Are 'Tiger Babies' Breaking The Cycle?

Chinese-American mom Amy Chua sparked a firestorm in the parenting world with her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She credited her strict Asian-American parenting style with her kids' success. But what are the downsides? Host Michel Martin is joined by Asian-American parents to talk about how they're now bringing up their own kids.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

Now, though, we're going to continue the conversation we started earlier in the program about so-called Tiger parents. We just heard about new research that suggests that that kind of stereotypical parenting style, high on demands, low on hugs, can actually do more harm than good.

Now, though, we want to hear a range of opinions from some so-called Tiger babies, starting with one who, in her words, is striking back. Writer Kim Wong Keltner is the author of a new memoir called "Tiger Babies Strike Back." She is a mom. Also with us are two other children of Tiger moms and dads. Jeff Yang is a columnist, author and dad of two. And Anupy Singla is a cookbook author, mom of two and a self-proclaimed Tiger mom.

Welcome back, parents, Tiger moms, Tiger babies.

ANUPY SINGLA: Thanks.

JEFF YANG: Thank you. Roar.

KIM WONG KELTNER: Hello. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Roar. That's right. I just want to start by playing a clip from Yale professor, Amy Chua, who started this whole debate in 2011 with her book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." We spoke with her at the time and she told us - this is a typical story in the book about her Tiger style reaction to getting a homemade card from one of her daughters. Let's listen.

AMY CHUA: My little daughter Lulu handed me a piece of paper folded in half with a smiley face on the front and I knew that she couldn't have taken more than three seconds to make this thing and I said, you know, Lulu, this isn't good enough. I want something better than this. You know, when you have a birthday party, I take my whole salary and I hire magicians and I make the cakes and I buy party favors and I deserve better than this.

MARTIN: Ouch. Kim Wong Keltner - now, I do want to emphasize, for people who've read the book, she's actually being more tongue-in-cheek than I think many people remember just by hearing about it. But, Kim Wong Keltner, your book is also very funny, but you do tell a similar story about trying to get a good night kiss from your mom and her reaction. Do you mind telling that story?

KELTNER: I'll tell that story in a second, but I just have to say something about - that kid didn't ask Amy to spend her entire salary on magicians and the works and, you know, she's the one who created that expectation. Her kid probably would have been just as happy to actually spend some quality face time with her without the million dollar birthday party. So, that said, I'll just move on.

MARTIN: Having struck back. Having struck back.

KELTNER: That's right.

MARTIN: OK. Well, go ahead. Well, then just go on to the sort of - you had similar experiences, though, of kind of being made to feel that you just weren't good enough. I mean, do you want to talk about that? Just what gave rise to your book? Let's just say that.

KELTNER: Well, I think that, when you're raised in Asian household and you're expected to get straight As, you're expected to do everything perfectly and there's no room for mistakes, I think the parents might feel that they are spurring you on, but what happens is you just feel spurned and you learn to detach from them and that's probably not what they wanted in the first place.

MARTIN: Anupy, what about you? What's your experience?

SINGLA: You know, I agree with that, what Kim's saying, and I think what she raises - the points she raises in her book are really important as Asian-Americans to be talking about because they lead to so many negative sorts of aspects. I mean, growing up, my father was the disciplinarian. He was the one who pushed me to get straight As. If I ever got a B, it was just this level of shame in our home.

But, at the same time, I also believe they were a product of where they came from in India. I came to this country when I was three. They didn't have the luxury of communicating with me at that time because they were fighting to get food on the table. So I kind of see it from their perspective.

I think, from my perspective, raising my children here, I have the luxury of being able to communicate more, so I tend to take what they've taught me, but I change it a little bit so it's more relevant to my children.

MARTIN: Jeff Yang, what about you? You've written, also, a lot about this issue and you say you're a modified Tiger cub. Do you want to talk more about that?

YANG: I'm kind of this lab-grown hybrid of tiger and panda or something. So my parents were very strict. They had very high expectations. They are immigrants. You know, they came to this country explicitly in order to ensure that I would have my best foot forward and eventually end up tangled in ivy in some fashion and, you know, to that extent, they succeeded, but they also succeeded in creating, you know, a journalist, which was probably the last thing on their minds.

But, that said, I mean, I look back now and I think that, you know, the kind of common thread with all these things in every perspective is that parents do want, you know, ultimately what's best, what they think is what's best for their kids. It's just that, from the perspective of many immigrants, they feel strongly like it should be, first and foremost academic achievement, and then secondarily, the soft and fuzzy stuff. And, you know, my parents did set those high expectations but they also were very, you know, conscientious about telling them that, you know, telling us that they love us. So the one thing that they used more than anything else perhaps, was guilt and shame, which I think is probably not that different from most other children of immigrants anyway.

MARTIN: Kim Wong, do you want to talk more - Kim Wong Keltner - do you want to talk a little bit more about that? I mean I also want to emphasize to people that some of the stories that I might want to recount from the book are very painful. But you do have a light touch and you do talk about how funny they are. But you do give it a funny sort of touch. But do you mind if I just do one story from the book, where you say...

KELTNER: Sure. Sure. Go ahead.

MARTIN: We are the survivors of the tap dance brigade, Chinese school and interminable piano lessons. We are frustrated by our parents and spending a small fortune on therapy. My Chinese auntie once told me if I wasn't driving a Mercedes Benz by the time I turned 30 years old I'd be a total loser. And even though I'd gotten straight A's in my whole life, earned a bachelor's degree with a double major at UC Berkeley in four years, worked a full-time job while my husband was in grad school, wrote three novels before I turned 38 and I'm raising one great kid, do you know what my mother thinks of me? She thinks I'm lazy.

(LAUGHTER)

KELTNER: This is sad but true...

MARTIN: But can I ask you - go ahead, Kim. But can I ask you this? I mean seriously, is there an element - I'm not being mean - an element of humble brag?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean on the one hand you can say this is really terrible, but look at what I've done.

KELTNER: Well, for me it was a matter of wow, even if I keep achieving and keep achieving that one thing, what is it? Maybe we all never feel like we have our parent's approval. And to touch on what Jeff and Anupy said, it is true that I think these immigrant generations are so concerned for survival. When they were children, they were starving for actual food. And even though that's not our situation, we're starving for affection. Because as Jeff pointed out, yes, the number one achievement they want is good grades and then maybe the warm and fuzzy stuff should be secondary. But they've completely forgotten about the secondary part and you're not getting any of the warm and fuzzy.

MARTIN: What's the down side, Kim? What do you think is the worst problem here or what is the problem that you want to identify?

KELTNER: Well, everyone feels alone inside. But I think that when you're only being measured by these achievements that are concrete, that can be measured in test scores and you're not feeling seen for who you are inside, I think that's very damaging and that's, you know, everyone feels sad sometimes and lonely, but this identity problem, when you're not even given a chance to think about who you are and who you want to be, what you actually like and no one's actually asking you, I think that it causes a great identity crisis. And when you hit college, when you start getting older and you start wondering hey, what do I actually want? And the fact that you haven't made any connections with other friends and having had play dates, you feel more alone than maybe a kid who got B pluses but had a lot of time playing kickball in the empty yard with their friends.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking with adult children of tiger parents, some of whom are striking back. We're talking about strict Asian-American moms and dads and whether that parenting style worked or perhaps did more harm than good. We're talking about this with Kim Wong Keltner. She's a writer. She's author of the new book "Tiger Babies Strike Back." Also with us columnist Jeff Yang and cookbook author Anupy Singla.

Anupy, do you mind if I ask you? You're a former journalist before you turned your hand to cookbooks. And we know that according to the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans are the highest earning and best educated racial group in the United States. And so when you look at that, I think some people might say does this work?

SINGLA: Well, you know, I think it works to a certain degree. I have to say my defining moment, I was a - I was slated to be a doctor, as many of us Asian-Americans were way back, but in college I failed OChem.

(LAUGHTER)

SINGLA: And that day when I have to bring that grade to my father, I just was so fearful of saying to him, Dad, I actually prefer languages. I love to learn languages. I speak Japanese. I speak French. I speak Hindi. I love to write. And his first question was well, how much money would you make if you did all of that? And so I had to go on this journey of being able to prove that becoming a journalist - I was actually one of the first Asian-Americans to work on Capitol Hill - I mean that it was OK to do those sorts of things. And everything was tied to the money component. It used to just drive me nuts because honestly, I think the main thing that we lack - as if you want to call them Tiger babies or whatever you want to call it - is that we felt there was not this level of unconditional love. And that is something that I raised my kids with. No matter what happens, if my daughter doesn't do well on a spelling test, like last night we were, I found myself kind of getting worked up about the fact that she wasn't, you know, studying her spelling words and she wasn't going to do well in my eyes. And I had to stop and say look honey, no matter what happens I still love you. I know because of my upbringing to say those words because if I don't I know she's going to feel miserable inside because that's how I felt. But I also know that I also say guess what? You still have to study and if you study really hard and you still don't do it that's OK. But if you didn't study, that's your problem, that's your fault. So I feel like I'm high on discipline Michel, but very high also on hugs. So I do both of those things.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jeff, what about you?

YANG: Well, you know, I got to say, I kind of agree. I mean there are things that, you know, when you grow up in strict households and so forth, you react to but other things you really end up consciously or not embracing. And from my standpoint, I also do have, you know, high expectations for my kids - not so much in terms of achievement but effort, right? And actually, that one anecdote that people keep on citing, you know, and you did early in the program, about the greeting card which was just, you know, folder piece of paper with a smiley face on it.

(LAUGHTER)

YANG: I was thinking about that and I'm not sure that I wouldn't have, you know, kind of have done the same thing. I would have sat down with my son and say hey, let's do a better job of his. Or not it better job but, you know, let's put some more time into this because I know you're a great artist and, you know, if you and I sat down we could draw something really awesome. And I'd probably turn it into a game and I think that's actually kind of where I ended up. I mean I'm definitely somebody who spends a lot of time with my kids as much times as I can, you know, with all the other kind of things that we juggle. But more than that, when I spend time with them I'm spending time with them, you know, I know what they love and what they don't love. I know how to make things they don't love, things that they at least tolerate. And, you know, it seems to me like that isn't such a bad thing to take out of tiger parenting, this notion that, you know, effort is really important. You're not born with a lot of stuff but what you can make with what you have you can make, you know, something exceptional.

MARTIN: What lesson would you be sending by making him redraw the birthday card?

YANG: I think what it is is it's like the more time you spend on something the more you'll love it; the more important it is to you. Not so much for me. It's not, you know, that I would say hey, this is a C minus, go do it again. It would be more like, you know, you're doing this out of love. Let's do this in a way that, you know, really makes it feel like a message from you. And it would be the same whether it was being given to me or to your friend or to anybody else. The love is always, you know, unconditional but I think the focus on how much you put in - meaning you, the child, put into to what you do is the one thing which I think my parents always really pushed me to think about. That it wasn't really - and this is why, you know, I'm a modified tiger cub, I guess, they have these high standards but they're like don't do it for us. Do it because, you know, you will get more out of it later on.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things, I mean Kim, you, like Amy Chua, your marriage to a non-Asian person. Correct?

KELTNER: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: And one of the interesting debates that kind of goes on in and around that book is the idea that well, on the one hand this is a style that seems to produce certain kinds of outcomes, right? Kids who are highly academically successful.

KELTNER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But the other question that some people have is does this produce people who care about other people, who are good citizens, who are involved with the people outside of themselves and their own personal desires. And the other, you know, Amy writes about this kind of struggle she had with her husband who came from a different point of view. They said, you know what? Fun matters too. Fun is important. Fun is how you learn things.

KELTNER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I'm interested for you, for yourself in raising your daughter, you talk a lot in the book, you know, about what you'd do differently. But is there something that you think is broader than just the individual experience that people need to talk about here and the effect that this has on the country or the community or neighbors?

KELTNER: Well, I think that the Chinese community in particular really likes to talk about everything having to do with how we're the best. We produce the best kids. We only have the best brands and eat the best foods.

(LAUGHTER)

KELTNER: And I think of that singular focus on this one culture it's not actually building your community, it's actually just making you more insular and making it so that you don't actually hang out with that many different kinds of people. And I think that when you are single-mindedly studying and you're not mixing it up, you're just cut off from other people and I think that's not great. And to touch on something just that Anupy and Jeff were talking about too, I completely believe that you can do both, you can get good grades and you can have friends. And part of the reason I wrote "Tiger Babies Strike Back" in response to Amy Chua's book, is that book was so popular and it became such a big idea in popular culture. To me it was really fostering the stereotype that Asian people didn't need friends and that we were just robots and I thought that was really scary.

MARTIN: It's funny. So I hear all of you laughing and chuckling at each other's comments, because I'm hearing a lot of agreement and similar experiences. On the other hand, I'm also hearing three very accomplished people...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...who I think most people would be really...

YANG: Best quality.

MARTIN: ...happy to have as...

(LAUGHTER)

KELTNER: Best quality.

MARTIN: ...as colleagues, as children. So maybe Jeff, I'll give you the final, maybe, the final word on this. I mean what would you say to people who say, you know, first world problem, people.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You're not happy. Sorry. But you're also doing great and you're probably going to continue to do great and your kids are going to do great.

YANG: And they are some elements of truth to that. I mean we're, you know, we're all sort of like, you know, begrudgingly successful, right?

(LAUGHTER)

YANG: It's like, yeah. OK. Fine. I'll go to Harvard. That sort of thing. And that's not necessarily something which every person has the opportunity to present, so to speak. And I know that, you know, there's a big dimension of this and I think that's one of the things that people look at, you know, the analysis - both Amy's analysis and even Su Young Kim's analysis - and say how much of this is related to socioeconomic status, to education, to things that, you know, aren't just about parenting style? I think that, you know, one of the things that we have the luxury of doing - as people who went through this and also have the luxury of, you know, learning how to communicate and write and have this podium and is just to start dialogues but not to try to finish them, to let other people speak.

MARTIN: Speaking of finishing the dialogue, Kim, I'm going to give you the final word because this is your book that kind of got us started thinking about this. You worked it out with your mom. I mean you had those - some difficult moments, but when your daughter was born I think you found that very healing. Do you want to just close with that?

KELTNER: Sure. I definitely had not realized the trials and tribulations of being a parent and it really made me think about how busy my own mother was, and she had three kids. And I don't blame her. I know that she was showing me love in the way that she knew how, because after all, her parents didn't hug her either. So I know that my mother wasn't withholding on purpose, it just felt that way to me because I was a later generation and I wanted more and I had the luxury of wanting more because I wasn't running from bombs. One thing I just want to say is that our kids are paying attention more than we know. And when my child's in distress she's not just going to come out and say it in words like an adult. She's going to be very quiet about it and we have to be listening. It's like these little yelps from Whoville that you have to be (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Little roars from the tiger babies. Thank you so much.

Kim Wong Keltner is the author of the new book "Tiger Babies Strike Back." She was with us from Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California. Writer Jeff Yang was with us from NPR New York. And author Anupy Singla was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you all so much for joining us once again.

SINGLA: Thank you.

KELTNER: Thank you.

YANG: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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