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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT