Revisiting the “Tiger Mother” Phenomenon
Written By: German Cheung, Psy D. | ACS Site Supervisor, Terman Middle School
“Tiger Mother,” a term that was hugely popularized by Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, titled, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” describes how parents hold suffocatingly high expectations for their child that often lead to conflicts in a parent-child relationship. Similar terms like, “helicopter parents” and “monster parents,” are also often used to describe how parents closely follow every moves their children make, demanding for success, allowing little room for failure, and leaving little chance for autonomy for their children. Although these terms differ slightly in their meanings, they all similarly convey a fundamental assumption about these children — “You are not good enough.”
Truth be told, this does not happen exclusively to Chinese parents, as you probably suspect. This is a far more common phenomenon that occurs across ethnicity, gender, age, and cultural background. How does that happen? Why would a parent undermine his/her child’s potentials? How does a parent become so anxious and skeptical about his/her child’s ability? One might wonder, if parents are conscious of these underlying assumptions, would they ever choose to convey these disempowering messages to their precious children?
The Anxious Tiger
Parenting usually becomes a teeth-pulling experience with compromised effectiveness when it is used primarily to take care of the parents’ own needs. In the example of a “tiger mother,” or “tiger father” for that matter, the anxious parent operates under the anxiety of not being a “good” parent when his/her child underachieves. To counter or undo the anxiety, the parent goes out of his/her way to make sure the child excels the way “expected,” even through extreme measures at times. In other words, the parent fails to bear with his/her own anxiety of “not being good enough,” and in demanding the child to excel, passes on this unbearable anxiety to the child without being aware of it. Now, in the face of insurmountable pressure from a parent, the child is now more prone to frazzle and fail, which in turn gives rise to the inevitable feeling of not being “good-enough,” confirming the parent’s basic assumption for the child — “You are not good enough.”
In another example, on a train ride in Hong Kong, I witnessed an interaction between a grandmother and her granddaughter, where the grandmother asked if her 8-year-old granddaughter wanted any water. Without waiting for her answer, the grandmother had already taken a water bottle out from her heavy bag and handed her the bottle, saying and looking around as if she was fishing for other passengers’ approval, “Have some water, good girl, so that grandma’s bag won’t be so heavy.” The granddaughter paused, looked down, and started helplessly sipping from the bottle as if she had no choice. “Good girl,” said grandmother, with a grin on her face.
Without knowing the usual interactions between the two, we could only speculate that this grandmother might have operated upon two things: her own need to be relieved from a heavy bag that she was carrying, and, more importantly, her anxiety and needs to be seen as a good caretaker. Neither, however, was a good reason to be asking her granddaughter to drink from the bottle without any such desire or need from her. Essentially this is not too different from what a “tiger mother” does with her child; i.e: taking care of the parent’s needs at the expense of the child’s.
The Emergence of False Self and the Loss of Child
While many children, like Amy Chua’s, fight their parents for their needs, compliance (as we could see from the above example) is one of the possible reactions from a child when s/he is being “asked” to take care of a parent or caretaker. British psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, described such phenomena as the rise of the “false self,” when the child has learned to take care of the parent’s needs, anxiety or feelings at the expense of the expression of his/her own needs, feelings, fantasies, and desires. (Winnicott, 1955)
How does a child learn to do this? Normally a child is responsive, particularly to their home environment as well as the caretaker’s capacity to attune to, understand, absorb and meet needs. When a child senses the parent’s lack of capacity, resistance or fragility to do so, the child adjusts accordingly and one of the reactions could be sacrificing his/her own needs to protect the parent from being overwhelmed by their needs. When this happens enough times, the child then maladapts to the parent’s limitation, represses needs, and focuses primarily on protecting the parent; thus developing a false self — a front that hides the true needs of the child, who is now lost.
Over time, the child will become very accustomed to meeting the parent’s needs and neglecting his/her very own on a conscious, verbal level. But, as Freud once poignantly put it, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” These repressed needs and feelings will reemerge and be expressed in other ways like depression, anxiety, anger, physical illness, forgetfulness, inattentiveness, stealing, substance abuse, declining grades, physical fights, and other behaviors. These behaviors and emotional needs are the most concrete cries of the child—signaling the internal, unexpressed struggles he or she has, secretly hoping the parent will become attentive to their deep needs to be protected, understood, and unconditionally accepted.
Keeping the Tiger on a Leash
Many parents turn their attention to these later “symptoms” and bring their child to a therapist to fix them. The pressure to be a good parent can often allow very little room for failure or any failure-like scenarios, and parents are pushed to demand that a therapist “fix” the child in very short time, transferring this anxiety to the therapist. Unfortunately, even when the therapist gives the best effort, the child most likely will not fully improve until the parent gains awareness of his/her own impact on the child and adjusts parenting accordingly. Sometimes, this requires parents to pursue their own therapy to explore what might have driven them to such high anxiety, or even compulsiveness, to push their children for achievements. Without such awareness, the “tiger” in the parents would likely continue to operate in the background and its sharp claws and teeth would continue to haunt their children and suppress their growth in unexpected, or even unwanted, ways. When a parent is able to self-reflect, however, there is a higher chance to keep their anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and needs away from the child. This allows an environment free of infringements or disruptions, where the child could grow freely at his/her own pace, which Winnicott wisely refers to as the “holding” function of a parent that allows for security, creativity, and health in a child’s development. (Winnicott, 1965)
Winnicott, D.W. (1955). Metapsychological and Clinical Aspects of Regression Within the Psycho-Analytical Set-Up. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 36:16-26.
Winnicott, D.W. (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 64:1-276. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.