Modern Grace is a monthly column for Best of Korea by Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Even if you haven’t read Amy Chua’s now-infamous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (2011), you are likely familiar with the moniker “Tiger Mom.” It refers to the type of draconian, ends-justify-the means parenting that Asians and Asian-Americans have become notorious for espousing. How to describe it? If modern American parents are criticized for “helicopter parenting,” i.e. hovering to navigate a child’s success by removing any obstacles along the way, Tiger parents are helicoptering with weapons drawn, willing to inflict the pain themselves to extract the desired outcome: success.
They will thank me later when they get into the Ivy League and earn those fat paychecks is the common justification. When they have the nice cars, the fancy homes, the impressive job titles, it will all be worth it.
Suffice it to say, Tiger parenting evokes strong reactions. Some praised Chua’s commitment to hard work and discipline, while other believed her methods were a form of child abuse. (You can read her elder daughter’s 2011 defense of her mom here, and about Chua’s more recent headline pertaining to her “winner take all” ethos at Yale Law School, where she teaches.) To my mind, the fact that the author chose to describe her parenting style as a “battle” says it all. She is battling her children. And they are battling society. Life is a battle, not for survival, but for stacked resumes, enviable lifestyles, and lots of digits in your bank account.
Chua is the first to admit that sometimes Tiger parenting works (as it did with her first daughter, who even on vacation allowed her mother to force her to practice piano for hours a day in hotel ballrooms and rented practice spaces), but sometimes it doesn’t (her younger daughter rebelled at age 13 and “broke” her mother, thus inspiring the memoir.)
Here are some reasons I choose to parent differently:
1. One Wild and Precious Life
Everyone focuses on the child’s experience in the Tiger parenting dynamic, but what about the parent’s? For me, tiger parenting sounds like a miserable existence. I am a human, not a tiger! I do not want to spend my beautiful European vacation stuck in a practice room listening to the same damn etude that my child was dissecting in my living room. If I want to hear an etude in Europe, I want to hear Yuja Wang play it. Or Seong-Jin Cho. Nor do I want to spend hours a day micromanaging my kid’s school assignments.
As Michelle Obama’s mother famously said to her, “I already have my education.” Not only is ranting and raving at my kids traumatizing for all involved, it is a certifiable waste of my one, wild, precious life (as the poet Mary Oliver so wonderfully put it). My hours are valuable, and I don’t plan to spend them drowning in stress hormones just so my kid can have an incrementally higher GPA.
2. Generational Peace
Much has been written about the dreaded pattern of “generational decline” in immigration: the first generation struggles so that the second generation soars, overachieves, and makes the first generation’s sacrifices whole. Then—oh no!—the third generation grows up so comfortably that they are not motivated to succeed at the level of their parents. They are in generational decline. I admit when I first read about this in Chua’s memoir, I panicked too. The idea of generational “decline” is inherently distressing—it’s literally defined to cause consternation. Then I realized the fallacy of this so-called problem.
Why is it a problem that the third generation might actually feel (socially, emotionally, financially) secure enough not to overachieve at increasingly stressful levels? Isn’t this what we all want for our children, truly? That they feel secure, content… happy? That their self-worth is not inextricably tied to their punishing work ethic or constantly vanishing list of achievements? Don’t we want them to know that they are inherently worthy of love and care, regardless of what their report cards or resumes say, where they might go on vacation, or the value of their home Zillow estimates? Yes. We do.
What if we re-defined “generational decline”? Generational stability. Generational peace. Life is all about perspective, and sometimes tweaking the angle could save everyone a whole lot of grief. Given what we know about the havoc perfectionism wreaks on mental health, a change of perspective could literally save your child’s life.
Everyone loves the gold medal story, but the reality behind the gold medal is years of grinding pain, injury, self-doubt, and endless repetition (which requires a high threshold for boredom in addition to a high pain threshold). All of this may be appropriate if that’s your choice in the service of your passion. As a recovering overachiever, that used to be me. My parents were surprisingly laissez-faire about most things that weren’t church or Korean culture-related, so my brother and I grew up with a lot of independence. I never went to hagwon (Korean cram school) or SAT prep class.
No one checked my homework or drilled me in… anything. When I stayed up late to finish assignments as early as elementary school, my mom told me to go to bed because sleep was important to my health. (She was right, of course, but I ignored her.) Seemingly I Tiger-parented myself, and I paid a hefty price in the form of shredded mental health and chronic stress-related ailments.
Now I prefer stability and balance. I would never push my child the way I pushed myself because our jobs as parents are to help and support our kids into their futures, not drag them into our vision of their future. I read this helpful comment on a parenting board, and I think of it often: Helping your child means they should be working harder at that task than you are. If you are working harder than they are for their goals, then something is off-balance.
3. Looking Beyond One Child
Tiger parenting pours an immense amount of energy into one child’s success. What if you focused that kind of energy into your child’s class, school, community? Lifting a child from a B to an A after a semester of screaming, drilling, battling might feel like a win… but is it?
What if you gave that time to organize a school fundraiser that benefits everyone (with the added bonus of modeling civic engagement so your kids can see that it’s important for everyone to rise together)? Or volunteered to tutor students who were struggling to pass the class? Or—what if you spent that time just enjoying your child and doing fun things together, which will bolster everyone’s mental health and create the kind of warm, bonding memories that are probably why you hoped to have kids in the first place?
Tiger parenting might seem like it’s about “parenting,” but it’s really more about the parent than the child. The parents’ wishes for success and status and control. Yes, I know that sounds harsh, but there’s no shame in wishing for success or control. It’s part of the human condition. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways. No battle hymns required.
For further reading:
- The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud, PhD. and Ned Johnson
- How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims (former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University)
Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. EVERYTHING BELONGS TO US is her debut novel, which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and included on Kirkus Reviews’ Best Fiction of 2017. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her family. You can find her online at www.gracewuertz.com