My mother threatened to make me walk thirty miles to a piano competition unless I played the piece she liked. For clarity’s sake, my mother did not play the piano at all. She could not read music nor did she play any other instrument. She dabbled in singing as a college student and that was the extent of her musical education. Yet when I announced that my piano teacher, who held a Master’s degree in music, had told me to play Villageoises by Poulenc at the piano competition, Mom became hysterical. “Emily, you can’t play that song! It doesn’t sound as hard as that Grieg piece!” She screamed and yelled and pulled out her most effective weapon with me: manipulation. I experienced no surprise when she continued. “If you don’t play that piece then . . .” She paused, but only for effect. She knew exactly what she wanted to declare. “Then I won’t drive you to the competition!” She demanded that I play Grieg’s Wedding Day at Troldhaugen instead, a piece that sounded majestic but that I had not yet perfected and polished. In the end, I obeyed, playing Grieg to the disappointment but kind and tacit understanding of my teacher. When I did not place that year but simply earned an honorable mention, my mother punished me with her silence, disapproval, and disappointment. An honorable mention was not worth mention at all in my home. It wasn’t good enough and still isn’t.
My mother’s parenting methods are similar to the so-called Tiger Mother, a Chinese-American woman who pushes her children to the farthest limits of musical performance and general education as outlined in Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Children of the Tiger Mother sacrifice friends, sleepovers, the joy of childhood, and ultimately self autonomy. I had a Caucasian Tiger Mother, the granddaughter of Spanish immigrants who was anxious to prove that she was just as good as everyone else by having children who were better. Her grandmother’s parents were fruit pickers who made their way from Spain to Hawaii, eventually settling in California. Her grandfather worked as a janitor for the University of Los Angeles, but he died young and left his wife to work nights in a Bay Area cannery while raising eight children alone. Mom’s parents found success through real estate, owning an insulation company, and building houses. However, none of them was ever educated past high school, until Mom.
Her desire to improve herself intellectually is admirable. Because of her drive she wanted to see her children succeed. To accomplish this, she became a Tiger Mother, a figure that Amy Chua defined through Chinese culture. However, a Tiger Mother is not a loving, selfless woman who pushes her children for their own good, as Chua claims. In my experience, the Tiger Mother is narcissistic with a low self-esteem. She employs psychological control, which “takes advantage of the child’s wish for love and approval” (Bergin). She must live through her children in order to validate her role as a mother because being a mother isn’t good enough. She withholds love based on academic or musical performance, a trait I attempted to fix by exerting myself enough to earn my mother’s love.
Because of these parenting methods, I cannot deny that our family is talented, but more moderately than Chua’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu. We got a late start on piano lessons compared to Chua’s daughters who began at 3 years old. I began at age 8 and my sister at age 6, but Mom quickly decided after an embarrassing first competition that much more time should be spent in musical pursuits. A new “hour a day” policy of piano practice came to be enforced. I woke at 6 a.m. each morning, creeping downstairs and into the wood-floored living room. My first job was to turn on the heater, especially during the winter months during which temperatures sometimes plummeted to below 0°F. Wrapped in a fluffy robe, I began my practice, my fingers stiff and my toes numb. My sister began her morning ablutions at this time, trading me at 6:30 a.m., when the warmth of a shower soothed my frozen digits. Some mornings, my stepfather would complain about being woken so early. This would start the familiar sounds of arguing between my parents.
The other half hour of practice would be done directly after school. Nothing else could happen before then. My sisters and I attended weekly forty-five minute lessons with our highly trained and accomplished teacher, eventually earning the right to play her grand piano instead of the worn brown upright reserved for less dedicated children. Whenever visitors came to our home, we were obliged to perform with a tight smile from Mom that meant, “Play well or there’ll be no dinner for you.” This was a common threat. We also performed frequently in church. I passed all 10 levels of Achievement in Music, a program dedicated to performing, sight reading, ear training, technique, and theory.
Yearly trips to a major university three hours from our home to attend the piano festival were dreaded and anticipated, as the possibility of being chosen for a master’s class or better yet, THE recital was both exciting and expected by Mom. I gained recognition by being picked for THE coveted recital for my rendition of Puck by Grieg at the festival while in seventh grade, a moment memorialized in the local newspaper with a freckled, stringy-haired, buck-toothed picture of me beside the article.
As an older teenager, I won several piano competitions judged by renowned pianists themselves, and those that I did not win I placed in. I held my high school’s position of Music Sterling Scholar (the most outstanding musician chosen to represent the school at a state competition), played with an orchestra, and played both the piano and organ at our church. One of my sisters is a talented pianist as well, winning her own fair share of competitions. I do not regret the time I spent sitting at the piano bench, but I resent the guilt and threats that got me there.
Because I am the compliant oldest child, like Chua’s Sophia, a little bit of devious logic could convince me to practice. When we first began our quest for piano perfection, Mom calmly explained that we only had time to be good at one pursuit. She quickly dismissed jazz dancing as a silly pastime that would not result in any usable or admirable skills. She also explained that in order to become great at the piano, I would have to practice more. Loads more. I felt a competitive streak grow inside of me during a fourth grade competition in which I played what Mom disgustedly called “a baby song” while others played serious classical music. This reminder and her constant exhortations to practice more to compete with others pushed me into gear. However, when our musical endeavors did not add up to Mom’s expectations, things got ugly.
My sisters rebelled. The middle sister remained aloof and silent in her relationship with Mom. It was as if she did not trust her, but looking back this was with good reason. It seems my sister figured out what was really going on before I did. For her silence, she received bullied threats and aspersions against her character. The hurt endured from being called sneaky, lazy, rude, and insolent all weighed on the middle sister. Researchers have found that such comments are actually “as harmful to a child’s psyche as physical coercion” (Bergin).
My youngest sister chose outright rebellion, similar to Lulu’s reaction in Chua’s account. My youngest sister talked back, yelled, screamed, threw tantrums with arms flailing and legs kicking, ran away, and eventually turned to eating, the only thing she could control. For the extra weight, Mom rewarded her with diet pills in Kindergarten, starvation as a punishment for noncompliance, and eventual praise for bulimia. Out of these three approaches, strict obedience, withdrawn obedience, and willful disobedience, not one worked. Mom still refused to approve or love.
Because of the Tiger Mother atmosphere, constant contention filled our home. Whether Mom fought with one of us or my step-father, who sometimes refused to bend to her will, yelling and arguing were common. I cried myself to sleep many nights because of perceived failure or a tongue-lashing from my mother about the way my hair was too thin or how I hadn’t stood up straight or how I had embarrassed her for not speaking articulately enough to a grownup.
Chua also expects her children to be able to pontificate in front of adults. When she directs her children to write toasts for her husband Jed’s birthday, she says, “It can’t just be tossed off . . . It has to be meaningful. And it can’t be clichéd” (180). When Mom demanded such tasks of me, I imagined I was a robot, programmed to perform flawlessly at her will and whim. Mom controlled her children like a puppet master, and if we did not respond to this control, we were treated as outcasts. She would disparage us in front of each other, label us with cruel nicknames, and turn us against one another, once even encouraging all of us to whack my littlest and most stubborn sister (the one whose personality is most like hers) with umbrellas while she cowered in the middle of our mob. Why we participated in such punishment is unclear to me now, but the most pertinent question is why would a mother encourage and lead such behavior?
The result of the Tiger Mother’s parenting methods is low self-esteem. I had talent and impeccable grades and shiny trophies in my bookcase, yet I never felt confident or deserving of praise. I felt not-good-enough and lonely without many friends. My shyness and awkwardness prevented that, along with my schedule of practicing piano and spending time with a needy mother. If friends did visit, especially when boyfriends visited, my mother would join the conversation, even taking over in order to boost her own self-esteem. She needed to be the center of attention, and if I won competitions, she would claim the credit.
I found Chua’s description of her own daughter’s triumphs to be similar. Chua refers to everything her daughter does as an effort they have achieved together. Before the recital at Carnegie Hall, Chua says:
“Sophia and I practiced on an off throughout the day. . . . I had to make sure that Sophia’s performance was flawless, that she didn’t leave out a single brilliant tiny nuance Wei-Yi had taught us. Contrary to everyone’s advice, we practiced until almost 1:00 a.m. the night before” (138-39).
It bothers me that Chua refers to her daughter’s endeavors with the pronouns “I” and “we.” While reading her book, each time I encountered a sentence constructed this way, I cringed. Having sat at the piano for many hours myself, I consider my successes there to be my own, not Mom’s. Maybe Chua sat with Sophia during the practice, correcting and instructing, but I argue that the practice and the resulting talent is Sophia’s. For Chua to claim credit, even partial, is a violation of Sophia’s identity and accomplishment.
My own identity felt constantly stolen or compromised by Mom. If I were part of a conversation with my peers, Mom would try to dominate it in order to be the center of attention, not caring if she stole the spotlight from me. Once, I went to see the movie Shine with a boyfriend of mine who also played the piano. We were excited to see the portrayal of a pianist pushed too far (a theme that resonated with me) and to hear the beautifully performed Rachmaninoff. To our delight, nobody else attended the movie that night, so we were alone in the theater. It felt grand. This bubble of grandness popped the moment Mom arrived, swiftly marching in and smiling at our surprise that she had decided to attend the movie with us.
Not surprisingly, my mother had few friends. Those that she did have were usually transitory and tempestuous relationships. She found a way to quarrel or compete with everybody she met, even strangers in the grocery store. One of Chua’s comments reflects a similar problem. She focuses on a “few shadows” the day Sophia performs at Carnegie Hall, saying, “It . . . stung a little that Sophia’s old piano teacher Michelle didn’t come” (141). Reading between the lines, it seems likely that Chua focused on Michelle’s absence more than is healthy. Such tiny slights are often taken personally by the Tiger Mother, who has come to claim her children’s triumphs. My Tiger Mother licked such solitary wounds and many others like them by thrusting her children into the spotlight and then filching the credit. She’d report that nobody liked us because of jealousy over our immense talents. Looking back, I think nobody felt fondly toward us because of the bragging and bullying that often accompanied any conversation in which she participated.
The emotional abuse of the Tiger Mother is what I have struggled with most as an adult. Of abuse, Nancy Etcoff, doctor of psychology and faculty member at Harvard Medical School, surmises: “There is evidence that abusing parents often do have unrealistic expectations of their children” (36). The Tiger Mother thrives on unrealistic expectations, although Chua has argued in many interviews that other parents aren’t demanding enough of their offspring. She views her parenting method as a means of driving children to achieve their best, not as an unrealistic burden on her girls. However, the emotional abuse that accompanies the failure of any expectation is what I feel most strongly against in Chua’s self-assessment as a mother. Chua admits to having called Lulu a disgrace as a daughter. To Lulu’s eating, Chua remarks, “Stop it. You’re diseased” (173). She calls Lulu “completely ordinary [and] boring” (205). She even threatens to adopt a third child from China. And to top it all off, she tells Lulu in public “You are a terrible daughter” (205). Why is it that Lulu has all the responsibility in this relationship, but Chua does not?
Like Chua, Mom constantly criticized. If I left the house with a friend when she didn’t approve, she said, “Good riddance.” If piano practice didn’t garner any criticism, it was the way we set the table. If it wasn’t the way we walked, it was the way we talked. If limp hair failed to rile her up, it was a vacuous facial expression that bothered her. I learned to wear a mask that hid everything from other people, especially my mother. I never smiled. I only talked after thinking it over carefully and rehearsing each word and nuanced tone in my mind. I grew to slouch near Mom. I felt embarrassed of my family and circumstances. I ultimately craved being normal. Lulu echoes these feelings of my childhood when she says, “You won’t let me do anything. I can’t go anywhere. . . .You’re a freak” (173). Lulu also articulates the feelings a daughter has when love is used as a weapon for compliance. “You don’t love me . . . You just make me feel bad about myself every second. . . . You don’t care about anyone but yourself” (205).
Many other instances of emotional abuse at the hands of my Tiger Mother occurred during the time I competed in scholarship pageants, an indulgence I was drawn to and competed in by my own decision. Yet as soon as I declared my interest, Mom wormed her way in and customarily controlled everything, similar to Chua’s reaction to Lulu’s interest in tennis. At my fourth pageant, she threatened, “This is the last one, because I can’t take this anymore unless you win!” Luckily, I won. I don’t know what the punishment would have been if I hadn’t. However, she found inspiration somewhere, telling me after the state competition, in which I had earned no recognition, “You just looked like a little girl up there among all those women!”
Once I got to college, I relinquished the piano because I had never felt any fervor for it. However, I did not know who I was or what I wanted to be. I spent many semesters trying out different courses and majors, wandering through departments hoping somebody would adopt me. I figured it out, but it was a confusing time (which I wrote about here), one that I probably should have experienced in high school. But it was also a liberating time. I found out what I liked and who I was instead of having an identity imposed upon me. However, making my own decisions was not easy on my relationship with Mom. She continued to bully.
When I became engaged to my now-husband, she did everything she could to break us up. She claimed his shyness to be unacceptable, saying that previous boyfriends or a more outgoing man would better counter my own shyness. She also commented on his weight, saying that she didn’t know why I was always attracted to “husky” guys. She refused to take me wedding dress shopping or plan the reception, tasks my future-mother-in-law graciously accepted when she understood my dilemma. When Mom realized that her harping and ignoring would not derail my wedding plans, she cornered me in her car and yelled louder and longer than I had ever encountered as a child, since I had been compliant then. I hollered back for the first time in my life, accusing her of jealousy and vicarious living. That did not go over well, and she did not speak to me for a month, even threatening not to attend my wedding.
After I’d been married a year, she called to say that she did not like my husband because he did not fawn over her. She suggested that I fix this problem by divorcing him and marrying an old boyfriend that she had liked better. There were a few problems with her idea: first, I loved my husband and did not want a divorce; second, my ex-boyfriend was engaged to be married to somebody else; and third, the suggestion was ludicrous! When I refused, she accused me of choosing my husband over her (who wouldn’t?) and hung up. I did not hear from her for three years. I felt guilt and shame for most of these years, wondering what I had done to deserve such treatment. I had never “learn[ed] how to regulate [my] emotions . . . [and it made] for a difficult adjustment to adulthood” (Bergin). I still felt responsible for my mother and the need to be obedient, even when the expectations were seemingly crazy.
When we finally spoke again, I had a daughter and the criticizing and controlling of my life continued as if it had never been interrupted. She told me that being a mother made me lazy and that I needed to do more with my life. She criticized my daughter and my husband. And strangely enough, she seemed to have forgotten that I played the piano, or maybe it was a way of accusing me of not being good enough again. When I once mentioned to her that I had performed in church, she said, falsely bright, “Oh, what did you do? Sing?” With a wicked smile, she watched my reaction. I immediately became defensive, saying, “No! I played Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the piano!” A strange exchange, but I think it was another manipulative game.
Mom also embarrassed me in public. At a family party after I graduated with my Master’s degree, my husband’s aunt profusely complimented me and told me how proud she was of the hard work I had done. She proclaimed me to be “smart.” Immediately, my mother over hearing this, said, “I’m smart too!” in a shrill and competitive voice. Luckily, my husband’s aunt did not notice or chose to ignore her.
My sisters were both kicked out of the house for disobeying. One of them lived with my father in California to finish her high school years. The other, closer to graduation, lived with a nearby friend and has never spoken to Mom again. I guess my sister found her label as “Fatso” unsatisfactory. She had been punched and starved one too many times. I must report that I too no longer speak to Mom. After attempting to set a boundary that involved my husband, I angered her and she is again punishing me. As I age, her silence becomes more of a blessing than a punishment, for I no longer care to please her. A relationship with her is too painful, too hard, too guilt ridden, and too upsetting. I have spent years trying to please her. Obeying, practicing, working, studying, primping, fetching, cleaning, worshiping, suppressing. I cannot earn her love; it is a mirage used to control. I will not be a Tiger Mother, nor will I tolerate the one I once attempted to please any longer. Could Tiger Mother be a euphemism for emotional abuse? Most definitely. Could it also be a gilded term for mental instability? Narcissism? Plain old selfishness? Low self-esteem?
I don’t claim to be a perfect parent, but I go out of my way to ensure that my two daughters feel loved. Yes, my oldest daughter is currently taking piano lessons. Yes, she practices math and reading during summer vacations. Yes, I limit her time with television and video games, and we have rules. I plan to raise an accomplished and intelligent child, and I’m aware that this is what Chua claims to be doing as well. However, child abuse isn’t the remedy. I hug and kiss my children, something I never experienced. I avoid criticizing my children. I avoid threatening my children. I speak kindly to my children because: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as true strength” (Ralph W. Sockman). Amy Chua claims to love her kids, but I’m intimately aware that children of the so-called Tiger Mother may not feel completely loved, if at all.
Bergin, M. Sue. “Resisting Coercive Parenting.” BYU Magazine Spring 2011. 4 July 2011 <http://magazine.byu.edu/?act=view&a=2770>.
Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.
Etcoff, Nancy. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
Sockman, Ralph W. < http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3445330.Ralph_W_Sockman>.
wow – your experience really gives this book review a factor most of us (thankfully) cannot relate to – thank you for the post
Thank you for reading it.
a beautifully written and honest essay- hats off!
This essay was extremely moving. I have not read the book, nor do I plan to. Just from reading articles about the book I have come to the conclusion that all this woman is doing is trying to justify publicly the way she abused her daughters. She is lucky that they turned out successful, as have you. I too come from an emotionally abusive past. My father had all of the qualities that you describe from you mother, but with a twist. He never wanted me to excel in anything, he wasn’t pushing me toward anything. But he did everything he could to break me down and for years I had an extremely low self-esteem, to the point where I even felt worthless. This defined a painful time of my life where I allowed myself to be in an abusive romantic relationship throughout my entire adolescence and early adult life. Thankfully I have overcome that through my own maturing and understanding that my dad’s behavior is all about him, and not about me. I also read a book that changed my thinking and helped me forgive my dad. It is called “Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in their Struggles for Self” by Elan Golomb. It is a book I think you would find helpful. it enlightened me and helped me find forgiveness, especially when I realized that my dad, being narcissistic, really is not bothered by my anger or at times, hatred of him. The burden is on me, not him. I learned that it is not a failing in myself that my dad once told me he was trying “to break my spirit.” Who says that to their children? A narcissist. I related to your story, and that is why I feel angry about Chua’s bragging about abusing her daughters and how it was good for them because now they are successful. My question is “but at what cost to their individuality, and sense of self-worth?” If I ever have children I want to raise them to where they feel comfortable trusting their instincts and developing talents and skills to the best of their natural and desirable ability. I want them to love themselves because they know they are worth everything because of the way their mommy and daddy feel about them.
I felt so angry when I heard Chua on NPR promoting the book. I refused to read it, but then my book club chose it and I decided to give it a try. The above post was my reaction. I HAD to write what parents like that are really like and what the results really are. I am sorry about your dad. He sounds awful. Break your spirit? Really? did does he pretend to forget saying such things? That is my experience. Once I was brave enough to demand that we talk about some of what happened, and the response was just, “I don’t remember that, so it probably never happened.” Whatever! And thanks for the book recommendation!
Your mom and my dad are two of a kind! My dad is oblivious to the fact that he was a bad father. He thinks everything is hunky dory. We’re civil now, the one thing we have in common is books so we just talk about literature. But he is so blind to any kind of relationship building techniques too. Earlier this year I suggested we read Joyce’s “Ulysses” together since it is notoriously a complicated read and he had no interest. It didn’t even occur to him that it could foster real communication, even if it is only for the duration of the book. Oh well, it doesn’t hurt like it used to. If you do read “Trapped in the Mirror” I would love to hear your opinion about it. I love your blog, by the way, which was introduced to me by my dad, ironically. 🙂
Oh my goodness! I hope he isn’t reading this. I will let you know about the book when I read it. My library doesn’t have it, but I will try to get it through swap.com.
Emily – I want to thank you for your candour and generosity in sharing what must have been quite a difficult post to write. My heart goes out to you. Do you still hope for a reconciliation with your mother? The mother / daughter relationship is such a difficult one, and it’s something I have struggled with too. To the extent that I am trying to avoid making similar mistakes with my daughter. I am finding it hard to express my thoughts on this but suffice it to say that your post has made me think, and continues to do so. It’s one that will stay with me and is one of the most powerful things I have read.
Thank you for all of the compliments! No, I no longer hope for reconciliation. I did the first time, but honestly I just can’t handle the abuse and anxiety and guilt. I think we are both happier away from each other. The mother/daughter relationship is difficult, as you say. I am trying to be very careful with my own daughters, while still realizing that I will make mistakes, but the important part is to say that you’re sorry.
This was a hard but beautiful read. There were so many lines I wanted to excerpt and reply to individually, I must opt instead to copy none and simply say, thank you. I’m glad you are choosing a different path of motherhood.
Thank you. I am glad you took the time to read it.
Thank you for this piece. I wanted to leave a book suggestion that has helped me start to deal with my childhood (and adulthood) with a narcissistic mother. “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Karyl McBride lays out ways to identitify narcissism, how it effects the children of the narcissist, and then has very helpful steps to taking to reclaim ones own identity that is typically squashed by the narcissist.
Like yourself, I recognize the Tiger Mom method as being full of abusive, manipulative tactics that only serve to make children compliant. I am deeply upset to think that anyone is following this parenting technique as it will only create a riffed between parent and child that leaves the child wondering if they can ever be good enough to be loved.
Also I have found this website helpful: http://www.daughtersofnarcissisticmothers.com/
I am sorry that you are dealing with this issue too. I have actually read that book you recommended. I think the title says it all. Another book that helped me with this is Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Ann Lawson. I think borderline personality disorder is very similar to narcissism. I will check out that website. Thanks!
Thank you for sharing your story. A very brave and moving post.
Thanks! I felt a lot of anxiety after posting it, because it IS brave. Go me! 🙂 And thanks for reading.
As a child one can’t even begin to fathom the degree of psychopathology our parents may be burdened with. If a person needs to read this book in order to set up some kind of parenthood strategy, they would do well to consider initiating psychotherapy first.
The inherent ambivalence of fearing/hating someone you love and need is an important set back many children have to deal with, mining their emotional strength and potential for personal realization.
As they say, you need a license to drive a car, a permit to set up business, a degree to prove you’re a certified professional, but no requirements, beyond the integrity of functioning reproductive organs, are necessary for the most crucial life activity a person will ever have: parenting.
Reading this post was time well spent.
You are so right! It’s scary to think that just anybody can have babies, and they do, and then they mess them up and there’s no recourse, no justice, or no way to set things right. Great insight. Thanks for reading.
Em- you are so brave and I love you! Sometimes it is very healing for me to write down my thoughts (as you have) – and I hope that it has brought some comfort to you.
I remember the closest thing I ever got to an apology from my step-mom was once she said to me, “I feel so bad for you, Ashley – you always come to visit when I have PMS.” I remember wondering if it was possible for someone to have PMS every day of the month.
I’m laughing so hard right now! Yes, she always had PMS! But the truth was she had emotional/mental problems but would not own it or admit it or seek help. Writing things down does help. It is very therapeutic!
You make me cry…
I’m sorry, Dad. 🙂
I don’t think tiger parenting is bad; in fact, there have been many times that I wished my parents had forced me to practice piano or finish my homework early. (We’re Asian; can you believe it?) I’m still a straight A student out of my own sheer will, but when I look back on the moments when I refused to practice because I was lazy, or because I always felt inferior to the other younger, more talented students, I really wish they’d just forced me to continue going.
My parents never really committed themselves to forcing me to stick to anything. They encouraged me to try out new things, but because they never really protested when I said I wanted to quit, my will was weak and as a high schooler, I still find it hard to endure when things go awry. So despite your crazy upbringing, I do envy your perseverance through this. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, right?
Because of this, I want to be a tiger parent. Not to live vicariously through my children, but to help them grow as people. Not to demean them–physically or mentally, because that is definitely crossing the line–but to be the driving force behind them, saying, “Yeah, it’s hard, but you can do it. You can do it because you have it in you.”
My parents were too soft on me. I don’t give them the respect they deserve. While they have nurtured and guided me throughout childhood and adolescence, and will continue to do so, often I look back and just think, “I wish they were harder on my at that time. Then maybe things would’ve been different. Then maybe I would’ve been different.”
It’s not like they can start getting all strict all of a sudden, though, because I’ve lived long enough to know that no, they are not those kinds of people. So I guess the only thing I can do is be my own tiger parent. Not that THAT’s ever going to be easy.
I don’t want to offend you with my words, because I’m still naive and young, and if I have, I’m sorry. If I sound like an obnoxious kid who doesn’t appreciate what she has, I assure you that I am forever grateful for my parents. However, I feel like I need to draw the line between “good tiger parenting” and “bad tiger parenting”. While I definitely do not condone what your mother put you and your sisters through, I believe that sometimes stricter parenting, one or two levels above just setting up rules, is beneficial to a child’s character. Then again, I could change my mind.
Have a happy day, Emily. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your words.
I completely agree with you! There’s nothing wrong with encouraging kids to excel. I plan to do so with mine, but emotional abuse is not the way to go. Encouraging kids to find their passion and supporting them through it instead of threatening them through it is a better way. I am not a perfect parent, but I do know that everything I do and say to my daughter in her pursuits can either build her up or tear her down. So although I gained talent through this parenting method, I also got a low self esteem, something I am still working on. There’s got to be a middle ground. Good luck to you! I hope you succeed at being your own “tiger” parent in motivating yourself.
twigsforpigs, It’s all about balance. Yes it is good to encourage and support, but not to be overbearing or bullying. It sounds like you have got it right. 😉
Emily, your story amazes me. You have come so far in your life, from being a repressed child, lacking in a sense of self, to the strong, successful woman you are today. I’m sorry to have to say this but I’m glad you have cut your mother out of your life. I can’t imagine how it must have been. Your childhood reminds me of the song ‘Perfect’ by Alanis Morissette which includes the lyrics ‘be a good girl, try a little harder, you’ve got to measure up, make me prouder’.
This sounds like a really interesting, but possibly sad book. Thank you for giving us some real life background to the idea of the Tiger Mother. I agree that some encouragement is good. But praising success and recognizing achievements (as the child’s own) are equally important, but it sounds as though a tiger mother isnot capable of that. It’s okay for a child to fail. When they try but don’t succeed, a parent should console, support and encourage them to bounce back up, not shout at them for not being good enough.
Yes, I agree. Being apart is the best in this situation. I loved Alanis Morissette’s song “Perfect” when I was a teen. Go figure! It was definitely my life.
Hi Emily. I just want to say that this must have been a difficult read and write for you. Thank you for sharing. I joked with my friend the other day and asked her about being a Tiger Mother…I hadn’t realized how insulting it could be. I had only just heard about the Tiger Mother via an Internet article. I am glad I read your post.
I think Tiger Mother can mean different things for different people. My take is obviously not positive, but another commenter pointed out the other side of it. Thanks for reading!
Thanks, Emily, for sharing your story. It was a cathartic read for me.
You’re welcome. I would love to hear your story… It sounds like you have one. I guess we all do! You can’t get through life unscathed.
My story is nowhere near as extreme as yours, but it runs along similar lines. In a nutshell, I come from a very religious household where control is the dominating method of parenting, and I did well academically, so my parents had a certain kind of life in mind for me. I’ve read alot, travelled alot, and formed my own views, which are really pretty moderate but not exactly the same as theirs, and I have chosen librarianship over other careers like academia, medicine or law. My standing in the family as suffered as a result, and sometimes that’s a bit hard. It helps to hear the tales of others. Thanks again for sharing! And for what it’s worth, my reaction to the Tiger Mother book was the same as yours. I think alot of readers who grew up in the supermom/kids-can-do-anything 1980s will appreciate your post.
It’s funny how this sort of control tends to happen in religious households. It’s like the parents want to force their children to heaven. My family was religious too, and I still am, but my sisters are not because of this attitude. This force is completely contrary to what is taught in my religion (and probably most other religions), yet the parents persist with judgment, control, and disapproval. So sad. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing your story. Coincidentally, I mentioned Tiger Mom in my post today (a review of a different book and a reflection on parenting styles). I am also a so-called “tiger cub,” and my mother’s efforts resulted in ivy league schools (as required), awards, and low self-esteem and anxiety disorders. I love my mom dearly, and I think her parenting philosophy is the product of her South Asian upbringing, but it didn’t translate well into her bi-cultural American home. There are aspects of my mother’s philosophy that have influenced my own parenting style, but there is a lot that I will never impose on my children.
I like that you can see the good and leave the bad. I am trying to do the same. I am just so afraid that my children will grow up with disorders, as you say, so I try to find a happy balance between pushing them and loving them.
Striking the right balance is hard. Our experiences were different, and I realize there may have been more merit in the way my mother raised me than in the way your mother raised you. I believe that my mother was doing the best she could (my father was a major influence too, and mitigated some of the effects of my mother’s strict rules, but my mother was dominant in this sphere). I appreciate that she taught me to have a good work ethic and to be a strategic thinker. What I don’t appreciate, however, is the isolation involved in “tiger parenting”: no dating (a rule many “cubs” find a way of breaking without their parents knowledge), no sleepovers (which, thankfully, was not one of my mother’s rules, but is one of Chua’s rules), and limited friendships (considering peers to be competitors instead of friends). I also don’t like the degree to which many so-called “tiger parents” feel that they control their children, even as their children grow into adulthood. These parents may believe that they are protecting their kids, but I think it makes kids more vulnerable. They don’t learn how to be independent, and they learn at a very early age that someone else has the right to control them (a very damaging lesson when applied to future interpersonal relationships).
Great observation! It does make kids more vulnerable and dependent, which is probably exactly what a tiger parent wants without being able to admit that. They want control and the only way to accomplish that is by having a child who cannot leave them, emotionally or physically.
Thanks for this post. 🙂
This is one of your best essays.
Thank you! I appreciate that.
This made me so sad, friend. But it makes me happy to know that you’ve pulled yourself out of your dark childhood and become a woman who won’t let the abuse define who you are, while still learning valuable lessons from all you suffered.
Thanks. It makes me sad too. I wish things had been different and I wish they were now, but sometimes you just have to accept it and move on.
Well, I am in awe of your ability to move on. You really amaze me.
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.” –Carl Jung. (Not grammatically correct, but that is how it is translated.)
That pretty much sums it up. Leave it Jung to put it so well and so succinctly.
I’m coming to this late; I’m enjoying reading your essays and this one has made a huge impact on me. It’s so honest and brave, and poignant. I’m so sorry you went through this experience. It’s incredible that you have the awareness to know happened to you so clearly, and to make determined choices to be a different kind of mom than what your mom modelled for you. Most people just blindly repeat history. I’d like to post about my experience of Chua’s book as well; do you mind if I reference this post?
No problem about coming to this late. I always appreciate comments and good conversation. I would be flattered if you would reference my post. I would love to read what you have to say. It sounds like you have an interesting experience as well. Come back and leave me a link in the comments.
Oh, Emily. I had no idea about your mother. The only memories I have about being in your home when I was young are all positive. I have always remembered your mom as being a strong minded, opinionated female and you and your sisters as smart and accomplished girls. Despite all the bad that you felt, which makes me so sad, you can know that I was influenced in a very positive way by being in your home.
Martha, that makes me happy. I am glad that our problems weren’t noticeable and did not make you feel uncomfortable. I think a lot of this was a slow descent into a broken and irreparable relationship.
An intriguing discussion is definitely worth comment.
I believe that you should publish more on this issue,
it might not be a taboo matter but generally people don’t talk about these issues. To the next! All the best!!
It is somewhat taboo. Thanks for the words of encouragement.
Hey Emily, hope you’re well and don’t mind me getting in touch – I’m a writer in the UK for Grazia magazine. Would love to chat to you about a feature I’m working on. Could you drop me a line so we can discuss? I’m on firstname.lastname@example.org. Have also contacted you on Facebook, please excuse my spamming!
Zoe, I’ll be in touch! Thanks for contacting me.
Emily, I deeply thank you for this essay. I am sorry to read of your experiences, yet relieved that I have someone to relate to. My mother was manipulative and controlling also–she wanted me to be as dependent on her as possible and as a result, I grew up to be an insecure and fearful woman that knows so little of the world around me. This partly led to me abusing food and alcohol too because I felt helpless. A lot of my life lessons came from books, college, my husband, blogs, and my jobs.
I think your upbringing assists you in being a great mother to your daughters and also, makes you such a wonderful writer.
Thank you again.
Vanessa, I am sorry to hear about your experiences. It is nice not to be alone and to relate to others. I find my sisters especially helpful when I let that fear and self-loathing creep back in. I repeat the words I heard as a child, and it continues to hurt. I also have a hard time relating with some of the people I know in real life because so many of them seem to have had great childhoods and still have good relationships with their mothers. I, too, am fearful in some things, and very brave in others. I want to be brave enough to give myself permission to live without guilt, and I am getting there. It sounds like you are doing well too. Do you still see your mom?
It sounds like you are doing very well with it Emily and your sisters must be a comfort. I do still talk to my mom. She’s ignorantly oblivious to her behavior when I allude to my childhood and I can accept that. It makes for good character development 🙂
Way to be positive about it. When I tried to talk about things that had happened with my mom, I got the same response you do. I wonder if mental illness is involved, if they rewrite the past in their minds, if they don’t care, if they are really good liars (to themselves), or if they really forgot.
I’m unsure. I do suspect mental illness on my mother’s side. Her sister was even more harsh than mom and you can see the results of it in my three cousins. I just found out last year that my grandfather tried to have my grandmother committed to a mental institution (though they were going through a bitter divorce and it could have been a nefarious ploy to ruin my grandmother). My half brother was diagnosed schizophrenic at age 17 and my other half brother turned to illegal drugs for many years.
At least you tried to talk to your mother. Sorry that her response reflects my moms’.
Oh my! It sounds like that could definitely be part of the problem. I suspect that mine has borderline personality disorder. I read about it from this book: http://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Borderline-Mother-Unpredictable-Relationship/dp/0765703319. I learned SO much. I highly recommend it if you suspect the same thing. It has been fun talking to you! If you want to keep chatting, email me at januarypetersen at yahoo dot com.
Thanks for the link Emily, I will check it out! It has been nice to chat. It helped me and has ‘girded my loins’ if you will for a 4th of July visit.
Thank you for sharing this so honestly and courageously. I was so moved reading your story, and I never would have guessed that you have gone through all this. (Somehow I tend to have very rosy images of intelligent and successful people and it would not occur to me to think that they could have also suffered from insecurity and low self esteem.)
Many things struck me but this in particular: “I cannot earn my mother’s love.” We should never need to earn our parents’ love, should we? It should be unconditional. I grew up with shades of a Tiger Mom (I think she was confused – she wanted to push me to the top and yet she wanted to do so without making me suffer, and she would swing back and forth and it just didn’t work because I ended up with a lot of criticism, overprotection and mixed messages) and somewhere along the line I started to equate approval with love. Even years into my marriage I would panic if I sensed disapproval from my husband.
Knowing when and if to sever ties with a parent must be so hard, and you are very strong to do it, to be able to step far enough away from the pain to know that you need to take care of yourself. I think it is hardest to try and sever ties with one’s mother – our mothers really have the most incredible power over us, for good or bad. (Have you read Domenica Ruta’s memoir With or Without You? It’s about her conflicted relationship with her abusive/narcissistic mother.)
I guess the one gift coming out of these kinds of pasts and relationships, maybe, is the clarity we have going into our own roles as mothers. I’m sure you’re a great mom to your kids.
Yes, that’s exactly right, Cecilia! I have gone into motherhood with some clarity and a hyper-awareness of my own actions. Sometimes this is bad and overwhelming, but overall I think it makes me a better mother. I hope that’s how it all turns out! I’m sorry to hear about your experience. It isn’t right to expect a child to earn love, and I too find myself doing what you did in your marriage. I also want everybody to like me. EVERYBODY! And if they don’t, I let that affect my self-esteem. It is so hard to deal with this, but I’m getting there and I’m in a better place than I’ve ever been. Thank you for reading and for sharing your astute thoughts. I’m going to read Ruta’s book as soon as I can get my hands on it! 🙂
Oh, I know what you mean about wanting everyone to like you – I am the same way – and I think it is ironic because writing is one of the most personal things you can do, and now with comments and book reviews, readers have direct access to writers and you really need a thick skin…I don’t know if this is something you’d want to share here with me but I am curious if you have received negative comments and if so, how you deal with them.
I have gotten a few, but very few. WordPress seems to be a supportive and encouraging community. I usually try to “fight” back because I am trying to be better at voicing my side of things and giving myself permission to matter. But I also get upset and cry and worry and then it goes away after a few days. It is hard to put oneself out there, but I find that the rewards of connecting with others and sharing ideas are greater than the possible risks. I’ve never been one to not act because I’m afraid. Letting fear stop you before you even try isn’t worth it because then you never get anywhere! Have you dealt with negativity on your blog at all? I have blocked a few commenters and deleted some posts as well…
These kind of parents are very common in Asia unfortunately. In India also, most children (thankfully, not me) are raised to get top marks in school and get into the most prestigious colleges, and get top degrees (mostly engineering or medicine).
I know classmates and friends who were beaten with a belt because they didn’t get 100/100 in maths and science. These kids did well all right in school and even went on to be successes as doctors and engineers.
My mom would sometimes get jealous seeing others do much better professionally while I was struggling trying to find what interested me and she tried to push me way beyond my limits, thankfully my dad stepped in and let me be me and figure out things for myself.
Am I a happier and better adjusted person because of that intervention? You bet. I am in a job doing what I love (writing), and doing much better at it than some of my friends who were shoehorned into a profession that was not for them.
This tiger mom concept is dangerous and over-rated.
Wow! Those stories are horrifying, but you are right that they are all too common. I agree with you that it is dangerous and overrated. I would say I have a hard time being happy unless I’m achieving the next great thing, and sometimes I just want to learn how to be and how to be happy with where I am instead of looking for the next goal. Thanks for commenting.
I just read this post after your charming “Tumtum/bumbum” post. That says a lot, I think, that despite all your mother’s best (worst?) efforts, you have a beautiful and loving family who can enjoy the simple pleasures of reading a children’s story and laughing together. You created that beautiful experience of family love for yourself and your husband and your children, despite not being shown by your own mother how to do it.
My own father was a toxic mess much like your mother (constantly insulting and haranguing me – the straight A obedient child) , and every day I focus on how I am strong I am – he didn’t have a chance to obliterate me, try as he might.
What kind of sick weirdos want to rub out the spirit of a child, anyway?
I’m sorry about your father. You’re right that the fault lies in them, especially since we were children! I like your method of dealing with it, of focusing on your strength and what you have done right. I need to do more of that. You’ve given me some strength through your comment. Thank you.
Emily, does your sister still keep silent to your mom? I sort of having this type of mom. When she feels hurt because of me, she doesn’t keep silent for quite long. I just don’t know why. I sometimes envy my friends who are close to their mother.
I envy that too. But none of us speak with her anymore. It is just easier that way and the truth is that she doesn’t like us anyway. Sometimes moving on is the best thing. I hope you find peace with your situation.
It’s hard to find peace with this situation since people always bombard me with she-is-your-mother-and-you-have-to-respect-her cliche.
Wow, Emily, this is an incredible article. No wonder it got so much attention. How brave of you! It sounds like your mother is seriously mentally ill. This tiger mom thing seems horribly destructive for children.
I agree. I don’t think all tiger mothers are ill, but I think the characteristics can be similar for sure!
I just stumbled across your blog. Thank you for your insights! An thank you for your influence in our lives. Thank you!
Thank you, Annie! I sure love you and your daughter.
My mother was not a tiger mom–I feel a bit like the earlier writer who never felt encouraged to do anything–but your story resonates for me. My mother was constantly angry, particularly at my father; she wouldn’t allow herself to express anger at him (instead sulking and pouting) but she took it out on me instead. I let that go on until she died, when I was 60. After her death, others talked to me about what an angry person she was, for no real reason, and how she had abused me. So I congratulate you and your sisters on having the good sense to get her out of your lives. And I noticed an earlier writer asked if you wanted to reconcile with her. People seem to assume that reconciling is always a good thing. I don’t agree. Some people are just too toxic and will never change.
I agree. One thing that I always think about is the idea that forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation. I can forgive and move on without continuing to expose myself to harm. I’m sorry to hear about your mother and I hope you are finding ways to heal. Thanks for the comment!
Emily, I had no idea all through high school that this was your lot (or your sisters). More importantly, I am struck by your courage and what you have chosen to overcome. You were such a bright, beautiful standout then and look at all you’ve become. My prayers will be with you during your interview tomorrow.
Thank you so much, Kim. What kind words. Thank you for the support!
Wow what a fascinating read! Thank you for sharing your story as I am always wondering how kids raised this way turn out. Kudos to you for rising above it all.
As a fellow mom, may we all strive to find a good balance to parenting – encouraging excellence, supporting, guiding, and always, always, loving!
You’ve hit the nail on the head with the idea of balance! I love it, and I also agree with the love part. We need to love our kids as much as possible because they will face plenty of rejection and disappointment outside of home!
Thanks for sharing your story! Growing up in the same small town I witnessed your amazing talent but learning of your situation leaves me heartbroken. You and your husband have a beautiful family. You’re such an inspiration of over coming challenges and continuing on the path of greatness – keep it up! ~ Meagin
Thanks, Meagin! I always looked up to you and thought you were such a nice, wonderful, beautiful and talented person yourself.