For those unfamiliar with this term, tiger parenting refers to using unyielding, strict, and even brutal methods in order to bring about successful results in children. Most prevalent in Oriental immigrant families who have worked hard to move to the Western world, children are expected to work even harder to continue raising the family’s status. 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 (conquering a difficult piano piece or getting straight A’s).
I have a distinct memory from the first grade: I am 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, painstakingly, only to have my mother make me do one after another, until the chapter is complete. Bedtime was at 8:00 p.m., because Chinese school was at 7 a.m. the next day. That would last four hours, followed by another two hours of violin lessons — every Sunday for six years. No one ever asked me if I liked violin, 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.
Growing up as a daughter of two traditional Chinese parents, 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. The fraught atmosphere that was created for me was poignant; for a long time, competitiveness sabotaged my friendships. Outside and inside school, neurosis underpinned my conversations. Even today, I often called condescending, cold, intimidating, because I can default into tiger mode in ways that can be alienating. I blurt things out that echo the harsh way my parents 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. You deserved an A on that last paper but didn’t get it? You probably didn’t work hard enough. Then there was the depressing cloak-and-dagger secrecy and paranoia because I lived with the constant fear that other people were doing better than I was. What would my parents would say when they found out Kate scored 10 points higher than I did on the math exam? I was never praised for my achievements, rather just whisked along to my next hoop to jump through- and never was a chance missed to berate me on my failures. My joy in success was fleeting. I was forced into things I loathed, brought up to please others. There was no coddling, comfort, or assurances for my failures. If I failed to meet expectations, it was because I was lazy and had been spoiled too much. In 8th grade, I received a “B” on my report card, frantically located white out, and penned an “A” over it. It was better to lie than to tell my parents the truth and face enormous backlash over what had been my very best effort.
To many people who are not Chinese (or even just a child of immigrants), this method of parenting sounds excessive, if not borderline abusive. Tiger parenting. To many friends and I it is just normal — our way of life repackaged with a catchy new name. I recognize a lot of the good things about my parents’ values, recognize their hard work, but I began to process the effects of my upbringing on my life as a (soon to be) adult. Right now, I am both the daughter fighting her tiger parents and her internalized ideas about her self-worth. I am struggling to accept that numbers and letters don’t define me, that I don’t have to be the best to be worth something.
Tiger parenting made it hard for me ask for help and even harder to admit defeat in life. I can be my own worst enemy. I still refuse to ask anyone for help, even when I am struggling. Self-doubt circulates in my head all the time and I constantly aspire to be more perfect: I could have wrote a better paper, I could have thought up a more creative approach, I could have been funnier, smarter, more clever — the list never ends.
I used tell people, when they asked, that I will never have children. Now, I’m not so sure. I think a lot about what I would do if I choose to. I’m terrified of turning into a parent that values achievement over happiness. I look at my internal monologue and the offhand comments I make to the people around me, and I see the effects of my upbringing. I worry I’ll be 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 I’ll survive growing up a tiger cub.