In Defense of the Tiger Mother

Alternately: Confessions of a tiger cub

In 2011, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was published by Amy Chua, thus baptizing a previously unnamed, but culturally established belief, that Asian parents raised their children with different and arguably superior methods. With a name, the idea found its way into many pieces of media and became less of a taboo to discuss. Tiger cubs began finding solidarity in their upbringings, and vowed not to impart the same sort of trauma onto their children.

Though like most of what I’ve written, this piece is based largely on anecdotal evidence and personal experience, I would like to first legitimize my ideas by providing some sort of testimony as to the validity of my experiences.

Growing up, I had swimming lessons, skating lessons, Chinese lessons, taekwondo lessons, piano lessons, and soccer lessons, all taken very seriously and supplemented with practice outside of class. I partook in so many activities that my mother set a weekly schedule for me, down to five minute intervals, so I could effectively use my time. Throughout this, academics was always the number one priority while social activities and leisure were at the bottom of the totem pole. I was very aware of the idea that my mother didn’t want me to have ‘too much fun’, and never asked to see friends within a week of some other social gathering that I really wanted to go to.

The only time I was allowed to use a computer was a laptop on the kitchen table, and I didn’t have a cell phone until I graduated high school. To this day, I’m still a slow typist, and I promise I’m actually bad at texting. My brain was untouched by the evils of television because I wasn’t allowed to watch it after reaping the educational benefits from Barney and Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood. No junk food and no pop, up to the point where small dosages of caffeine even today fire me up like a tab of addy.

The most fascinating thing was that all my relatives in China thought I was well-behaved after meeting me, and commended my mother on her parenting. That’s right, somehow I was more academically oriented and respectful than the Chinese kids I ‘had it easy compared to’.

Though there were many moments of frustration, unhappiness, and anger, I had a reasonably happy childhood, and that I can remember distinct negative periods means that I took it reasonably well. There were perhaps methods that weren’t exactly kosher (or maybe too kosher) and maybe my lows were lower than those of other children from middle-class backgrounds, but I never felt unloved or discarded, as critics often claim. Plus, it garnered me a head start in academics that has stayed with me for the majority of my schooling career.

I turned out more than okay in the end, perhaps because my mother wasn’t compensating for much and genuinely wanted the best for me. By design or sheer luck, I managed to develop social skills in the limited interactions with my friends, stay healthy mentally, and get by in college without adult supervision.

Tiger parenting isn’t endemic to mothers, Chinese parents, or even Asians as a population, though Chinese culture has always placed a strong emphasis on education. Strict parenting aimed at producing academically and extracurricularly high-achieving children is very common within immigrant families. The connection here is simple: after emigrating, parents no longer have the same social safety nets they do at home. Their own futures are unstable, and all the more so that of their children. Physiological needs take precedence over all else, then most forms of safety become a priority. In order for them to be able to provide for themselves in this strange new society, their children must be strong. Their feelings can wait a little. And the most foolproof way to that safety is through academic success.

The assumption that strong academics leads to self sufficiency is perpetuated even within Western cultures, and is not altogether incorrect. For non-Western immigrant parents however, it is all the more credible because of their experiences: in order to achieve the sort of socioeconomic status necessary to emigrate, they had to distinguish themselves in either a densely populated country, a supposedly egalitarian communist one, or both. The only way to do that for most of them, was through academic excellence. If they achieved this socioeconomic level without beating their peers at school, then they were likely aristocracy of some sort without intentions of ever leaving.

This application of old principles to a new milieu isn’t wrong. Academic success is correlated with economic well-being to a certain extent, even in the West. It’s not incorrect to claim that putting one’s head down to study will result in stable, if not high-paying jobs in many fields, especially those which require little creativity and social interaction, and perhaps is the most foolproof path. The problem then, lies in the differences in environment and the saliency of this sort of work between the Western country and the home country.

The primary unfortunate difference is in family structure. After emigration, families tend to live in nuclear family units if they’re lucky, or even more splintered groups, with someone working overseas. Though their parents might have been strict, what the tiger parents forget is that they had their grandparents and other relatives to dote on them. It’s much easier to spoil someone else’s kid after all. And though spoil might be a bit generous considering the conditions some immigrants often come from, the tiger parents felt loved and secure, despite their parents acting much like they did. Without any sort of inter-generational support abroad, the tiger cub becomes disciplined at the cost of some self-esteem and unconditional love.

The lack of relatives becomes doubly important when socialization is considered. Family comes first, but what if there’s no one of the tiger cub’s age in the family unit because they just emigrated? The effect is then compounded by their unusual foods, customs, and perhaps appearance when they start meeting peers their age. By the time tiger cubs are complaining about not being able to go to their friend’s sleepovers, there’s not much to worry about. Sure it’s social suicide that they couldn’t attend Sally’s sweet sixteen, but they got the invite. And they’re working around it, undoubtedly telling their friends how tyrannical their tiger mother is. It’s the parents of the cubs who were never able to make friends and better integrate into Western society who should be concerned.

The most important other skill that tiger cubs have difficulty picking up is self-regulation. And this does have an impact on socioeconomic potential. Tiger moms understand all too well that intrinsic motivation is often insufficient, so they help their cubs out with a little push. When the push yields effects, another push is given, then another. What they often fail to recognize is that these pushes stymie the development of innate motivation and stunt decision making abilities.

Immigrant parents are highly motivated outliers, having leapt through hoops to leave their home countries to start a life abroad, not to ‘find themselves’, but because it represented a significant improvement to their living conditions. They’ve pursued excellence and found great success. But their children might not have the same impetus, especially the ones whose parents do a little better for themselves. They’re not looking to devote their entire lives to academics and a career when mommy drives a Volvo, and daddy wears a Seiko. The tiger cubs just want to play hockey with their friends and maybe eventually get a job.

So they stick it out. They do as they’re told and spend their limited free time enjoying themselves. The cubs deserve these moments, thinks tiger mom, they work hard enough as is. What happens then is that the cubs start allocating all their free time to leisure, a hard habit to break, even when all their time is actually free time. Who’s going to notice a student or two missing from a first year lecture?

This goes hidden easily, and is sometimes even exploitable. If the tiger cub enrolls in an extremely demanding college program where the bare requirement is eighty hour weeks, then they’ll do fine until they graduate. If they manage to find a job that is equally demanding, then they’ll do fine until the exit. By that time, they’ll hopefully have enough money to hire someone to discuss childhood trauma with.

Otherwise, the forced guidance and structure of the past few years collects the interest all at once. Too quickly, the cubs are going to have to learn not only how to make decisions for themselves, but just how to manage their own time. Sometimes, the end result is abject failure, and a quick spiral into an addiction of some sort, be it a substance or an activity. In most other cases, it’s a regression to the mean, a reduction of a ‘child prodigy’ to just one of the pack.

The negative effects of tiger parenting becomes more pronounced when the parents are emotionally unstable themselves. Though not absent in Western families, the prevalence is likely higher in immigrant families simply due to the pressures that the parents are under.

Imagine a tiger mom with a graduate degree in statistics coming home after a long day of running SQL queries for her manager who is ten years her junior, only to find that her eleven year-old cub was watching TV while she was gone instead of doing his math homework that seven year-olds were doing in the home country. Then, after yelling at him for a bit in broken English and cooking dinner, her cub brings up that he got his math test from last week back, and he made three mistakes out of ten, but he had spent the afternoon studying instead of learning how to add fractions.

Despite all the possible negative effects, I intend to raise my children with many values of tiger parenting, such as: respect, discipline, academics, and no participation prizes. Ideally, they’ll have carefully monitored exposure to video games television as well as junk foods. To give my cubs a better chance, I intend on providing them with earlier exposure to goal-setting and less structure, more opportunities for social interactions, and continual affirmations of unconditional love. But if they bring home a B on that math test, they had better be scared as heck that we’re spending all weekend going over how to add fractions.

These days, I have a pretty healthy relationship with my mother (and father!) even by Western standards, though we still don’t drink together, nor do I refer to them by their first names. I can see many of my values, idiosyncrasies, and habits, both good and bad, come from not only how they raised me, but how I was shaped by everyone I came into contact with. And I’m aware of how lucky I am to have had a mother who cared enough about me to devote as much time and energy as she did, while still being emotionally balanced. Parenting is hard. Thanks Mom.

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