might keep others seeking to gouge me at bay. Time heals most wounds, but others, it can only ease slightly. I only hope I’ve gained enough insight that I’ll never use them on my own children.
I do not know if Amy Chua’s children are similarly scratched and scarred. I hope against hope they are not.
I hope against hope they know — or come to know — that in reality, tigers, like most parents, are quite gentle with their cubs.
How I Learned, at 29, to Finally Let Go of My Need For Approval
August 17, 2018
The Chinese have a phrase for obeying your parents: filial piety.
If you’re wondering what this looks like, you can catch the latest Hollywood film, Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a movie entirely about an Asian mother who disapproves of her son’s girlfriend.
Granted, my Chinese family isn’t as crazy (or rich), but as a daughter of two immigrant parents, I can definitely relate to the pressures that both the protagonists felt from their families in the movie.
Growing up, I was told from a very young age that my responsibilities in life are to get good grades, find a good job, get married, and have kids. And while I did get the good grades, I struggled with everything else.
I couldn’t agree with my parents on what jobs to get, who to date, or even where to live.
We bickered over my life choices constantly and while I felt I was trying my best to please them, they felt I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Slowly, the guilt and shame from not meeting my parents’ expectations started to consume me. And when I couldn’t take it any longer, I quit my job and went traveling.
Slowly, the guilt and shame from not meeting my parents’ expectations started to consume me.
Not surprisingly, my parents didn’t approve—but I decided to go anyway because I felt it was the right thing to do for myself.
In the end, this trip ended up becoming the start of a lifelong journey to learning to let go of my parent’s expectations.
I know I’m not alone in going through this experience—maybe you’ve yearned for approval from your parents, too, or a partner, friend, sibling, boss. It’s a human thing to want. “Most of us like to have the approval of others, especially of those whose judgment we respect,” Elliot Cohen, Ph.D., explains on Psychology Today.
“Most of us like to have the approval of others, especially of those whose judgment we respect,” explains Elliot Cohen, Ph.D.
But when we let our need for approval influence our worth and our life direction, it can mess with our sense of happiness and bring on “relentless anxiety,” Cohen says.
The good news: We can still yearn for approval but be OK without it. “You can still prefer to have the approval of others, and feel good when you get it. But you can also feel like a worthy person when you don’t get it,” he says.
Here’s what I learned in my journey to let go of my parent’s approval:
1. Unchain Your Mind First
Have you ever heard of the “Baby Elephant Chain” story? It’s about how when baby elephants are chained up for too long, they won’t leave as adults even when you let them go.
Human minds work the same way. Parents make decisions for their children when they’re young. But sometimes, both the child and the parent have trouble letting this power dynamic go. The parent wants to continue making decisions for the child and the child does know how to take the power back without hurting their parents. Thus, the child believes he or she has chains on.
If you feel there is someone in your life holding you back, whether it’s a spouse, a family member, or a friend, see if you’ve mentally created chains between you and that person. Ask yourself: how can you break those chains and what would the benefits be?
2. Reasses the Situation
Two years ago, when I told my parents I was going to move across the country, they didn’t want to let me go because they said there would be no one around to translate for them.
Growing up, my brother and I translated everything for our parents because they never found the time to learn English. I understood this as part of my responsibilities but also felt my parents could have utilized the resources around them first.
That’s when I realized I’ve been enabling my own parents. Once I moved and came back, I noticed my parent’s English improved.
Are you enabling someone in your life who might be more capable than you think? If so, you might be preventing yourself and them from growing.
3. Recognize Unkind Behaviors
Whenever I misbehaved as a child, my father would raise his voice and say hurtful things to me to try to get me to stop.
I had no idea this was a form of emotional abuse until my therapist pointed it out and it’s not healthy. It’s normal for people to yell to express their emotions but it’s not normal for them to yell in order to intimidate and control what they do.
It’s normal for people to yell to express their emotions but it’s not normal for them to yell in order to intimidate and control what they do.
If you share your ideas with someone whose opinion you respect a lot and all they do is dismiss, criticize, or intimidate you, that’s a sign of an unhealthy behavior.
4. Model the Behavior You Wish to See
If you want your parents to stop a certain behavior, such as yelling at you, you must stop first.
It takes a lot of self-control and practice, but whenever I catch myself getting frustrated with my parents, I try to take a few steps back and breath before I proceed. I would think about what I’m going to say and how I can say it in the most loving way. Once my parents saw this, they also let their guard down and were more willing to have discussions with me instead of screaming matches.
Practice pausing and breathing between sentences the next time you get frustrated speaking with someone. Overtime, you’ll get better at it and the other person will notice your efforts and try to match your tone.
5. Accept That Someone Might Never Approve
It used to bother me a lot that my parents didn’t understand my lifestyle or my choices, and I felt like it was my job to try to convince them.
But when someone told me, “They might never understand,” the truth hit me like a brick. They were right. My parents might never understand and if I keep waiting, my dreams might also never happen.
Self-help author, Mark Manson, once wrote, ”We don’t always control what happens to us. But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.”
If someone doesn’t understand you or believe in you, it’s their choice—but if you keep waiting for their approval, it’s your choice. If there is something you truly want to go after, you have to be able to accept the fact that some people might never understand it—and that’s OK.
If someone doesn’t understand you or believe in you, it’s their choice—but if you keep waiting for their approval, it’s your choice.
There are moments when I still doubt my decisions, but when I look back at everything I’ve accomplished and how much happier, loving, and kind I’ve become, I know I’m on the right path.
At age 29, I finally understand that disagreeing with your parents does not make you a bad person or a terrible daughter—it simply makes you human.
Read next: Why I Stopped Seeking Approval in the Name of Self-Care
Be too meek
The “I didn’t want to trouble you” sentiment seems so kind and considerate, doesn’t it? But very often, your desire not to be a nuisance ends up causing a problem that is far bigger than if you had spoken up.
Joan Schmidt, 55, a New York City attorney, regularly took her 90-year-old mother to doctors, but occasionally her mom would get into “I don’t want to be a bother” mode. “One day she decided to ask her 88-year-old friend Millie to drive her, rather than ask me,” Schmidt recalls. “So Millie did — dropping Mom off at a large shopping center in Eastchester, even though my mom apparently didn’t know which building to enter.” Her mother ended up walking a mile home during the summer heat. In another instance, Schmidt’s mother needed her car moved but didn’t want to disturb Joan, who was in her home with her, working in another room. “So she asked my elderly aunt who lived across the street and had Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration to do it.”
We all like to be in control of our lives. But your desire to stay in command may be counterproductive. I say this as someone who often had to rush my parents to the hospital for originally trivial medical problems that they ignored for months. (Men, here’s an idea: Don’t ignore a swelling prostate to the point where you have to be catheterized.) Sometimes you must trouble those closest to you.
Track their movements
When your children are 15 or 16, you’re supposed to worry and be upset when they stay out late and don’t call. And you can’t help but shame them with tales of the heart attacks you suffered as a result. But now they’ve grown up and live far away. So why are you still waving the guilt wand over them if you don’t immediately know where they are? Or, worse, doing what I used to think of as tag-team angst, with my father calling me to say, “Where were you? Your mother was so worried.”
“Your children are not mind readers,” says Jane Isay, author of Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents. “They don’t know what’s going on in your household, or just intuit that you need them or that you are worrying.”
Sure, feeling guilty may make the child call. But at what cost? “Guilt creates resentment,” Isay says, “and makes it that much harder for them to pick up the phone next time.”
Abuse your email
Though this is a minor infraction, mindlessly forwarding email to your children can drive them berserk. “Every day I receive multiple forwarded emails from my father, clueing me in on World’s Scariest Bridges or Unlikely Animal Friends,” says Jancee Dunn, author of Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo? and Other Questions I Wish I Never Had to Ask. “He means well, but I don’t think some retired parents are fully aware of the sheer volume of emails their adult children receive in a day. Deleting all of the forwarded email just becomes one more task.”
Another tip: When you send your kid an email, you don’t have to call to tell her you “just sent an email.”
Offer outdated advice
Patrick DiJusto, a 54-year-old book editor in New York City, reports this recent conversation with his father:
“You wanna put all your money into 7 percent CDs.”
“Dad, there are no more 7 percent CDs.”
“That’s crazy — I always had all my money in 7 percent CDs. Doubles your capital every 10 years!”
“Do you still have them?”
“That’s my point, Dad. You can’t find 7 percent CDs anymore.”
“You can if you look.”
“We all love giving advice in the areas we feel competent in,” Greer explains. “But be aware that your expertise may be unwelcome if it doesn’t address the challenges of today.” This is particularly true when it comes to financial advice or financial help. Let’s say you have promised to pay for half of a grandchild’s college tuition — a loving gesture parents make when their child has a baby. As generous as your $2,500 is, it may not even make a dent in Grandbaby Einstein’s college costs. So before you make that kind of commitment, know what you’re in for.
Make holidays unhappy
Do your kids think of family special occasions with pleasure? Or do your rules and regs make the whole affair feel like a holiday death march?
“If my sister and I didn’t celebrate our birthdays with our mother, she was wounded,” says Laurie Lewis, 59, a New York City real estate broker. “It wasn’t good enough that we all went out during, say, that week; it had to be on the actual day. If I suggested another day, perhaps more convenient, the hurt turned to an angry response of, ‘Let’s just forget your birthday this year, since it does not mean that much to you.’ “
I understand that you want to honor family traditions. But as your kids get older, have spouses, children and obligations of their own, you have to allow for the possibility that they need to develop their own traditions. Plus, you want to be a joyous celebrant with them, not the Enforcer.
Second- and third-guess
You know what another word for “constructive criticism” is? Criticism.
“Here are the subjects my mother feels the need to comment on,” says Moira Lawson, 59, a health policy adviser who lives in Baltimore. “My looks, my parenting, my clothes, my home, how I spend my money — pretty much on everything.”
“My parents have told me repeatedly that they don’t believe in divorce,” says Mariana Olenko, 52, of New York City. “Even though I’m divorced — and a divorce lawyer.”
Ellen Stimson, 56, a writer in rural Vermont, admits: “It’s really hard to pick just one incident here. One Thanksgiving my mother arrived early, before all the other guests, and when I went upstairs to dress, I heard a crash and the sound of shattering glass. I ran back downstairs to find her in the kitchen, standing among the shards that had been my chandelier. She’d apparently decided it was too dirty for company and had taken it down to wash it. But it had been on, and was still hot, and it exploded when the water hit it. As I walked in on this chaos, she said — without missing a beat — ‘I guess the dirt was the only thing holding it together.’ “
Observes Isay, “One of the great skills of parenting adult children is learning to keep your mouth shut.”
This is a skill I intend to practice. Soon. I can’t wait to tell my two sons — once they answer their phones.
Judith Newman is a columnist for the New York Times and author of To Siri with Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son, and the Kindness of Machines.
She’d had no idea that she was going to write her testimonial to “Chinese” mothering and its dangers, but in the black, bleak summer of 2009 that followed her beloved sister Katrin’s diagnosis of leukaemia, when her 13-year-old daughter Lulu was in full rebellion, she began to put pen to paper. “I wrote this in a moment of crisis. I tend to be over-confident but I really felt that the whole family was falling apart, I thought, have I done every single thing wrong? Have I wrecked everything? So after one terrible blow-up , I got on my computer and the words just poured out.”
Over a period of two months she wrote, revised, edited, all the while consulting Jed, Sophia and Lulu, showing them “every single page”, she says proudly. “It was like family therapy.” When she had finished the remembering, she showed it to her parents and close friends, all of whom told her not to publish. ” said, ‘Oh you’re going to get in such trouble, you can’t talk about this in the west.’ And that kind of got my back up. I thought, why should we not be able to talk about this? It’s not just me. Millions of people raise their kids this way and their kids come out pretty well.”
Really? What about the child who will never be a straight-A student? “I get this question, what if they have dyslexia or autism?” she says. “The answer to that is, of course you have to know your child, of course you have to adjust. It would be a ridiculous parenting programme to say that no matter what, you have to get an A-plus. And my best example is that my younger sister has Down’s syndrome and I know for a fact that my mother applied Chinese parenting with her. I know that when she was little my mother spent hours teaching her how to tie her own shoelaces and people said, look she can’t do it, she doesn’t have the muscle co-ordination.
“Nobody expected my sister to get a PhD or to get As, but I think it’s a very nice story. Today my sister has a wonderful relationship with my mother.”
For Chua, who grew up with her two sisters in the midwest, the daughter of first-generation immigrants from the Philippines, a straight-A student, graduating first in a class of 350, the Chinese method is the one towards which she instinctively gravitates. “For my senior prom, my father finally said I could go – as long as I was home by 9pm! That was around the time that most people were heading out,” she recalls. “When I was little I was so mad at them all the time. Why can’t I do this? Why are there so many rules? But looking back now, my parents gave me the foundation to have so many choices in life. After I left home I had a choice of who I could be, a choice of careers, a choice of schools, so I deeply believe in the model.”
Nevertheless, fact, and her own telling of it, shows that the way she brought up her children nearly wrecked her relationship with Lulu, and in some ways Battle Hymn can been seen as her atonement for that. “I think I stopped just in time,” she says. “Right now it seems OK, but I have many regrets … I have a head full of regrets. I worry that by losing my temper so much and being so harsh and yelling so much that, by example, I will have taught my daughters to be that way, and I’m now constantly telling them not to do that.”
Did she ever consider family therapy? “I was very Chinese in a way. I went for help to my family – so I went to my mother and to my sisters and just extended family on both sides.” All gave the same advice: pull back. So Chua stopped making all the decisions for Lulu, allowing her to leave the orchestra and take up tennis instead, allowing her to practise the violin only when she felt like it. When I ask Lulu if she feels her mother understands her more since that period, she emails, “She has always understood me better than anyone, but she definitely listens more now. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll like what I’m saying.”
Chua’s memoir raises more questions than it answers, not least of which is, where was her husband – who was raised in a liberal, Jewish household – in all of this? Why didn’t he intervene? “A couple of things. Jed always favoured strict parenting … and in my household I did most of the parenting. It was my choice; it wasn’t an argument at all. For him it was like, look, if she’s willing to put in three hours with these instruments and I just get to go to the recital and you have the refreshments, why not?”
Also, she says, the early results were, in both their views, “hard to argue with”. When I ask Sophia the same question, by email, her answer is revealing: “It would have been so easy for my dad to ‘score points’ with us by undermining my mum’s draconian parenting – but he never did. In retrospect, I have immense respect for how he stood by her through everything.”
Was her husband against her writing the book? Chua hesitates for the first time. “It wasn’t so much that he objected but that he has such a strong voice himself – he’s an author in his own right – that for me to put quotes of him speaking as a father always sounded wrong to him. He said, ‘Look, this is your book. I supported you but you were the one that had a strong world-view about how to raise your kids. It’s your world-view, it’s your book.'”
Ironically, in writing her book, Chua has done the most western thing imaginable: she has exposed herself, warts and all, at risk of misunderstanding and vilification. “I think that writing this book is an extremely western thing to do. I don’t think Chinese people would do it. I disobeyed my mum. My mum said, ‘Don’t write it!'”
Whether she has made a mistake in revealing her parenting style remains to be seen, but perhaps the last word should go to her older daughter, Sophia. “When we were younger, I thought my mum favoured Lulu, but as I’ve got older, we’ve become so close. It’s not really the focus of the book, but my mum and I are incredibly similar. She understands me and always knows what I’m thinking. We crack up at each other’s jokes and ask each other for advice. Most importantly, I can tell she wants me to be happy. The other day, I messed up a math test. I texted my mom that I got an A- and she replied, ‘Who cares! Mummy loves u!’
“It made my day.”
The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99. To order a copy for £13.59 (with free UK P&P) go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
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I’m using the term “Chinese mother” loosely. I recently met a supersuccessful white guy from South Dakota (you’ve seen him on television), and after comparing notes we decided that his working-class father had definitely been a Chinese mother. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish, and Ghanaian parents who qualify too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise.
I’m also using the term “Western parents” loosely. Western parents come in all varieties. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Westerners are far more diverse in their parenting styles than the Chinese. Some Western parents are strict; others are lax. There are same-sex parents, Orthodox Jewish parents, single parents, ex-hippie parents, investment banker parents, and military parents. None of these “Western” parents necessarily see eye to eye, so when I use the term “Western parents,” of course I’m not referring to all Western parents – just as “Chinese mother” doesn’t refer to all Chinese mothers.
All the same, even when Western parents think they’re being strict, they usually don’t come close to being Chinese mothers. For example, my Western friends who consider themselves strict make their children practice their instruments thirty minutes every day. An hour at most. For a Chinese mother, the first hour is the easy part. It’s hours two and three that get tough.
Despite our squeamishness about cultural stereotypes, there are tons of studies out there showing marked and quantifiable differences between Chinese and Westerners when it comes to parenting. In one study of 50 Western American mothers and 48 Chinese immigrant mothers, almost 70% of the Western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, roughly 0% of the Chinese mothers felt the same way. Instead, the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be “the best” students, that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting,” and that if children did not excel at school then there was “a problem” and parents “were not doing their job.” Other studies indicate that compared to Western parents, Chinese parents spend approximately ten times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. By contrast, Western kids are more likely to participate in sports teams.
This brings me to my final point. Some might think that the American sports parent is an analog to the Chinese mother. This is so wrong. Unlike your typical Western overscheduling soccer mom, the Chinese mother believes that (1) schoolwork always comes first; (2) an A-minus is a bad grade; (3) your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; (4) you must never compliment your children in public; (5) if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; (6) the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and (7) that medal must be gold.
Yup, my mom had workbooks so I could do extra studying. Photo: Jordin Althaus/ABC
In one of the first episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, Constance Wu’s Jessica Huang is suspicious that her kids have gotten high grades on their report cards because she doesn’t think they worked hard enough to earn them. She shows up at the school to complain and request that they be transferred into a gifted program, except no such program exists. Later, when she can’t find a Chinese Learning Center in Orlando, she refuses to be thwarted, and buys workbooks to teach her sons on her own. Jessica Huang reminds me of my mother and the majority of Chinese mothers I knew growing up in Brooklyn.
In 2011, when Amy Chua published the polarizing Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, concerned (non-Chinese) parents everywhere collectively freaked out. In the book, Chua describes a wildly different approach to child-rearing than what’s often depicted on your typical American sitcom. This parenting style doesn’t prioritize building a child’s sense of self-esteem but on making sure the child meets solid metrics of success like conquering a difficult piano piece or getting straight A’s. Tiger kids aren’t praised for their achievements, and tiger parents never miss a chance to berate them for their academic “failures” (getting less than A’s). Showing proper respect for authority figures is held in high regard. In one pivotal scene from the book, Chua’s daughter Sophia disrespects her and Chua calls her “garbage.”
To many people who were not Chinese (or even just a child of immigrants), this method of parenting sounded excessive, if not borderline abusive. To my friends and I it was just normal — our way of life repackaged with a catchy new name. I bought the book at the time, curious about the uproar. Reading it made me feel deeply conflicted. I recognized a lot of the good things about my mother’s values, but I began to process the effects of my upbringing on my life as an adult. I realized I was both the daughter fighting her tiger mom and that I have internalized her ideas about my self-worth — essentially becoming my own inner tiger mom.
Growing up the only child of immigrants (my mother is ethnic Chinese by way of Burma, my father is from Hong Kong), I received a potent message from the moment I started kindergarten: You’re lucky to have been born in America — don’t screw it up. Get good grades, go to a top college, and above all else, find a stable job as a doctor. I have a distinct memory from the second grade: I’m sitting with a pile of math workbooks, attempting to learn complicated long division meant for a fifth-grade level on a Friday night at 7 p.m. I solve it only to have my mother make me do one after another, until the page is complete. Bedtime was at 9:30 p.m., because I’d have to leave for Chinese school at 7 a.m. the next day. That would last three hours, followed by another two hours of piano lessons — every Saturday for six years. No one ever asked me if I liked piano and it never occurred to me to ask myself. I never questioned the logic of this schedule, it was simply a fact of life among my Asian-American friends, as common as drinking lemon soju while underage in Koreatown or skipping school on the Lunar New Year.
We didn’t have much money, especially when it came to extracurricular activities. Throughout my elementary-school years, I lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly white, and I was constantly reminded of how poor we were. I didn’t take ballet lessons like the other girls in my fourth-grade class, much less go on summer vacations at Disney World or Busch Gardens. But what money we did have, my mom used to make sure that someday I wouldn’t have to feel this isolation. She hustled, first as a bookkeeper and then working the night shift at Victory Memorial Hospital as a nurse’s aide. My mom would use the money for extra workbooks, exam-prep classes, or Chinese summer school. When I complained, the carrot dangled before me was that if I worked hard enough, I wouldn’t struggle like she did. I could enjoy a vacation, live in a nice home, and have that stable, luxurious (by her standards) life.
And so I studied. In the sixth grade I passed an exam that gave me admission to Hunter College High School — one of the most competitive New York City schools. There I often stayed up all night studying even in seventh grade but especially during my sophomore and junior years. I ended up at Cornell University for undergrad, followed by a master’s degree from Harvard University with the assumption I’d apply to medical school right after. I lived in constant fear of failing, which to me meant not being in the top 10 percent of my class. Cornell was especially difficult. Premed students were graded on a curve, so even if I had done well on an exam, it would be graded in relation to how everyone else performed. I struggled through my first year — I’d cycle through sleeping too little or sleeping too much. I’d have panic attacks in the middle of my more difficult exams, where I’d hear a roar through my ears or break into a cold sweat. I barely maintained a 3.0 GPA. I managed to hide this “failure” from from my parents since report cards were electronic. But I knew I had to get my act together in the next three years, so I popped caffeine pills and smoked cigarettes to stay up studying. Even so, I had to go to graduate school to boost my overall GPA and have a realistic chance at medical school.
At the time I was deeply unhappy working as a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, about to apply to medical school. One of the questions on the application was “Why do you want to be a doctor?” Whenever an interviewer or adviser asked that of me, I’d slip into robot tiger child mode, and give an articulate, abstract reply about “wanting to help people.” But I knew the truth wasn’t so simple, and that I was merely living out my parents’ ideas about what I should be.
MCAT scores stay valid for three years. I had two left before I had to retake the exam. I was deeply miserable. My boyfriend at the time (also Chinese but raised with far more permissive parents), encouraged me to take six months off and pursue something I’d been too afraid to express an interest in: a career in fashion. He made me realize not all Chinese parents were as intense, and there was room to breathe and be true to myself. The worst thing that could happen, he argued, was that I would be unable to find a job (and prove my mom right). I could fall back on medical school but at least I would apply knowing that I tried another path. I saved all my earnings from the hospital and made a plan to move back to New York. Only now, I had to tell my parents.
Many screaming phone calls ensued when I broke the news that I would be leaving premed and trying to work in fashion. When their guilting didn’t change my mind, they cut me off financially and refused to speak to me until I “came to my senses.” They treated me like an ungrateful, horrible child throwing away all of their sacrifices. At her best, my mother said I should never tell any of their friends my chosen profession because it was shameful and reflected badly on them. At her worst, she screamed that I might as well have killed them and I should never visit their graves. I felt alone, scared, and resentful that they had so little faith in me. I spent many nights crying, wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t make everyone happy.
I vacillated between guilt and anger for the next year, though thankfully my closest friends and boyfriend provided me the emotional support I needed whenever I fell into my crying fits. With their help, I began to see the years of sacrifices I had made to please my folks — the many sleepovers I missed as a child, the intrusive phone calls to my friends and their parents to make sure I was sticking to that med-school path, not being permitted to do study abroad — as real losses that many of my white friends did not have to give up as they grew up. I realized I had to make decisions about my future that I could live with, presumably for the rest of my life.
We were in the ultimate tiger-parenting standoff, and I was determined to win. Every lesson I had absorbed about hard work stuck with me as I shifted my focus and began aggressively pursuing a new career. This time, instead of spending my nights cramming for an exam, I read obsessively through every thread on the Fashion Spot so I could study collections, photographers, and stylists. I sent email after email in hopes of landing an internship (despite having no relevant experience).
Eventually I wound up as a freelance assistant at the now defunct Lucky magazine. I continued to use my tiger-child tendencies to meticulously organize the editors’ fashion-month calendars — often staying all hours of the night to do so. When I started at New York and found myself writing blog posts, I would compare my originals to the edited pieces to see where I could have done better. I’d mentally praise or berate myself, based on how much was changed. My goal was to turn in a perfect article that required little to no editing.
After I had been working in fashion for five years, I read an essay by Wesley Yang called “Paper Tigers.” Yang explored the downside of being an Asian-American child raised by tiger parents, especially as adults making our way through the world. One line especially struck a nerve: “It is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that meritocracy comes to an abrupt end after graduation.” He was describing the bamboo ceiling — the Asian-American equivalent of the glass ceiling, where the behaviors drilled into our heads that led us to succeed academically in turn hold us back in the workforce. There’s a perception that we lack authority, leadership, and creativity because we’ve been taught to be high-achieving robots. All of the lessons my parents espoused, like blanket obedience to authority — don’t argue with your co-workers, don’t cause trouble — are not the qualities that get you promoted or earn you the covetable projects. There are times when I’m too quiet, afraid to speak up and question my superiors and create uncomfortable situations. When you’re raised feeling like you’re never good enough, how do you project the confidence required to get ahead? I see myself in the kids turned adults who work hard and quietly toil away, finding themselves ignored when it comes to moving to the next step in their careers. It’s not healthy to always find yourself relentlessly pursuing perfection in order to please authority figures.
Tiger parenting makes it hard to ask for help and even harder to admit defeat in life. I can be my own worst enemy. Self-doubt circulates in my head all the time and I constantly aspire to be more perfect: I could have found better clothes for a shoot, I could have thought up a more creative approach, I could have been funnier, smarter, more clever — the list never ends. Now that my life isn’t measured by a grade, I search for other metrics like page views or Instagram likes to validate my work and obsessively pursue bigger, better numbers.
Sometimes I default into tiger-mom mode with my friends in ways that can be alienating, but I can’t help myself. I can blurt things out that echo the harsh way my mom spoke to me as a child without even realizing the weight of my words. It also means I have little patience for people complaining about their circumstances. You find a project annoying but you’re stuck working on it? Suck it up. Think a project could be better but you only half-assed it? Go and fix it. I set high expectations for those around me because I have the same for myself — even if it makes me unlikable at times. But I suppose that’s the entire point of being a tiger mom.
In his acceptance speech at the Emmy Awards this year, Master of None writer Alan Yang ended by saying, “Asian parents out there, if you could just do me a favor: If just a couple of you can get your kids cameras instead of violins, we’ll be all good.” It got me thinking — if my mom had applied her tiger zeal toward supporting me in what I wanted to do in life, what could I have achieved? If my friends, some of whom express ambivalence over their career paths, were given more choices, where would they be? Could we live the elusive immigrant dream, but on our own terms?
If you asked me 20 years ago how I expected my life trajectory to go, I would have told you college, med school, become a doctor. But that’s not how things went. I am not the rich medical professional my mother hoped for, though I am economically more secure than my parents, and I am able to enjoy life more than she was. I’d like to say we have a good relationship, but we don’t. Something broke between us when I declared my independence. She still believes I could become a doctor and berates me every so often because she thinks I work too much for too little money. When I ended her dream and began my own, we endured a fraught cold war over the course of the first two years where she’d go from screaming and threatening to not speak to me again to calling me like nothing happened. It could be days or weeks between calls; the longest was two months. All I could do was turn the other cheek because I knew that therapy, the best way to solve this problem, was not in the picture. It would trigger another blowout, because the last thing my mother wanted was for others to hear our dirty laundry. Plus, in her mind, she wasn’t doing anything wrong.
I think a lot about what I would do if I choose to have children, and I’m deeply ambivalent about becoming a parent. Besides the fact that my mother would command a presence in their life, I’m terrified of turning into her. I look at my internal monologue and the offhand comments I make to friends, and I see the effects of her parenting. I worry I’ll be as overly involved, demanding, and strict. But then I think about what I’d truly want: for my kids to work hard toward their happiness, whatever that may be, even if there are unpleasant bumps along the road. And maybe this self-awareness is how you survive growing up a tiger cub.
- Amy Chua coined the term “Tiger Mom” in her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011.
- Since then, it’s been used to describe a parenting style that uses harsh tactics like fear and shame, but also one that prioritizes familial closeness.
- Studies show tiger parenting has different outcomes, depending on cultural factors.
The term “Tiger Mom” burst onto the scene in 2011 when Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and mother of two daughters, published a book about her parenting style called The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it, she ascribes tiger parenting to Chinese parents (though she admits she uses the terms “Chinese” and “Western” loosely — and, really, anybody can adopt this style).
“Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment,” she writes in her book, which was excerpted by the Wall Street Journal. “By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits, and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.”
While some find Chua’s methods extreme — she once told her 4-year-old daughter to re-do a handmade birthday card because it didn’t meet her standards — others say there’s a lot of warmth as well, and that the high expectations produce results. But what do the experts say?
What is a Tiger parent?
“The term has its positives and negatives,” says Kim Parker, LCSW, author of East Meets West: Parenting from the Best of Both Worlds. “But it’s usually used by Asian Americans to describe their immigrant moms or dads who are highly involved, motivated by love, and use coercive tactics — there’s not too much positive parenting — to raise their kids toward their definition of success.”
“Tiger parenting is based in Asian values of independence and emphasizes creating a strong and committed relationship between parent and child,” says Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stanford University and co-author of the study “My Mother and Me: Why Tiger Mothers Motivate Asian Americans But Not European Americans.”
“Parents in Asian and Asian American contexts often direct children to recognize their fundamental connectedness to others, especially parents and their obligation to them,” she adds. “One of the most important obligations is to become an educated person, so you can provide for the family and contribute to society. Being a good child means living up to parental expectations.”
To Westerners, this style can seem pretty rigorous. “A tiger parent sets extremely high goals for his or her child, usually academic, and drives the child relentlessly to achieve these goals,” says Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D., educator and author of Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World. “Once each goal is reached, another is immediately set, so there is no break from the parent’s demands.”
Tiger parenting, with its emphasis on obligation to the family and reaching high standards, may seem too authoritarian but that’s not exactly the case. Kids are highly supported in this method of parenting. “Parents sit with the child and work on homework, making sure the child understands the problems,” Dr. Markus says. “They convey to their children that even if they don’t understand the problem at first, with much more practice, they will get it. They help their children understand they are strong and have the ability.”
Su Yeong Kim, Ph.D., co-author of the study “Does Tiger Parenting Exist?” and professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the parenting style, and found it high in one factor that was missing in other parenting styles: Shaming. “Supportive parents showed higher levels of shaming than easygoing parents, suggesting that a moderate level of shaming may be an important component of being a supportive and successful parent among Chinese Americans.”
But while tiger parents rank high in shaming, they rank high in warmth as well. “‘Authoritarian parenting’ generally has a negative connotation, like the parent is the ruthless dictator, using a ‘my way or the highway’ or ‘children are to be seen not heard’ approach,” Parker says. “Tiger parenting utilizes some traits of authoritarians, but it can also involve parental sacrifice rooted in selfless love for the child.”
The benefits and drawbacks of tiger parenting may not be the same in all families.
Before you start demanding more elaborate birthday cards from your kids, know that your children may not respond well to tiger parenting. “Studies show that tiger parenting can be effective for Asian and Asian American students, but not for Americans,” says Dr. Markus. “In one study, Asian Americans students were asked to think about their mothers following a failure to solve a problem. These students showed higher levels of motivation than when they thought about themselves. In contrast, American students in families with European backgrounds demonstrated lower levels of motivation when they thought about their mothers.”
The positive results for Asian Americans, however, come with a price: “Students with tiger parents show a paradoxical pattern of both higher distress coupled with high achievement,” Dr. Kim explains.
And other kids don’t take to tiger parenting at all, resulting in the opposite of what was intended. “Anytime a child — especially a teenager — loses a sense of control or a sense of agency, it has a really a dramatic effect on their motivation, which will affect their outcomes related to academics,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness. “If you try to externally motivate them with threats or bribes or any controlling parenting style, their self-motivation will falter.”
“These children can also experience the anxiety and other downsides of a high-stress environment,” Dr. Rankin says. “Such pressure is unsustainable, and these children can rebel later in life — giving up healthy goals entirely — when they reach an age where independence is possible.”
But in some families, the close bond of tiger parenting can mitigate some of those alienating factors. “Studies show parental love and sacrifice, delivered in a warm relationship with the child, can trump any childhood resentment and shame,” Parker says.
In the end, Chua’s children turned out just fine. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that my mom and I are increasingly similar,” Chua’s younger daughter, Lulu, told Slate. “I think I’ve really absorbed a lot of her values. My mom loves to pass on these little tidbits of knowledge, and I find myself giving them to my friends now in a very mothering way.”
Marisa LaScala Parenting & Relationships Editor Marisa LaScala covers all things parenting, from the postpartum period through empty nests, for GoodHousekeeping.com; she previously wrote about motherhood for Parents and Working Mother.
The Tiger Mom Effect Is Real, Says Large Study
The dangerous thing about stereotypes is that they’re often built on a kernel, however small, of truth. And the ones about Asian-Americans aren’t any different – so the latest research appearing in the journal PNAS attempts to get to the bottom of the stereotype of Asian-American academic prowess. Are tiger moms — so-called for their hyper-disciplining parenting and their laser-like focus on achievement and performance — to thank? Deeper financial pockets that can fund tutors and summer school? Or are Asian Americans just smarter than white kids?
I’ve thought about this myself. That stereotype of the over-achieving, over-booked, good-at-math-and-science Asian-American? That’s me. I got good grades in school. I took summer school classes. I read voraciously – in one summer, I read all 100 books on a list that was supposed to sustain us through the four years of high school. I spent every Saturday in back-to-back piano lessons, music theory and ballet classes. My parents assumed I would go to college, and I did. My parents assumed I would go to graduate school, and I did. For a career, I chose to write about health and science.
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But I stayed out of the brouhaha when Amy Chua roared about the Tiger Mom, confidently defending her strict and, to some, draconian parenting methods to keep her kids on track to becoming all they could be. Maybe it hit too close to home — there was a lot that was familiar in the way she “encouraged” her kids to practice their musical instruments for hours until they got it right. I remember feeling chained to the piano bench on warm sunny days when all I wanted to do was take a dip in the pool or just hang out with friends. (Did I mention that my piano lessons continued over summer vacation, at my teacher’s house?)
But I think my ambivalence had more to do with a sense that there was something elitist in the argument of Asian-American exceptionalism – that Asian parents were endowed with some special ability to appreciate the value of effort and the importance of pushing their kids to succeed, a skill that remained out of reach to other parents for whatever reason. That wasn’t my experience. I saw the same emphasis on exceptionalism and achievement among my other, non-Asian friends, and wasn’t quite buying the idea that parents from the Far East had a lock on the way to get the most out of their kids.
So I was intrigued by how Amy Hsin and Yu Xie attempted to explain the academic advantage of Asian-Americans over whites. Hsin, from Queens College at the City University of New York, and Xie, from the University of Michigan, quickly found that higher socio-economic status and greater intellect didn’t contribute as much as some researchers have thought to the grade gap. Even recent immigrants who didn’t have much in the way of financial or social support still tended to do better in school than non-Asian students born and raised in the U.S. And from kindergarten throughout high school, Asian-American students score about the same as whites on standardized tests.
That leaves the work ethic, which Hsin and Xie found accounted for almost all of the grade gap between Asian-American and white students. And that was driven by two factors, both of which have more to do with social and cultural factors than racial ones. Among the more than 5200 Asian-American and white students from two large datasets that followed them from kindergarten into high school, Asian-American students were able to take advantage of social support systems that helped to translate their effort into success. In their communities, families are surrounded by ways to enhance education – from word-of-mouth advice about the best school districts to resources like books, videos and websites, to cram schools for after-school classes. “The Tiger Mom argument neglects these social resources and forces that sustain and reinforce the work ethic,” says Hsin.
In other words, it takes a village. It also takes a culture that may have less to do with race specifically, and more to do with broader social factors such as immigration.“ Asian-American youth are more likely to attribute intellect and academic success to effort rather than innate ability,” she says. That’s a natural outgrowth of the belief that success – in school, in work, and in life — is a meritocratic commodity; the more you put in, the more you get out. When quizzed about whether they thought math skills were innate or learned, most of the white students believed it was a skill you were born with while the Asian-Americans were more likely to think it was learned, and acquired with effort.
The advantage that brings to their GPAs, however, does come with a price. Hsin also found that Asian-American students were more likely to have more self-image problems and more conflicted relationships with their parents than their white counterparts. The pressure to perform seems to take a toll on those who fail to meet expectations as well as those who do – for the latter, the expectation to be successful makes the achievement less satisfactory and less fulfilling.
So Tiger Moms may be on to something, however obvious it may seem: hard work does pay off, albeit at the cost of some self-esteem. But it may be giving them too much credit to say they do it alone. And looking back, I have to admit, however begrudgingly, that all that discipline has probably made me a more organized and confident adult. But don’t tell my mom.
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