5 Things We Can All Learn from Tiger Parents

As a former "tiger cub" and mother of four, I know the bad rep tiger parents can get. But there are lessons to learn from every style of parenting.

tiger head
Photo: Illustration by Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

"Are you a monster?"

That was the first question the Today Show asked Amy Chua in 2011, the day her controversial memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother arrived in bookstores and launched her into the limelight of death threats and child-abuse charges.

Chua defined "tiger parents" as parents, stereotypically of Chinese descent, who place their child's schoolwork before anything else, demand straight A's, forbid dating until college, and do not allow their children to attend a sleepover, have a playdate, be in a school play, watch TV or computer games, or choose their own extracurricular activities. This is a parenting style I'm familiar with because I was raised by two tiger parents.

My parents, like Chua's, immigrated to the United States from China to pursue their graduate studies; Mā Ma received a Masters in Journalism and Bà Ba a Ph.D. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. When I graduated high school number four in my class, my parents were disappointed that I didn't do better than my friends who were ranked one, two, and three. Producing an old photograph of two-year-old me dressed up as a doctor measuring my baby brother's temperature, my parents would often remind me that I was destined to be a doctor and if I wanted to achieve that dream, I needed to be the best of the best. Every activity that my parents orchestrated reinforced this goal from temping at doctor offices to candy striping to spending one summer living with a friend of theirs who was a pathologist, so I could shadow his autopsies.

Like some tiger cubs, I rebelled. I refused to mail my medical school applications after both my mother and brother died of the same disease. My parents and their friends measured success by their children's grades, awards, and potential income. My failure was theirs. Bà Ba still reminds me of it today, pointing out how I won't be able to keep up with my doctor friends who can afford to give their kids more than I can like private schools and abroad experiences. "You'll envy them. They'll stop hanging out with you. You'll regret it!"

The truth is, now that I'm a parent of four kids, I'm starting to agree with Bà Ba. I can't keep up with my friends who are doctors and I do feel bad when I can't afford to give my children something they really need. I also can't deny that I have benefited from tiger parenting: admission to every college I applied for, graduate of Harvard like Chua and her daughters, two master degrees, a Champion of Change for the White House in Asian American and Pacific Islander Storytelling and Art, a Schweitzer Fellow for Life, founder of an award-winning nonprofit that has been running since 1997, and recipient of numerous awards. But mostly, it's the belief that I can make my dreams come true as long as I worked my ass off.

Here are a few lessons every parent can learn from tiger parents:

Love your child unconditionally while maintaining high expectations.

Chua later clarified in interviews that the formula behind tiger parenting was high expectations and unconditional love. The latter half of this equation is sometimes lost. I tolerated the tiger parenting because of my parents’ unconditional love. Mā Ma showered us with kisses and hugs and made sure we knew that the best thing that ever happened in her life was bringing us into this world. Before I graduated from high school, they took my brother and I every summer to nearly all the national parks in the United States and Canada.

My parents prioritized our needs always above their own. Mā Ma made sure I always had the most stunning art projects to wow my teachers. Bà Ba let me nap on the coach for hours while he figured out how to solve my complex extra credit problems. After all they sacrificed for me, I thought it was the least I could do to help them earn comments from their friends like, "Oh, I wish my kids were more like Leslie."

Build a kids character and equip them with tools for excelling.

“Each child only has about 157,680 hours before he/she turns 18,” Grace Liu wrote in a CNN article titled “Why Tiger Moms are Great.” She explains how she’d rather use those hours to gain tools for excelling. “It is hard for a student to catch up academically if she is significantly behind in high school. But someone can become more self-aware, work on social skills and learn negotiating tactics later in life. Without the skills and expertise that is a result of excelling, I would never have the chance to sit at the important tables to participate in the discussions, no matter how great my social skills. I value my tiger cub upbringing mostly for the tools it gives me to make a difference in my community.”

“I saw childhood as a training period, a time to build character and invest in the future,” Chua wrote. My favorite tool is “never give up.” I’ve seen my oldest apply this rule academically but also in snowboard cross and climbing. In my Alpinist Magazine article, winner of a Best Travel Writing Solas Award, which was anthologized in Waymaking, winner of a Banff Mountain Film Festival Book Award this year, I wrote about a winter day when she miscommunicated with her belayer and fell into a nearly frozen lake beneath the rock she was trying to climb. When we tried to pull her out, she insisted on finishing her climb.

Dana Vitek Rissmiller, a teammate’s mom, once posted on my timeline: “Kyra is one of the coolest kids I've ever met. Early in the snowboard season, Kyra sat with Jenny and me at lunch. Jenny was boo-hooing about how the coach was pushing her a little hard (she wasn't, at all) and Kyra shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘You push yourself.’ Just like that. I think Jenny took it to heart because shortly after that she was able to ride with the more advanced kids like Kyra. I told Jenny that day to watch Kyra if she wanted to learn.”

Chua’s oldest said in an interview once, “knowing that you’ve pushed yourself, body and mind, to the limits of your own potential. If I died tomorrow, I would die feeling I’ve lived my whole life at 110 percent."

Teach the philosophy that hard work achieves greatness.

When I first became a parent, I refused to be a tiger mom. My parents were proud to be labeled as tiger parents. But I was an American Born Chinese and I didn't want to be associated with this cultural stereotype. I promised myself I would never force my children to play an instrument or pursue a career that I wanted. My first child dreamed of being an Olympic snowboarder and race car driver before she could even write her name. I trained all four of my children to snowboard as soon as they could walk. They rock climbed by the age of two. When my son was two and my oldest was five, I strapped crampons to their feet, and we hiked a glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. When they turned 9 and 12 both of them piloted a helicopter in Long Beach while I photographed a pod of whales from the back seat.

But now with college on the horizon, I suddenly feel the tiger mom inside me surfacing. While I did provide high expectations on grades and unconditional love, I'm worried that I was too much a Western parent, the kind Chua described as being worried about their child's self-esteem, who respects "their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment."

I realize that I do expect my kids to attend an Ivy League. I stay up late prepping them for exams and make sure their art projects will make jaws drop. But when I try to get them to work hard, the only leverage they respond to is access to their TV, Xbox, or cell phones. I never taught them that greatness comes from hard work and sacrifice.

"What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it," wrote Chua. "To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up."

Believe in your child, even when they don’t.

Mā Ma claimed that when I was four she gave me a choice: ballet or piano. I chose the piano. Like Chua, Mā Ma attended all of my piano lessons, took notes, and hovered by my shoulder when I practiced, which sometimes did last four hours a day especially when I won a competition that earned me the right to perform as a piano soloist with an orchestra. When guests came over to our house or if we visited someone who owned a piano, my parents expected me to perform. Our battles rivalled Chua’s confrontation with her youngest daughter, Lulu. Mā Ma chased me around the house with a wooden spoon while I ranted about how much I hated the piano (and her)!

Over the past eight years since Chua published her memoir, both of Chua's daughters (now 22 and 26) have defended the methods of their tiger mom and proved critics wrong. Both graduated from Harvard and are now pursuing law degrees. Her oldest Sophia says, "I don't think that every kid needs to become a violin prodigy or get into Harvard. But when it comes to smaller issues like, 'You won't get every toy you want until your grades improve,' or 'You can't quit the team because you lost two games in a row,' then I believe tiger parenting does have its place."

Her youngest Lulu even admits that "people assume that tiger parenting would beget low self-esteem because there isn't that constant praise, but I think I'm exiting with a lot more confidence than some others, because my confidence is earned. My mom gave me the tools to drive my own confidence. I will definitely be a tiger mom. It's not a bad thing to push. Sometimes it just means you really believe in your child."

Now, I appreciate that I can teach piano and sight read any musical score. I realize that Mā Ma believed in me and what I was capable of, when I did not.

Show your child how to succeed, but be flexible about its definition.

Reading Chua's daughters' words admittedly sent me into a panic. Maybe I did not have enough fortitude to be a tiger mom. Maybe I was selfish and I used my precious hours when my children were little to advance my own career and let Sesame Street parent instead. Looking for support, I asked on my network on Facebook what they thought about tiger parenting.

Steven Flanagan, father of two high school kids in Arizona posted, "I'm just trying to get my kids to adulthood without drugs, suicide, STDs, or pregnancy. If I can keep my kids from becoming a statistic, I win. Also, just decent contributing members of society."

Melissa Menchavez, mother of one high school and one middle school kid in Virginia posted: "Are the children involved in the decision-making? Do they want the path their parents have chosen? My biggest goal is that my girls are happy. That's my measure of success."

Kelly Raftery, mother of a high school kid, posted, "In today's hyper competitive world, kids are being pushed to severe anxiety and are under a huge amount of pressure to 'succeed' - but what if success is living a happy life, not making it into an Ivy League. In a time when so many parents are pushing, it feels counterintuitive almost to not push, but having my son be on his own two feet, mentally and emotionally sound is more important than any 'achievements' he may notch as a teenager."

Chua wrote at the end of her book, “To succeed in this world, you always have to be willing to adapt.” This was the lesson she learned and ultimately the secret to making tiger parenting work. Every child is different and as the world grows more complex, a tiger parent can’t narrowly define success as only academic or intellectual achievement. The critical lesson here is to show your child how to succeed.

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