Skip to main content

Tiger moms: Don't turn your kids into robots

By Kim Wong Keltner, Special to CNN
May 10, 2013 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
For children of Tiger Moms, lying on a bed and daydreaming doesn't happen, author Kim Wong Keltner laments.
For children of Tiger Moms, lying on a bed and daydreaming doesn't happen, author Kim Wong Keltner laments.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kim Wong Keltner: As a Chinese kid growing up, I was obedient and quiet
  • Keltner: Parents who rock the Tiger Mother style expect kids to get perfect grades
  • She says in pursuing A's, she grew up having no idea how to connect with other people
  • Keltner: Tiger Moms should foster true creativity and nurture emotional and social IQ

Editor's note: Kim Wong Keltner is an author, most recently of "Tiger Babies Strike Back," a nonfiction about the parenting style of Tiger Moms.

(CNN) -- When I was a kid, I was obedient and quiet. I automatically knew that talking too loud, making a fuss or being assertive would never fly. I did what I was told.

I was a Chinese girl.

I adhered to my parents' wishes that I get top grades and perform well in the activities they had chosen for me.

But after all the hours of homework, grueling afternoons of practicing arpeggios on the piano to perfection, four hours of Chinese school after regular school, Chinese calligraphy lessons with the stiff brush and stinky ink, after the chores, basketball practice and memorization of Chinese poems, eventually I wanted to feel known for myself, not just my accomplishments.

Kim Wong Keltner
Kim Wong Keltner

In the song "In My Room," Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys sang, "... Do my dreaming and my scheming, laugh at yesterday." Obviously, he wasn't Chinese.

When you are a kid in hyperdrive, daydreaming and lying on your bed doing nothing doesn't fit into the schedule.

It didn't occur to my parents to ask for my opinion. That might promote individual thinking. And thinking for oneself is not part of the plan.

Chinese culture emphasizes acting according to your place in the family -- you are the Number One Son, Third Daughter, Fifth Wheel or maybe just another mouth to feed. Everyone has a part to play, and if you don't like the role you've been given, the mandate is still "don't make trouble."

2012: 'Tiger Mom' meet 'Panda Dad'
2012: Tiger Mom author Amy Chua

You don't make trouble, and you study like crazy because in the really old days, passing the imperial exams was your only ticket out of poverty. And since the time of Mao Zedong, individuality is considered counterrevolutionary. Speaking up about injustice could get you and your whole lot exiled. Sure, many Asian-Americans are several generations away from those threats. Yet, some collective memories don't ever seem to fade.

Chinese parents who rock the Tiger Mother style still cling to the remnants of the Old World by expecting obedience above all else and stifling true creativity in favor of tried and true benchmarks of success: Perfect grades, best test scores, admission into top colleges.

What's so bad about that?

To earn straight As for two decades in a row, I learned to detach from my own emotions and physical body. I disregarded my cramping fingers, tired eyes and grumbling stomach. Having fun with friends had to wait. Through consistent pressure to succeed, I learned that human connections were an obstacle and distraction.

The only semblance of approval I received was when I won an award or had a perfect report card. Achieving The Best was the only goal, and it didn't matter if the pursuit of perfection required that I ignore or step over someone else. All that mattered was the A.

After so many years of performing like a robot, by the age of 25, a lot of kids who grew up like me have no idea how to connect with other people. We never bonded with friends in endless games of kick-the-can or went to birthday parties or listlessly congregated in the halls with the "bad" kids. We knew better than to waste our time like that. Plus, we might catch stupid that way.

As the children and grandchildren of immigrants, we may not have been starving for actual food, but we are starved for affection. In the pursuit of high achievement, our feelings got left by the side of the road, our emotions mistaken as unnecessary baggage. Maybe our parents who escaped war and poverty never expected that later in the journey, we would need emotional availability and a sense of humor as flotation devices.

As for me, the anxiety and loneliness of childhood that I describe in my book, "Tiger Babies Strike Back," has caused an uproar in my family. It's the roar of a Chinese kid saying enough is enough.

It's me as a Chinese person saying I want to be seen as an individual. The world sees stereotypes of waitress or Tiger Mom, but even within my own ethnicity, I am also supposed to fit into a box -- that of obedient child.

I'm a 43-year-old writer and mom, raising my kid with more hugs and affection that I ever had. Growing up in San Francisco with frequent trips to Chinatown, I interacted with newly arrived Chinese as well as third- and fourth-generation Asians who spoke without accents. But no matter what our ages or how Americanized we were or were not, everybody seemed to know that nothing good could come from stirring up the melting pot.

The fact that I am now purposely "making trouble" has opened up Pandora's box. My parents, brothers and other relatives are stumbling around, trying to stuff my words, anecdotes and remembrances of the past back into the locked Chinese box. But it's too late.

While we were cramming to learn English or Mandarin, we forgot to learn the vocabulary of the foreign language of our feelings. We don't know the words for "I'm sorry" or even "I love you."

But now that I have stirred the pot a little, all is not lost. I remember that when Pandora opened the box, there was one tiny thing that was the last to fly out into the world, and that was Hope.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kim Wong Keltner.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT