Why Asian American parents are shifting away from ‘Tiger parenting’

Many Asian Americans know the reality of growing up with piano lessons on Saturday, language school on Sunday — and trying to push back on it all whenever possible in-between.

Jennifer Chan was raised with similarly harsh expectations, but now the Clearwater, Florida, mom is trying to reverse that dynamic as a parent.

“I’m letting my kid be quite feral,” Chan, 34, said with a laugh about her oldest daughter, who’s almost 3 years old. “She just runs free.”

Chan is among a number of Generation X and older millennial Asian Americans who have been rejecting the stricter “tiger parenting” style for a looser approach — one with less emphasis on achievements and more focus on just allowing feelings to be felt and kids to be kids.

Experts and parents say it’s a shift that has been happening over the past 20 years, and they point to a number of factors: grappling with their own rigid upbringings, more awareness about mental health, having privileges their immigrant parents and earlier generations didn’t have, and a move away from collectivism and seeing parents as all-knowing elders.

Jennifer Chan said she wants her two children to feel the freedom that she didn’t necessarily get in her own childhood. Courtesy Jennifer Chan

Undoing the ‘tiger parent’ stereotype

Asian parenting practices have long been associated with harsh discipline, high academic demands and little sensitivity, largely rooted in Confucian family dynamics that firmly established parents as authority figures over their children — all amplified by the class and financial anxieties of these immigrant generations, experts say.

But then it was all given a name. The term “Tiger mother” was popularized in mainstream culture in 2011 by author Amy Chua, who published a memoir about the often extreme parenting practices she used to raise her two daughters. Her parenting style, which her book describes as the Chinese approach, focused on discipline, demanding that her daughters devote all of their time to homework and extracurriculars and forbidding them from sleepovers or other types of normal childhood fun to achieve the ultimate goal — future career success.

The book was highly controversial, with Chua being slammed as “cruel” and accused of stereotyping an entire ethnicity. Many Asian Americans criticized her for glorifying an approach that left them scarred as children. Chua herself clarified that the book isn’t so much a guide as it is a self-mocking reflection, she told The New York Times.

“I find it very funny, almost obtuse,” Chua said.

Chua did not return NBC News’ request for comment.

Parenting based on what was missing

Experts say many people decide to parent differently based on trauma they endured as a child or emotional needs that went unfulfilled. Warren Ng, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University who specializes in child and family psychiatry, said this makes sense given a general tendency for people to rebel against the practices of their parents and prior generations. Roughly 47% of Asian Americans said they would raise their kids in a very or somewhat different way than how they were raised, according to a 2023 survey survey from Pew Research.

“There is a psychological sort of paradigm that reflects on these generational differences,” Ng said. “We generally seek the love we feel we haven’t had as opposed to the love that we’ve had, and therefore that influences how we parent based on what we think is missing.” 

Different cultures have different expressions of love, Ng said, and that difference has often complicated relationships within Asian immigrant families.

Angela Im, 39, a Korean American from Queens, New York, tries to encourage her 6-year-old to study, rather than demanding it. Im’s household when she was growing up had stringent rules and “no feelings,” she said, which she felt was difficult, because she was more creative-minded.

“It felt like I was getting shamed for just my personality,” Im said. “I always said that I was going to do the complete opposite.”

Chan said corporal punishment in her younger years and the high demands she dealt with as a child left her associating her mother with fear.

“I did not like having fear of my mother. Having just that fear instilled in me — that was a motivating factor to do well,” she said. “Now, being a mom, I don’t want my kid to fear me. That’s heartbreaking.”

A move away from seeing parents as ‘wise elders’

Parents who spoke to NBC News acknowledged they maintained some elements of their childhoods — emphasis on family or some degree of structure — but they noted that they incorporate more instances of “I love you” and other verbal affirmations, as well as space for their families to open up and encouragement for their kids to find who they are as people.

Nadia Kim, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University, said many modern parents were exposed to, and absorbed aspects of, parenting outside of their own homes, whether it was through friends of other races or television and movies.

“There wasn’t so much focus on paying back burdens and sacrifices for what the parents gave up,” Kim said of those other parenting styles, which sometimes allowed for “more emotional reciprocity.”

C.Y. Lee said he wants his two children to feel agency in their futures.
C.Y. Lee said he wants his two children to feel agency in their futures. Courtesy C.Y. Lee / CLEARED FOR ALL – SE – 6/12/2024

Ng also noted that with the internet and social media in the mix, modern Asian American parents are exposed to almost an “information overload” on child-rearing compared to their elders. More recently, Asian American parents have gotten on board with widely adopted approaches like “gentle parenting” — which involves empathy, positive discipline and a more mutual approach to parenting, as opposed to being authoritarian. There’s also the idea that a child is “their own creation” — honoring their natural quirks and inclinations.

“It reflects this generation seeking guidance in different ways than maybe previous generations, where there was one source of information: your parents or your ‘wise’ elders,” Ng said. “Right now, the wise elder concept is not necessarily as culturally aligned.”

Those who were born in the U.S. tend to reflect an acculturation to American society, which, more generally, has become hesitant about strict parenting. New immigrants, by contrast, aren’t making the same shift, he said. More acculturation also means such second-generation Asian Americans place a greater emphasis on the individual than on the collective, Ng said. Often they encourage their children to find their own passions rather than assume a more “duty-bound” lifestyle that previous generations grew up with. Those old-school Confucian family dynamics, Ng said, are increasingly being tempered with a sense of autonomy.

“You’re acknowledging that you exist within this family system, but that you’re a part of defining your role and your identity,” Ng said, before describing the more Confucian dynamic. “The other way is that it’s defined for you, you have birth order, you have roles, you have function, you just play your part in this family system.”

C.Y. Lee, 54, of Seattle, is the father of a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old. He said his kids have had a strong idea of what they want to do in life, both looking to enter the gaming industry. And it’s not up to him to change that.

“They’re both sort of arts-related. And God knows if they’re going to be able to make money there, but I’d rather they have a direction that they feel agency in than me trying to impose something upon them,” he said.

Lee said he and his wife also wanted to maintain their own sense of identity. And while they saw some parents “run themselves ragged” carting their kids to school and extracurriculars day after day, the couple wasn’t about to do that.

“That’s too much work for us. We didn’t want to become car pool drivers,” Lee said. “Unless the kid showed interest, we weren’t going to push them into activities. … I think the kid should drive what they want to do.

Today’s parents acknowledge they’re more privileged and have access to mental health help

The Asian American cohort who immigrated in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, often from war-torn countries or dire circumstances, most likely didn’t have opportunities to address that trauma, which affected their families, experts say.

“We are so much more open to mental health as something that you can get treatment for. That shapes their parenting and improves it,” Kim said. “We recognize looking back at our parents [that] ‘wow, a lot of the reason that they were tiger-momming me or dysfunctional parents is in large part because they didn’t even recognize their own mental health illnesses.’ Nor were they getting any treatment for it, because it just wasn’t a thing.”

Ken Hada with his children
Photographer Ken Hada said that while he didn’t feel validated as a child, he tried to create a “loving situation” for his two kids. Courtesy Ken Hada

Some Asian American parents also say they’re more aware of their kids’ emotional well-being. Ken Hada, 60, a photographer and dad of two in Southern California, said his father, a second-generation Japanese American, grew up in a difficult family environment that made him closed-off with his children. While vulnerability was seen as taboo during his childhood, Hada said, he wanted to create a warmer space for his kids, seeking books and resources in the early days to help guide him.

“I just tried to do what I could do to raise my kids in a more loving situation,” he said. “I didn’t physically discipline my children. I made sure that they were looked after and that they had attention.”

Parents and experts acknowledged that they were able to parent more softly because of privileges many of their immigrant parents didn’t have — from more financial stability to higher educational attainment. There’s less on the line. Chan said her mother, a seamstress and home health aide, didn’t get beyond a high school education.

“She told me: ‘You know, these are all the things I wanted for myself. So that’s why I push you,’” Chan said. “I don’t have to worry about my housing. I don’t have to worry about putting food on the table. So I have a more relaxed attitude towards raising my child.”

When it comes down to it, Ng said, it’s all about balance and, as many Asian Americans are doing today, taking bits and pieces from their experiences to shape their own versions of parenting.

“Not everything in the past was bad. Not everything in the future is good,” Ng said. “How can we take a bit of both and learn from it?”

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