from tiger mum to peaceful parenting: how one mother learnt to gently parent
Author and mother, Iris Chen, found herself parenting just as she was raised - like a tiger mum. She shares her journey to peaceful parenting in her self-published book, Untigering.
My name is Iris and I’m an author, mother and unschooler. I live with my partner, Jason, and our two kids, Noah and Caleb. Noah is thirteen, and Caleb is eleven. We live in California, but our kids were born in China and we lived there for many years.
What is Tiger parenting?
The term ‘Tiger parent’ came from Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and is often associated with Asian parenting. Unfortunately, many people from Asian backgrounds understand that type of upbringing. It’s a very strict, authoritarian and hierarchical style of parenting.
Are there similarities between Western parenting and Tiger parenting?
Sure. I think mainstream parenting is generally focused on behaviour. Behaviour management is often the standard of good parenting in Asian and Western cultures. We are taught to deal with children using aggressive forms of behaviour management or emotionally manipulative forms. But in any culture, some parents are more emotionally connected and others aren’t. There are many parents just going through the motions of each day, shuttling kids from one thing to the next without connecting.
Tell us about your book Untigering.
I started parenting as a Tiger parent, practising a toned-down version of the way I was raised. But it came to a point where I realised that my parenting style just wasn’t working. My relationship with my son was bad. He was pushing back a lot and not complying the way I wanted. It forced me to evaluate what I was doing and where the problem was. I discovered that my reactions were exacerbating much of the behaviour I wanted to stop. That realisation brought me on this journey of learning more about peaceful parenting and the need to heal from our own childhoods.
One of the big reasons I was compelled to write Untigering was because I didn’t see many parenting books that reflected my experience as an Asian American person of colour. We may want to practise the parenting strategies or principles we were reading about, but they can seem disconnected from our own experiences. I wanted to write about growing up in my culture, using the language I grew up speaking, and my observations of life in China.
But I’m not a psychiatrist and I don’t have a PhD. I’m just a parent who wanted to share their own journey honestly, and I hoped it would connect with other readers and encourage them. I want people to understand that we can always change, grow and learn no matter where we’re starting from in this parenting journey. It’s never too late, and we don’t need to dwell in shame or be trapped in our ways.
What did Tiger parenting look like for you?
My personality is somewhat perfectionist and controlling. When my children were younger, I had checklists, schedules and spreadsheets. I knew when they had nursed, when they woke, pooped and played. I was trying to ace the test of parenting. Because I had very high standards towards myself and my children, whenever they failed to meet those expectations, I felt really upset and like I needed to punish them. There were punishments and rewards and bribes. I really approached parenting from a behavioural management perspective, trying to get them to do what I wanted, and I used power over them.
What does your parenting style look like now?
Parenting is like being a GPS that is constantly recalibrating and recalculating. Instead of having this idea of what you’re aiming for, which is a Tiger parent attitude, it becomes more open-ended. Peaceful parenting is much more curious and humble because my kids are always changing. So, there is now an openness to my process of parenting.
Peaceful parenting taught me to look beyond our children’s behaviour for the underlying needs. It highlighted the importance of connecting with the child. I’ve learnt to see my children as human beings instead of things to control. I’ve had to understand they have their own personalities and desires, and I need to respect them and model the respect I desire for myself.
Instead of concentrating on behaviour, I focus on connection. My parenting is now about asking the question: do they know they are loved? Do they know they can talk to me about anything? Do they feel empowered and cared for? These ideas are so much more important than behaviour.
The biggest shift came when I learnt how to share power with my children instead of just ordering them around, telling them what to do or having a bunch of rules. The change came when I invited them into problem-solving, and we found solutions that worked for all the family.
What does Tiger parenting teach children?
Tiger parenting introduces fear into the relationship. Fear of disappointing your parents, of being punished, of what other people think if you don’t do what you’re told. And it teaches children not to know themselves and not to listen to themselves. Children learn to suppress their own emotions and desires to please the parent or do what’s expected of them. And I don’t think it provides the unconditional love that we want our children to experience in our families.
I think Tiger parenting is also really connected to our ego. It’s about making the parent look good because their kid behaves like a ‘good’ child or does well academically or in sports. But as a result, the child doesn’t really know themselves or feel empowered—they don’t have a say. It’s incredible to consider the repercussions of trying to get your kids to behave.
When did you realise there was a problem?
My oldest child is quite sensitive, and that sensitivity used to come out as aggressive behaviour or meltdowns. When he was young, I thought I just needed to come down harder on him. I thought he was wilfully disobeying me and needed to have it disciplined out of him so he would be more compliant. But over the years, things just got worse. When he was six or seven, we had daily conflict and I was losing my ability to enjoy him. I didn’t want to be around my child and that really scared me.
It was a long process of realisation and change, but at one point, I went to a parenting seminar and learnt about a child’s neurobiology. I learnt that when I yelled at my children or punished them to try and stop their behaviour, I actually activated their minds and made them even more upset and more triggered so they couldn’t listen and calm down. That made me realise the reality of my son's psychological struggle: he was telling me he needed help, and I was punishing him for needing my help. That was a big switch for me.
What steps did you take in your Untigering journey?
I had to learn how to sit with my children’s emotions, which was really difficult for me because meltdowns triggered me. I wanted to punish my children and make the behaviour stop. But I realised that was my issue—it was my inability to handle strong emotions. Part of the healing process for me was going back to my own childhood and asking myself: why do I have such a hard time sitting with strong emotions? Taking the time to heal and then offering myself to my children and holding space for them was an important step. But it wasn’t easy. At first, I couldn’t say anything when they had meltdowns, but saying nothing was better than yelling.
Noah, in particular, responded to that change. Once I understood he was overwhelmed, he began to soften and I understood more of his nature. I recently reflected on how much Noah has changed. Initially, if I raised my voice, Noah would get really upset, run off and slam the door. But nowadays, if I’m stressed and use a firm or loud voice, he doesn’t respond like that. He might roll his eyes or walk off, but he doesn’t fly off the handle. There’s a lot more resilience and ability to regulate our emotions now that we’ve been practising peaceful parenting for years. But it definitely takes time.
Did you talk to your children about the need for change?
We talked to our children about what we were learning and explained we weren’t going to do certain things anymore. Like, we had a spatula we used for spanking, and we threw it away together. They were still young, but it was an invitation to help keep us accountable. These days, if my children call me out for how I treated them, I will always be open to hearing from them, empathising and seeing how I can do things better. But I also have to give myself some compassion. All parents making this shift need to offer themselves compassion, because it’s not easy and we all make mistakes.
Did you see any immediate benefits from Untigering?
I could feel a shift immediately, but it wasn’t a total 180—it was more like small steps forwards instead of constant frustration. And those changes started within me. Then the changes moved into my relationship with my partner and then with my children. I realised I had been Tiger parenting Jason too, and there had been plenty of disappointments and frustrations early in our marriage because he didn’t comply. I had to accept and learn to love myself, Jason and my children instead of trying to mould them into who I wanted them to be.
Did anything surprise you about Untigering?
I’m surprised at how much healing has happened in our family and how our family now feels peaceful. If you'd asked me seven years ago if our family would be peaceful, I couldn’t have imagined it because there was so much conflict, anger and tension. I’m grateful we now have the tools to work through disagreements, and there’s enough trust in the relationship to communicate and work through issues.
How did you deal with setbacks?
This is where compassion comes in. Peaceful parenting is a practice, not a destination. We won’t always do the right thing and that’s okay. If we’re resorting to yelling, we need to figure out how we can take a step back—even if it’s after the fact. And ask yourself: what made me react that way? It’s important not to make excuses for yourself, because you need to take responsibility and repair things. But you also need to offer yourself lots of compassion to move forwards.
What advice can you give parents who feel trapped in cycles of negative reactions?
It’s so different for everybody, so I can only tell you about my own experiences. For me, seeing what I was doing to my child broke my heart because I thought I had been doing the right thing. To change, I had to work through my wounds and triggers and understand that the anger I was feeling towards my children wasn’t about them at all.
I think it’s important to take time to learn about ourselves and our triggers. The main job of parents is to become our best selves and learn to regulate and accept our emotions, communicate our feelings and resolve conflict. We often think parenting is about how to deal with our children’s behaviour, but it’s really about our own behaviour and doing the work to grow ourselves. We have to learn how to do the things we often expect our kids to do. I’ve had to learn how to stop Tiger parenting myself and my children and be less afraid of making mistakes and being vulnerable.
What did Untigering teach you about your children’s behaviour?
That I had to look past the behaviour and see what’s underneath it. Instead of judging what they’re doing as right or wrong and punishing or rewarding, I had to take a non-judgmental attitude and be curious and empathetic. I had to dig deeper and ask more questions.
What did Untigering teach you about yourself?
I learnt I needed to repair myself and change the scripts going on in my own mind to help my children.
What are your hopes for people who read your book?
I want them to feel hopeful that change is possible and generational cycles can be broken, especially if they feel like cultural patterns. I hope they can trust and believe in themselves to take steps and not feel trapped by their past.
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