Moms Columns & Blogs

A tiger baby responds to "Tiger Mom syndrome"

By Allen Pierleoni

The Sacramento Bee


One of the most controversial titles of 2011 was "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Amy Chua, a Yale University law professor who has said her book was meant to be funny but was "misunderstood."

Now comes "Tiger Babies Strike Back: How I Was Raised by a Tiger Mom but Could Not Be Turned to the Dark Side" by Kim Wong Keltner. It's a witty yet poignant memoir that helps explain "Tiger Mom syndrome" and explores cultural differences and stereotypes (William Morrow, $13.99, 272 pages).

In "Tiger Mother," Chua detailed her strict "perfectionist parenting" of her two daughters, which followed the traditional Chinese approach to child-rearing: Prepare the younger generation for life by instilling in them a strong work ethic and specific skill sets.

That's in contrast to the looser, more affectionate Western child-raising style, which emphasizes children's individuality and the notion that anything is possible if dreams are followed.

Westerners who read the book were appalled by Chua's perceived uncompromising demands on her children's academic and music performances, calling her Old World methods abusive and cruel. Others were offended by what they saw as the stereotyping of Chinese and Western cultures.

Somewhat lost in the clash was Chua's defense. Writing the book was therapeutic for her during a difficult personal time, she has said, and her daughters have expressed gratitude to their Tiger Mom for their subsequent remarkable successes.

In "Tiger Babies," Keltner shows "what an American woman of Chinese descent really thinks about daily life, motherhood and navigating the world's misconceptions."

Keltner is also the author of three novels -- "The Dim Sum of All Things," "Buddha Baby" and "I Want Candy." She lives in Nevada City with her husband, Rolf, a speech therapist, and their daughter, Lucy, age 9 1/2. Visit her at

Hello, Kim, you called right on time.

It's the curse of the child who was left in schoolyards and was the last to be picked up, like for 20 years. So I'm always on time because I have a bad history with

You were raised by a Tiger Mom. What went wrong?

When you're young, you only know what you know. It's not until you get older that you realize, "Wow, other people could go barefoot in their own house? I had no idea." Tiger parents want so much success for you, but according to their specifications, not yours. They don't realize they're squishing your spirit because they want you to get straight A's. A lot of the kids raised by Tiger Parents, who are now adults, have suppressed their anger about that or don't even know they didn't get affection.

You say many Tiger-parented children feel affection- deprived.

We do. Some (Tiger Babies) don't even know they didn't get affection, or they've internalized (the issue). I wrote this book for people who feel like they are being squelched. I want them to know, "Maybe if you're not ready to strike back, you can at least stand up for yourself."

What was typical for you?

When I was a little kid, I would try to hug my parents and relatives and they would be like, "What's wrong, you're touching me! OK, that's enough." I would get a little pat on the arm to get rid of me. I felt really sad about that. Then I got older and went to school and saw other kids getting hugs, and felt ripped off.

You call Tiger Moms "control freaks gone wild." Why do they raise their children with such zealous strictness?

I think a lot of parents are pushing their kids because they want themselves to be seen as successful, and feel like their children's accomplishments are their own. They also want to know that their sacrifices got them some kind of progress.

Doesn't the Tiger Mom scenario cross cultural boundaries?

Definitely. A lot of people who are not Asian have experienced it. I know 70-year-old non-Asians who are still jumping through hoops to please their 90-year-old parents.

What does your mother think of the book?

We're on better footing now, but there were many weeks when we weren't on the best of terms after she read the unfinished manuscript. When I was writing it, I wanted to show her that I understood she wasn't malicious and didn't hurt me on purpose. I know she was working hard, and I know she was raised with not a lot of affection herself. (My upbringing) was a typical Chinese thing, so I don't blame her.

Have you told her how you feel?

We have not had that conversation. Maybe because she has buried her own emotions, which is the Chinese style and very much of her generation -- you don't go around talking about anything. For her to find out her kid is thinking about some conversation that happened 30 years ago was probably horrifying for her. I think she's in shock and it's going to take her a long time to digest all this, but I've been saying the whole time, "Mom, I'm not mad at you."

How are you raising your own daughter?

I want Lucy to have total affection, to play around and run barefoot through the grass, because I didn't have those freedoms. If she was about to do something dangerous, though, I would grab her like a Chinese grandma. But for all I know, she may grow up and say, "Why didn't you drill me on the SAT?"

Any advice for other parents?

Pay attention. Parents are really frazzled, and sometimes we think our kids are not listening or seeing, but they're hearing and seeing everything. I want to be attuned to that, and I also want to know when something is bothering her so we can talk about it. We have to listen for their little yelps (for help).

If you were to meet Amy Chua, what words would you have for her?

I would say, "Hey, lady, relax a little."

(c)2013 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)