Editor’s Note: Katharine Chan is a Chinese-Canadian author, mother, and culture blogger behind the site Sum on Sleeve. The views expressed in this piece are solely her own.
Chua’s idea that Chinese mothers were superior to Western mothers drew international attention. Some praised her for suggesting that parents should promote a strong work ethic amongst their children; on the contrary, others criticized her for suggesting that parents should force children to excel at all costs.
I remember I was doing my master’s when her book was being talked about on the radio; the hosts asked listeners to call in about their experiences having tiger parents. I really wanted to call in, but I held back since I felt I could only speak to my own childhood, which was quite different from what Chua wrote of.
Yes, my parents were Chinese immigrants.
Yes, I was that scholarship kid who got straight As, who practiced piano, who spent Saturday mornings at Chinese school. I was that responsible, mature, always-does-the-right thing kid… well, at least on the outside.
Yes, other parents would often see my accomplishments, manners, ambition and character, and hope that their own kid would strive to be more like me.
But the thing is, my parents were not tigers. The way they raised me did not fit the Asian parent stereotype. I would have been a very difficult child to impose a tiger parenting style on.
Let me explain. I was the youngest of three daughters, and the way my mom and dad parented me was very different than they raised my sisters.
My overachieving, eldest sister fulfilled most of their high expectations (skipped a grade, worked her ass off, got into med school, etc.). She was the shining star who my parents put a lot of pressure on. They had so much pride in their first-born that, by the time I started achieving similar things, the accomplishments had lost their novelty, as did their desire to tiger parent me.
My second sister was the adventurer. She was the rule-breaker, the Chinese school drop-out. She had a monopoly on everything that defied the Asian stereotype — dating, piercings, dyeing her hair. She was cool, always had friends and broke hearts. Through their experience of raising her, my parents became more open-minded and more understanding, less judgmental and less traditional. So when I started doing those “non-Asian” things, it didn’t faze them; instead, they trusted me and gave me independence.
And me? As the third-born kid behind siblings who had already broken through several “firsts,” I wanted to do what my sisters had accomplished, with a twist: I was compelled to be different by excelling at everything, while also presenting the smallest burden possible. I became a stereotypical, perfectionist Asian kid (which then translated into disordered eating and self-harm), and my reward for doing everything “perfectly” was that I was given a ton of autonomy.
My parents gave me fewer limits and expectations, so I started to act out. I became an incredibly entitled kid who gave them a ton of attitude and disrespected them often, much more than my sisters ever did.
I felt that they couldn’t criticize a single thing about me because I was “perfect” and had everything under control. I didn’t fear their discipline. I exceeded their expectations. What more could they want from me? So I abused that right.
I think that because they had lowered their expectations by the time I was old enough to do things, the lack of validation for my accomplishments and the lack of a reaction when I misbehaved drove me to become entitled.
Let’s jump forward 15 years. My relationship with my parents has changed for the better. I now have my own daughter. And I’m scared of finally getting a taste of my own medicine.
I don’t know if I will be stressing over my daughter’s grades. I don’t know how I will react when she starts dating, drinking or piercing her body parts. But drawing from how my parents raised me and each of my sisters, I think it’s about tailoring our parenting styles to meet the child’s needs and constantly changing how we do it as they get older.
Some days, it means focusing on their grades and extracurricular activities, providing encouragement when they are struggling and praising their efforts when they excel. Other days, it means having an open and honest conversation about dating, staying open-minded and showing empathy. And then, of course, there will be days when we need to provide appropriate consequences for when they disrespect us. Being consistent in the approach is key in preventing a disjointed childhood such as mine.
A healthy balance between setting realistic expectations and providing freedom will allow the child to become resilient when challenges arise and self-aware of their own limitations.
Isn’t that what parenting is about? A journey to prepare the child to face the good, the bad and the ugly once they get out into the real world? I can’t control how the journey will be, but I can love and parent her as best as I can.
About the Author: Katharine Chan is a Chinese-Canadian author, mother, and culture blogger behind the site Sum on Sleeve. She writes about things to hopefully empower others to have a voice, to feel connected and to raise awareness about issues that never got talked about when she was growing up (only felt them).