or: I Grew Up with a Tiger Parent and All I Got was This Lousy Psychological Trauma
Have you read Amy Chua’s bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? It’s a must-read if you’re a parent or thinking of having kids, mostly because it quite handily lays out some of the best ways of emotionally and psychologically abusing your child and ensuring they grow up bitter, resentful and crippled by neuroses and insecurity.
I had a Tiger Parent. I don’t think he called himself that (though he’d probably consider the moniker flattering), but all his moves were from the Tiger Parent playbook. Like Ms Chua, my Tiger Parent (let’s call him my abuser from now on, just to save me typing that ridiculous phrase over and over) probably thought he was doing me a favour, what with the unattainable standards he held over my head from the age of four, the constant comparisons to “model” children who were much better than me and for whom he would gladly trade me, and the rigorous schedule of all work and no play to which he held me.
Oh, yes. He was a tiger, all right. And I, his child, was a scratching post for his claws.
In tenth grade, when my academic advisor was helping me plan my senior curriculum, she asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I answered that I wanted to study medicine. (I wanted to be a writer, but my father had made it very clear that firstly, writing was a rubbish profession for lower-class people, and secondly, if I didn’t study medicine, I would find myself out of a home and without a family in short order.) My teacher, who was not stupid and was also rather fond of me, asked me what I really wanted to do after I graduated. Without so much as a second’s hesitation, I responded, “I want to make my father happy.”
See, growing up, my life was about making my father happy. As a child, I was punished for reading “rubbish” – defined as any book that wasn’t religious, educational or both – and was not allowed to have white friends because their (lax, un-tigerish) parents let them listen to pop music and watch TV and they would therefore surely be a bad influence on me. I was allowed one special treat a week – as a family, we watched National Geographic documentaries together on Saturday nights. When I consistently brought home Cs in handwriting in primary school because as a left-hander, writing lessons didn’t cater to my physical needs, my father bought copies of the handwriting books we used at school, photocopied them (so I wouldn’t sully the originals with my hen-scratch) and made me practise at home for hours, because even a C in handwriting was one C too many.
When I was old enough to begin taking instrumental lessons at school, I wanted to play the saxophone. My father wanted me to play the violin. I played the violin. When I made captain of my school’s trivia team, my father made me study quiz books for hours every day when I got home from school. When I started to cry because I was exhausted, he yelled at me. I kept studying. When I complained, he told me that I was ungrateful, that his father had been really strict, that I didn’t realise how easy I had it. His father used to tie him to a chair in order to make sure he did his maths homework. His father once hit him so hard he had to go to the doctor and lie about how he came about his injuries. By comparison, my dad was lenient and I was just weak.
I remember something he used to say to me after yelling at me, when his rage had subsided and he was holding me in his arms as though I were just a lost lamb he was trying to save from herself. “A father’s anger is never really anger, baita-jee,” he would say, stroking my hair as I sobbed. “When a father gets angry, it’s because he loves you.”
(I sometimes wonder if his father told him the same thing. Animals tend to learn by emulating their parents. I doubt tigers are much different.)
When I received a Distinction in a competition, my father would remind me that at my age, he was achieving High Distinctions in everything. An “A” in Maths or Chemistry or Physics was cause for consternation, not celebration. (He didn’t care about my straight A-pluses in English, because I wasn’t going to be a writer. He especially didn’t care for the four years in a row that I came first in my Music class, because only incredibly low-class people would ever perform music in public.) As the eldest child, I was both first in his attentions and first to feel his wrath if I proved undeserving of them. I was simultaneously held up as an example for my younger siblings (which definitely didn’t lead to them resenting me at all, oh no) and trundled out as a public whipping-girl to keep them in line. My successes were always slightly under par and not worth celebrating. My failures were proof that I was defective. Despite the fact that most of my teachers considered me a very bright and highly capable child – far more so than average, in fact – as years went on and my confidence was slowly worn to tatters, the latter became far more common than the former.
There are many things I love about Asian culture, particularly the South Asian culture in which I was raised. I love the bonds of family and community that we are encouraged to form, and the support and strength we can draw from them. I love our hospitality culture, and I still laugh fondly when my mother (who is most certainly not a parent of the big cat variety, but rather of the fallible-but-all-together-decent human one) won’t let my friends leave without at least staying for one drink. I have fond memories of dinner parties with family friends, of making up games with my siblings because we were encouraged to be each others’ best friends. I remember watching Bollywood movies with my family and sleeping all day on the holidays so that I could stay up late at night to watch Pakistan play in the Cricket World Cup. I still call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle” out of respect.
But I do not love tiger parenting – not the kind Amy Chua espouses in her how-to on emotionally scarring children for life, and certainly not the kind that my emotionally distant, affection-withholding father practiced over the twenty years that I lived at home. It is neither admirable nor worth emulating to hold one’s children to impossible standards and then to make them suffer emotionally and psychologically (or even physically) when they fail to reach the bar. There is nothing brave or bold about forcing one’s sons or daughters into careers they hate, in belittling them for having dreams and ambitions of their own or in making them believe that pleasing their parents is more important than self-fulfilment. “Tiger parenting” is a nice, catchy way of saying “child abuse”, because that’s exactly what it is.
(“Why do you want to please your father so much?” my academic advisor asked me as we pored over the senior curriculum. “Don’t you want to do things that will make you happy?”
“Making my father happy will make me happy,” I replied in a monotone, blinking back tears. I knew it wasn’t true and my academic advisor knew that I knew it wasn’t true, but she also knew that my father wouldn’t sign any form that went home without his choice of subjects marked on it. She sighed and circled his choices. A dozen careers I wanted but could never have flashed before my eyes. I gained a few more scratches to go with the others.)
Hear the cry of the tiger cub: don’t buy into the toxic idea that the abuse promoted by the likes of Ms Chua is ideal parenting, or even good parenting, or even adequate parenting. Don’t buy into the idea that to be an Asian parent means one must be a tiger parent. (My mother, also of Asian descent, manages what I call “human parenting” just fine.) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has made Amy Chua a lot of money and gained her a lot of publicity and helped her paint herself as a model minority for white conservatives who like to moan about how undisciplined their unruly brats are. It has also helped validate the abusive behaviour of people like my father, who already didn’t need much of an excuse.
I stood up to my dad and left medical school in 2011. I still carry the scars of the scratches his claws left and I probably always will. I have my own claws, now – a defence mechanism developed so that I might keep other people seeking to gouge me to pieces at bay. Time heals most wounds, but others, it can only ease slightly. I only hope I’ve gained enough insight that I’ll never use them on my own children.
I do not know if Amy Chua’s children are similarly scratched and scarred. I hope against hope that they are not.
I hope against hope that they know – or come to know – that in reality, tigers, like most parents, are quite gentle with their cubs.