The Myths of Tiger Parenting

How the West has dealt with Asian success

Image by SiJin Kim

I am the child of a tiger parent. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, it is the strict and interventionist parenting that is associated with Asians with a heavy focus on excelling in academia. I was put through additional piano lessons on Monday and Tuesday, Chinese class on Wednesday, extra math tuition on Thursday, and an English composition and comprehension class on Saturday on top of the classes I went to in school. Both my physical appearance and academic performance were acceptable subjects of open and blunt criticism at the dinner table, and I was uncomfortable speaking to my mother about basically anything.

With that said, I think most of the conversation surrounding tiger parenting is destructive and unhelpful.

Most content around the topic either attempts to weigh up the banal costs and benefits of “Western” versus “Asian” modes of parenting, and adopts the tone of an outsider gawking at us and our peculiar ways. Before I move on, I want to clarify that I don’t personally believe that there is a right way to rear a child. As someone who has tutored several young children, I believe that I can comfortably say that each one is different and requires a vastly different method of guidance: some benefit from having a friend who encourages them to do their best, while others need a strong hand and no-nonsense discipline when they neglect their own interests. More importantly, I do not think the current dialogue about tiger parenting is even really about children. Instead, I’d argue that criticisms of tiger parenting have just become another tool used to invalidate the success of Asians. It’s a subtle and dangerous form of micro-aggression.

The Origins of Tiger Parenting

Tiger parenting only really became the large social phenomenon it is today when the United States saw a large influx in Asian immigrants during the 1960s when China removed its prohibitive emigration barriers and the US expanded its immigration quotas for Asian countries such as Laos, Vietnam, and Korea. Granted, the concept of Asian parenting was long present before it moved to the States. Principles like Confucianism which emphasised respect for one’s elders, as well as more exam-orientated cultures meant that Asian parenting was always intrinsically different, but never to the extent that it was paralleled to abuse. 
 When the first Asian immigrants arrived in their new home, they quickly realized a harsh truth — many of them would be forced to work in manual and low-paying jobs and their children would be subjected to severe fiscal disadvantage and racial discrimination. However, there still existed certain mechanisms which were in some part meritocratic like the SATs, like school grades, like the myriad of awards that meant that the extraordinary would be recognized no matter what creed or race; their children would just have to make the cut. Strong ethnic communities which provided support such as after-school tutoring and large social networks as well as Asian parents pushing their children to reach for the opportunities they themselves could not led to Asian Americans being the highest-income and best-educated racial minority in the country. 
 Though simplified, these are the roots of modern tiger parenting, a deeply realist paradigm and a playing field that was always grossly unfair. And much of the stigmatization of tiger parenting, though are in some parts valid concerns, are the judgements of the privileged who remain unsympathetic to the inequalities that racial minorities have to grapple with when competing for jobs or academic opportunities.

Though I see that the repercussions of high expectations and the pressure to succeed can be incredibly damaging to developing children, the goals of tiger parenting were never really about how to form a spiritually content or self-fulfilled child but rather how to guarantee a safe and economically secure future for a child who would experience great injustices in the future.

So judging tiger parenting by its ability to achieve incredibly abstract objectives such as authenticity and self-fulfilment is missing the point. Opponents who paint the futures of tiger children as empty because they themselves did not choose to become doctors or engineers are misleading. The kind of rhetoric that paints the happiness achieved in the lives of tiger children as less sincere or less meaningful than that of their white counterparts is incredibly demeaning. Much of the condemnation revolves around painting individuals like us as puppets of our parents, completely incapable of critical thinking and free will. Our successes are chocked up to being the products of authoritarian parenting, as if we never really worked towards fulfilling our dreams by our own accord. We simply did as instructed, and therefore, the achievements of getting in Harvard, or becoming an engineer are not really our own. It’s an degrading characterisation, and there are several responses to be made.

First of all, though we have strict parents, we do not suddenly just lose the ability of being free-acting agents that can shape our own futures. We deserve the full ownership of the things we worked hard for.

Furthermore, the argument about how children should be able to freely pursue their passions so they can live more fulfilling lives is flawed. As easy as it is to imagine an Indian doctor who grew up with tiger parents regretting his life choices, it is just as easy to picture a white office worker regretting that he wasted his high school years by partying, or a Black woman questioning whether she should have really pursued law considering that she’ll be shackled by student loans. The fact is absolutely everyone, disregarding whether they had tiger parents, is faced with significant socio-economic and political pressures that push them into a certain life. But that doesn’t mean that absolutely none of us are free. We are still able to make meaningful decisions even in light of these circumstances and the children of tiger parents are no different. Free will is a virtue that should be extended to everyone or to no one at all. Either way, tiger children shouldn’t be singled out and dehumanised as submissive pawns.

The way society talks about not only tiger children but also tiger parents is also detrimental. Every strict parent who wants to prepare their child for the discrimination they experienced in their lives is suddenly a caricature of Stalin. The struggles they face when deciding how to best raise their child knowing that one day, the baby they hold in their arms will be yelled at with racial slurs when walking home are trivialised.

The ‘Model Minority’ Problem

For some reason, it is still acceptable to portray Asians on televisions and sitcoms as racist and shallow stereotypes, meant for a laugh but never meant to be connected nor empathised with. I won’t go so far as to say it is because the West is threatened by the success of Asians and have used tiger parenting as a way to belittle what many have achieved (though it is tempting). But the attitude, hidden by ‘positive’ terms like ‘model minority’, is definitely one that obstructs true racial equality. Not in the more obvious ways of discrimination, but by warping how we see and talk about Asians.

It’s time to have a more nuanced discussion about tiger parenting. We can ask questions like: is it helpful to teach young and disadvantaged children they only need to work harder to make a life for themselves? When companies and schools are changing their demands for individuals who not only do well on a piece of paper but also excel in unique and unconventional ways, is tiger parenting still relevant? Is our paranoia about economic security justified?
 Opening any method of parenting up to scrutiny and discourse is important, and it’s time for society to take seriously the priorities and difficulties Asians face. Tigers deserve more credit than what they’ve been given.