The Myth of the Tiger Mom and Tiger Parenting

The character of the Tiger Mom is one of the most common archetypes in Asian-centered stories, due to its relatability and powerful themes. However, the Tiger Mom is a myth. More specifically, it is a stereotype. To give an interpretation of the Tiger Mom, it often includes the parent overly pushing their child to succeed and forcing them to choose academics over a healthy social life or their emotions. This is what most Americans think of tiger parenting, and that is the enduring connotation of this label. 

Asia as a Monolith

A color image of a map of Asia
Image Source: geology.com

The issue arises when this model, though originally Chinese, is superimposed on all of Asian parents. It makes Asia and Asian parents a monolith, though there are thousands of different cultures. Due to the disproportionate highlighting of East Asians over South Asians, the archetype is exaggerated more for East Asians. The American public sees the Tiger Mom as a cultural norm for all of Asia. This is not necessarily the case. Nowhere in Chinese culture or any other Asian culture is the label of Tiger Mom. This means that the term did not trace back to China. The Asian diaspora holds certain values for raising their children that may align with the tiger parenting style: discipline, personal drive, respect, ambition, etc. Alternatively, one could argue that any parent, regardless of ethnicity, would value these attributes in their children. 

Western Perspective

To contrast the Tiger parenting style, Western (or American) parents are well-known for letting their children make their own decisions. They would describe it as more broad minded, while they would describe traditional Eastern parenting as more demanding. Westerners will usually allow their children to express their appearance differently, like unconventional fashion or hair. They will also be supportive of their child’s interests, whether recreational or a career. From this vantage point, it is clear that Western parents will look down upon traditional Tiger parenting. They see it as setting kids up for failure. Western criticism could have roots in sinophobia and anti-communism, if we connect those values to parenting. It’s only natural that the American commitment to freedom and individuality would trickle down and show up in parenting. Again, it is predictable that Americans view Chinese parenting as restricting and controlling — that is the generalized American view of China.

Coining Tiger Mom

Amy Chua posing with tigers in front of a purple background
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Amy Chua, an Asian American immigrant mother, supposedly coined this term in 2011 with her memoir The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. This finding might suggest that the Tiger Mom is a largely Asian American archetype. As a self-identified Tiger Mom, she delivers a much different interpretation of the parenting style than how Americans understand it. Many Americans would point to the Tiger Mom parenting style as too strict and unemotional. The novel’s key characteristic is the tiger parent’s perspective. When engaging in discourse about parenting, it is only fair to look at the parents. 

Chua’s Definition

Chua explains tiger parenting as equipping the child with the necessary skills and confidence to be an adult later on. The child achieves this by facing harsh discipline and unrelenting expectations. Eventually it will carve the child out to be a well-adjusted, dedicated, and goal oriented person. Chua also stimulates in her children an appetite for success, or the socially defined version of success. This incited the question of whether the child’s meaning of success or the parent’s meaning of success is more important.

Criticisms

Chua also spells out that although she talked about “Chinese parenting”, this is not fully accurate to the Chinese population. She comments that parents of other backgrounds can share the same qualities too. The book was famously controversial and some critics called her cruel and abusive, mixed with racist comments. In response to the reviews, her own child has come out in defense of her mother. She accredits her fortunate position in life to tiger parenting and thanks her mother for how she was raised. 

3 Parenting Styles

Four cartoon images of different parenting techniques
Image Source: momlovesbest.com

To contextualize this specific type of parenting, there are three mainstream styles of parenting that sociologists and psychologists refer to. Authoritarian parenting is focused on obedience and enforcing rules. They are highly demanding while not being responsive. This style is shown to produce proficient kids on paper, but can result in issues with self esteem and social skills in adulthood. Despite this, there are other studies that show authoritarian parenting proves to be effective in certain cultures (such as those of Asia). 

Alternatives to Authoritarian

Permissive parenting is the complete inverse of authoritarian. These types of parents rarely set rules or are generally lenient. They are highly responsive to their children and are not demanding. They take the backseat when it comes to parental instruction and let children explore on their own, preferring to let the child be happy. Children who grow up without restriction tend to be irresponsible but confident, social adults. Authoritative parenting is when a parent expresses understanding of the child’s opinions while enforcing boundaries. They are highly demanding and highly responsive at the same time. They communicate with their child in depth frequently. In Western society, the authoritative style is widely accepted to be the best. 

Ethnocentrism

The main fault with this theory is that its sample size was limited to white American middle class families. As one can see, that provides little to no relevance for making a judgment on tiger parenting with such an inseparable Asian connection. This phenomenon is called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is when one judges another culture off the guidelines of their own culture. Those in the anthropological and sociological field agree that ethnocentrism is not as productive as cultural relativism, its opposite. Cultural relativism judges a culture by its own benchmarks.

What Researchers Think

While the three pillars of parenting theory is very popular, it does not have an unbiased approach. In terms of Chinese parenting, researchers have both classified it as authoritarian and authoritative. These styles yield much different results in children, so there is some contradiction. There is no definite observation about whether all Chinese parents subscribe to one style or another. In addition, Chinese parents don’t think that tiger parenting is necessarily the correct choice. 

Cultural Relativism in Chinese Parenting

A child returning home from school happily to his excited parents
Image Source: ft.com

An example of cultural relativism would be adopting Chinese parenting beliefs.  The core values of Chinese parenting are Confucianism and “training”. The belief emphasizes social order, which consists of one’s relationships with others and society. The “training” is geared to teach children about respect in these relationships. Through discipline and training, the children must learn how to behave in a socially accepted way. Moreover, the parents will expect the children to see the subtle meaning beneath the unmerciful behavior. The berating and demanding is actually a sign of the parents’ conviction in their children. They assume their children won’t take it at surface level. Kids will incentivize themselves to work hard and prove their parents right. 

Contrary to What Americans Think

In opposition with American views, Chinese parents express a desire for their children to be morally upstanding and good people. They believe that their child’s character and heart should rank higher over socially defined achievements. When Americans only look at the practices and not the cultural motivations, this will construct a cruel image of Chinese parenting. While the ideas are specific to Chinese culture, the American monolithic outlook thinks of the tiger parenting model as merging Chinese and other Asian cultures. 

Chinese Parenting over Generations

The child is taking a selfie of her and her dad while the dad kisses the girl's cheek
Image Source: stylus.com

Due to one’s environment, the benefits or disadvantages of Chinese American parenting differ over immigrant generations. This finding is especially interesting because the child’s reaction depends on what culture they grew up in. First generation children of Chinese parents with traditional parenting methods have adjusted better overall. They are higher achievers while not compromising interpersonal skills or their confidence. This may be because first generation children are more likely to have Chinese cultural notions that the harsh treatment is a positive thing. In essence, the parenting is compatible with the child’s beliefs, so they believe in its benefits. 

Second Generation

To contrast, second generation children suffer more under traditional Chinese parenting. They exhibit the same degree of accomplishment, but are more frustrated with their parents. Second generation children believe their treatment is unfair and demonstrate signs of anxiety and lower self worth. The reason is the American culture they have acclimated to. Since becoming socialized in America will impede the Chinese cultural ideology, they will misinterpret the strictness and react badly. 

Tiger Parenting Storylines

A picture of the Disney movie Turning Red
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The message of those Tiger Mom narratives that viewers take away is that parents only want the best for their children, but can pressure their kid too much in the process. A majority of these stories follow the child’s negotiation with their parents’ high standards rather than the parent themselves. In other words, we almost exclusively have access to the effects that this parenting has on the child, as opposed to the parent’s thought process or values behind their behavior. These narratives are likely to feature the child struggling, reaching a breaking point, and then confronting and reconciling with their source of anguish: the parents. The narrative writer depicts the tiger parents as not being able to articulate their familial love, and the ending concentrates on the strengthening of the family bond. 

Stereotypes in Media

A defining characteristic of the Tiger Mom in the media is how stationary it feels. For a word that almost everyone knows the meaning of, its portrayals have multiplied but yet have not grown with much nuance over time. It’s one of the reasons that the Tiger Mom is a strong stereotype. Stereotypes by definition are flat and lacking in nuance. The consequence of so many Asian-focused stories bearing the weight of a stereotypical character and storyline is that the stereotype becomes normal. It becomes part of one’s “culture”.  

Normalization of a Stereotype

Furthermore, the audience could be prone to confusing legitimate child abuse with tiger parenting and one’s culture. A trend among young Asian adults is to joke about being physically beaten and traumatized as a child. However, this shouldn’t be a relatable matter. It is by all other definitions abuse. For example, we would probably not label an abusive mother in a white American family as a Tiger Mom. The danger arises when we excuse abusive behavior because we think it is an aspect of traditional tiger parenting. Often abusive parents will say that they punished their child with violence because their own parents had done the same. Therefore, they are attributing their behavior to generational tradition and culture, when they are simply unfit parents. This stereotype risks reducing and minimizing trauma for all the wrong people and produces excuses for abusers. 

The Audience

On the flip side, those who feel heard in those stories of tiger parenting should not be invalidated either. There is a reason why that narrative is so popular; it discusses acceptance, resilience, struggle, family dynamics, and the love between a parent and child. The concept of a parent cutting fruit in the place of an apology is extremely popular currently. It displays how Asian parents who cannot communicate affection properly will show their love in other ways. This image has recently come under fire for becoming a trope and being overdone. However, it is definitely relatable to a lot of the Asian community.  

Is the Stereotype True?

An Asian mother reads to her child
Image Source: time.com

The biggest problem of the Tiger Mom is how infrequently we see this archetype in real life. According to the Asian American Journal of Psychology, conclusions show that tiger parenting is less typical than the stereotype seems to suggest. Their studies are based on Chinese, Chinese American, Hmong American, and Korean American families, and are both quantitative and qualitative. It compares different groups of Asian parents and evaluates where these styles of parenting lead the children in life.

The Argument of the Study

The overall discovery that this research makes is that while tiger parents do exist, it is not the dominant force. Actually, among Asian families, those with alternative methods of parenting outnumber those that use tiger parenting. Similar to all parents, Asian parents vary greatly in their parenting practices. They indicate expressions of love and support towards their children and are not always demanding beyond reason. While the conclusion seems obvious, the stereotype purposely downplays how affectionate and caring Asian parents really can be. 

Conclusion

We have to remember that the tiger parenting stereotype is an American-devised perception of Chinese parenting. Just because the Tiger Mom is prevalent in Asian media does not mean that it is an accurate representation of all Chinese parents, much less the Asian diaspora. Although many Americans place that label onto Asian parents, this is ethnocentric. It is simply ignorant to criticize something you don’t understand. The Tiger Mom remains a caricature at the end of the day; many Asian and Asian American parents treat their children with the same compassion as any parent. Therefore, we should treat their parenting methods with respect. 

Sources:

https://wp.nyu.edu/steinhardt-appsych_opus/the-tiger-mom-stereotypes-of-chinese-parenting-in-the-united-states/

https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/communique/2013/05/tiger-parents

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