Rethinking Tiger Parenting

It’s easy to focus on play and creativity when your kids are young. I was sure I wasn’t going to be a stereotypical tiger parent, signing my kids up for every academic opportunity and expecting 110% effort at all times. But now that my older child is heading to middle school, the stakes feel a little higher, and I have bouts of mild panic about how maybe we’re not doing enough to ensure his and his brother’s future success. It’s hard to parse what’s actually true in all the child-rearing advice out there and what is just wishful thinking, the peddling of one set of norms and preferences over another, which, once adopted, will make you feel superior and righteous.

On the one hand, I scoffed when Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out; I read reviews and critiques, but there was no way I was going to read the book itself. How galling that she would peddle such stereotypes of East vs. West. There is a path to success and happiness that isn’t paved with straight A’s, piano recitals at Carnegie Hall, and the banning of sleepovers and TV.

On the other hand, the idea that education is the key to one’s future was so unwaveringly inculcated in me, is so deeply in my bones that it feels like an immutable law. And if you’re going to get an education, you better strive for and demand the best of yourself, you better not settle for mediocrity. 97% is not 100; A- is not an A. “Try your best,” my mother would say. “Try your best,” I said to my son. “I don’t know what you mean!” he replied.  

On the one hand, I’ve read the stories about skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression among college students in the past couple of decades, with counseling services on campuses stretched thin, often unable to do much more than triage and treat those at most immediate risk of self harm. I have heard faculty friends describe students who seem paralyzed by perfectionism and self-doubt, who want to be told exactly what to do. Many causes are discussed, but the main culprit is usually helicopter and snowplow parenting, a version of overinvolved parenting that is itself driven by anxiety about shrinking opportunities and the need to secure their children’s place in an increasingly uncertain and inequitable world. Better, these stories say, to help your children experience and cope with failure, imperfection, ambiguity, and boredom to build resilience and independent problem-solving skills.

On the other hand, the imperative to perform academically, to be accelerated, excellent, driven, ahead of the curve seems everywhere. After my kids’ piano recital, another parent lets on that piano is just one of his daughter’s instruments. On the local community Facebook groups, mothers (because it’s mostly mothers) ask about summer preparation for math acceleration, seek tutors for this or that subject, are looking for more rigorous or competitive academic and athletic options, and wonder why our school district doesn’t have a gifted program. An acquaintance’s 10-year-old son is already winning national races in an Olympic sport. Other offspring are off to Ivy League and other elite schools. A colleague laments that his daughter was wait-listed at a top 10 university, even though she as a 4.0+ GPA and had started her own non-profit. The recent octo-champs of the National Spelling Bee were made through grueling practice, coaches, and the collective efforts of whole communities.  

Back and forth, a mental tug-of-war between one set of “shoulds” and “oughts” and another. I once told a room full of parents, “our children’s education is not a competition.” And I believe that most of the time, but I also imagine the voices of other parents saying, “of course it’s a competition, don’t be naïve!”

In a blog post on “Ask a Korean,” The Korean enacts this struggle with my inner tiger parent by tussling with the views of another Korean American, Ryan Park, who published an anti-tiger parenting op-ed. The Korean writes:

Typical is the attitude shown by attorney Ryan Park in his recent op-ed for the New York Times. Park tut-tuts at Chua’s tiger parenting as “fanatical parenting choices,” saying the second generation Asian Americans are “largely abandoning traditional Asian parenting styles in favor of a modern, Western approach focused on developing open and warm relationships with our children.” The second generation parents, according to Park, “are striving to cultivate individuality and autonomy in our children in a way that we feel was missing from our own childhoods.” Park then concludes: “I aim to raise children who are happy, confident and kind—and not necessarily as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child. If that means the next generation will have fewer virtuoso violinists and neurosurgeons, well, I still embrace the decline.” 

My eyes gently roll. 

The Korean goes on to explain that Ryan Park isn’t just any old successful Asian American lawyer. No, this guy “has amassed credentials that few mortals could ever reach.”

Which is why Park’s lamentation about his father’s strict education triggers a reflexive eye roll. Suuure—if you’re the top of the class at Harvard Law School, hit the three most important departments of the federal government and had clerkships with all three levels of the court, I’m sure you could stand to be a little less successful. But for everyone else? [. . . ] If you’re an Asian American, the only way for you to be mostly insulated from this society’s latent racism is to be indisputably talented. Merely being very good is not enough; the separation between you and the rest of the world must be so overwhelming that you elevate yourself beyond the racism-infected system. 

Asian American parents push their children academically because they hope against hope that their children would hit that escape velocity from the system.

“Escape velocity.” That line made me pause. Oh right. Escape the system; be better than everyone else so no one can tell you you don’t belong. I instinctively understood what he was talking about – for many years, I was fiercely proud of my command of English, spoken without an accent, meticulously correct in its grammar. Fewer vs. less; different from, not different than; lie, lay, laid–I was pretty prescriptive about the rules and secretly contemptuous of its violators. I wielded my superior English like a weapon against bigotry. Immigrant parents know how tough it is out there; they’re just trying to arm their children the best they can.

In his defense of tiger parenting, The Korean is saying you can keep the good things while abandoning narrow definitions of career success. You don’t need to go the doctor/lawyer route, but learning to delay gratification, to subsume your own desire for a larger goal, is the path to success, to becoming, as he says, “the best version of yourself.” In the end, he’s saying you don’t need to reach escape velocity, because what tiger parenting really teaches children is how to “persevere over difficulties” and that is how they learn to make it in the world in spite of the stereotypes, bias, and racism.  

But in defending tiger parenting’s larger principle if not its tactics, The Korean is not so different from Park after all. Rereading Park’s op-ed, I found it not quite so eye-rolly and much of it felt familiar. Park writes:

The traditional Asian parenting model is, in theory at least, premised on imposing pain now to reap meritocratic rewards later. For much of my life, I accepted this premise and assumed there must be a trade-off between inculcating academic success and happiness. But as I’ve learned since becoming a parent, the research shows that children tend to do best, across the board, when parents command loving respect, not fearful obedience — when they are both strict and supportive, directive and kindhearted. By contrast, children subjected to hostile “tiger” parenting methods are more likely to be depressed, anxious and insecure.

Park is saying you can teach perseverance and resilience without withholding love and affection. Like The Korean, he acknowledges the calculus of delayed gratification and work ethic that reliably produces academic results, but he’s not willing to go to the extremes that his own father did. He still has his moments of doubt:

Like all parents, however, my failures stack up alongside my successes. And I know that the decision to abandon immigrant parenting principles could backfire. The striving immigrant mind-set, however severe, can produce results. Every time I snuggle my daughters as they back away from a challenge — when my own father would have screamed and spit and spanked until I prevailed — I wonder if I’m failing them in a very different way than he did me.

Here, I resonate with Park’s struggle to know when to push and when to pull them in for a hug. But I have also never been screamed at or spit on by my parents for not meeting a challenge, which perhaps proves his thesis about raising “children who are happy, confident and kind” and not “as driven, dutiful and successful as the model Asian child.”

One could argue, then, that I didn’t achieve the stratospheric success of a Ryan Park, because my parents weren’t as ferocious in their tiger parenting as they could have been. They were in fact both “strict and supportive, directive and kindhearted.” Faced with two fairly stubborn children who refused to spend our Saturdays at Korean school, my parents relented when they could have forced. We had to practice piano, do all our homework, and get good grades, but there was also plenty of time for making friends and roaming freely in the city, for goofing off and watching TV. Although my brother and I perceived our parents as demanding, and often too critical, relatives remarked over the years that they spoiled us, went too easy on us, too often let us speak our minds and thus disrespect their authority. And because I was a girl, my parents’ tolerance of my stubborn refusals and arguments was an especially noteworthy failing. In my extended family’s eyes, I was certainly not a “model Asian child.” Despite all this, I did get good grades and managed to get into a top college. My parents did not rule by fear or fiat, yet I felt the pressure to excel, to not disappoint them too much about the things that really mattered.

If Park emphasizes the pain and resentment of submitting to his father’s “succeed-at-all-costs immigrant mind-set,” The Korean reminds us of the deeply relational ethos of tiger parenting, which, in my view, is the key to its power: “The knowledge that my parents denied themselves to give me an opportunity was branded into my heart, motivating me to study harder than ever before.” It’s not just the children who are expected to sacrifice pleasure, their own desires or dreams, their immediate wants, but the parents who must also delay gratification, who feel they can’t afford to relax, to be lenient, to let any opportunity slip by that might make the difference. And the fewer resources you have, the more you put all of them into the one basket of your children’s future. For many of us first and second generation immigrant children, it’s the knowledge of our family’s sacrifice and the sense of obligation it engenders that propel us to achieve. In this context, cultivating individuality doesn’t make much sense; your successes and failures are not your own, they’re familial, communal, representative. It’s not a bad thing to be reminded of the social debts to one’s kith and kin.

And yet. When I taught at Princeton years ago, I had a Chinese American student who revealed that his parents had left him behind in China with his grandparents to work in the States. When he reunited with them as an 8-year-old, he didn’t feel the expected closeness with them. There was a distance that couldn’t be bridged. Instead, he found kinship with the New York City police detectives he volunteered with and solace in the music of Tupac Shakur. I wondered if his parents felt their sacrifice had been worth it. I wonder if Ryan Park’s father thinks his parenting was successful, even as his son looks back on the ways his father failed him.

How much sacrifice is too much? How much pressure is too much? Ultimately, what I think Asian Americans parents like Ryan Park and I are grappling with is the conundrum of our (parents’) success. We don’t have to sacrifice in the same ways our parents did to provide opportunities for our children. That means we have options about how we raise them. But liberated from strictness and struggle and the resulting sense of filial duty, where will our kids get their ambition, where will the drive and gumption come from? How do you communicate high expectations that say “I believe in you and your ability to do great things” without also implying “you’re only as good as what you can achieve”? Sometimes it’s frightening not to know.

So here I am, back where I started after all these words, seesawing back and forth with the same questions and no clear answers. I’ll just have to muddle along like parents before me, and be a good student of the journey. I always knew my parents loved us, no doubt about that, but their worry and doubts about the decisions we were making sometimes felt unrelenting, like they couldn’t trust us to figure things out, like they were perpetually disappointed. From their perspective, it was their moral duty to guide us and warn us when we were straying; if they didn’t pass on the fruits of their hard-won experience, what good were they? Only recently, after 50 years, my mother acknowledged feeling lucky/grateful that my brother and I had turned out okay. She’d expressed love and pride in us before, but this was the first time I felt like she gave herself permission not to worry so much, to acknowledge that she’d done the best she could and it turned out to be enough. I realized, too, how much I needed to hear that. If nothing else, I don’t want it to take so long for my own get the message. When I tell my boys, “I love you, no matter what,” I want them (and me) to believe me every time.

4 thoughts on “Rethinking Tiger Parenting

  1. This is great. And certainly thought provoking. I’d suggest that seeking success as a way to transcend vulnerability to racism has its limits. Plenty of remarkably successful Asian Americans have had their success turned into another cudgel used to attack them, right? And the history of antisemitism suggests that wealth, power, academic success etc don’t reduce. violence and hatred. Something essential that skills and education can do, though, and this is something I’ve told my kids, is they make you more likely to be welcomed somewhere if you have to flee your country.

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    1. Thanks for this response, Jason, and for reading! Yes, agree that trying to transcend racism through academic & professional success has its limits – those things can only buffer you so much; better to focus on changing the systems through multi-racial coalitions. And yes, education does give you more options, including the option to leave (a different kind of escape!).

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  2. This really stressed me out: “But liberated from strictness and struggle and the resulting sense of filial duty, where will our kids get their ambition, where will the drive and gumption come from?” Because I’m not seeing many signs of drive and gumption in my two. Hoping maybe drive and gumption are overrated in this modern world. I’m betting on a sense of humor, social justice, and independence. We’ll see how that pans out!

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