a chat with iris chen on gentle parenting
From tiger mum to peaceful parenting: this week we chat to author Iris Chen, on how she learnt to break generational cycles and gently parent. It’s such an inspiring chat–Iris is so compassionate in her teachings and this episode will leave you with a full cup !
Welcome, Iris, to the Lunch Lady podcast. It is such a pleasure to have you here.
Yeah, it's great to be here.
So, we have a little bit of a history together because we discovered your book Untigering and we loved it so much we did an article in one of our print magazines. And when I was thinking about who we could chat to on the podcast I'm like: we have to get back to Iris and see how her journey's going and get some advice on how to gentle parent.
So I always like to start with your history—a little bit about your childhood and obviously what's influenced where you are today. So if we can start there, that would be lovely.
Yeah, so I was born in the (United) States to children of immigrants from Vietnam and Hong Kong. I grew up in what I would call Tiger Parenting culture. So tiger parenting is very familiar to those who have grown up as Asian Americans or, you know, part of the Asian diaspora. It's like a type of parenting that is very authoritarian with lots of rules. Very top down with the goal of raising high-achieving, successful, excellent, obedient children. Um, so yeah, that's the type of parenting that I grew up with. It didn't seem abnormal at the time because in my community, everybody was being parented in that way.
So when I started having kids of my own, I realized that there were parts of that that I wanted to let go of, you know. I grew up in the States. So I also watched all those sitcoms about what family life should be like and was like, okay, I want to say I love you to my children. I want to, you know, have conversations with them about their feelings and all of that.
But there was still absolutely the expectation that they would obey me. It was still a very Authoritarian mindset that I had towards my children. And worked for a little bit and then it's sort of all imploded.
Because, I think, as my children got older, as they learned to say no, as they learned to communicate their own feelings about things, I realized that I could no longer control them. I thought that I could control them. I thought that I could lay down the law and tell them what was expected and they would just say, “Yes Ma'am.” But no, they did not.
I feel like as soon as we use the phrase ‘untigering,’ people are like, “Oh, that's not me. That's not my culture.” But I Love how you kind of equate it to…there are definite similarities to Western Parenting. So Maybe we could talk about that for a little bit.
Yeah, I think in a lot of ways, it is mainstream parenting. It's just the expectation that we have to get our children to behave – that we are the ones in control, you know. We are there to get them to do what we want them to do, pretty much. And a lot of the parenting strategies out there are trying to help us to manage our children instead of actually having a relationship with them.
So yeah, whether or not, you connect to that term “tiger parenting,” or maybe you feel like, “Oh I'm not that extreme, I'm not like those people.” Well I found it's not really about that. It's about us unlearning a lot of the assumptions that we make about children, about ourselves and our role as parents. And really learning to share our power with them. So whether or not you consider yourself a tiger parent, there is an imbalance. There's a natural imbalance of power in our relationships. Because as adults, we naturally have more power than children. And how are we going to use that power, you know? Are we going to use it to coerce, to punish, to control, to–you know–enforce our values or our ideas on them?
Or, are we going to learn how to share that, so we can treat our children like whole human beings?
Yeah, and this is where I think it can get confusing, because most of us grew up in that sort of paradigm where our parents had power over us. And I have a lot of compassion for my parents. You know, they were probably quite stressed at the time and everyone was trying to get by, and I feel there are similarities now to the state– we're extremely stressed. The world is very stressful. We're sort of trying to unlearn and manage our anxiety. And then not yell at our children. And I find that very difficult.
So, I suppose, maybe we could talk about the shifts you saw when you changed your style of parenting?
Yeah, there were so many shifts. I think a huge shift was just a shift in my relationship with myself as I was recognizing the ways that I was treating my children were so harmful.
Realizing that a lot of that was rooted in my own woundedness, in the ways that I talked to myself, in the high expectations and shame that I had for myself. So that was a huge shift–just learning how to be more compassionate with myself too.
I had to make room for all my emotions to understand the needs underneath my behaviour– all of those things that I'm trying to practice with my children. I realised I needed to re-parent myself as well. So that was a huge shift and I think another thing was really seeing the needs underneath my children's behavior.
I think, like I mentioned before, I approached my children from a very surface perspective where I was just judging them by their behavior. So if they had a meltdown, if they weren't listening, if they didn't stop when I told them to stop, if they hit their sibling or whatever it was–I just thought: that's bad, I need to stop it. There's something wrong with you when you need to punish all of those things.
So I began to see that I needed to dig a little bit deeper–that there were needs underneath that behavior, and not just to make a blanket judgment or a label about those behaviors, but to dig a little bit deeper and see what was going on. And that just empowered me to have so much more compassion for my children instead of this judgment and anger that I felt towards them.
I agree with you that that shift to becoming compassionate towards yourself is like the greatest gift you can give to everybody and…in my life, I suppose I practice a lot of loving kindness to myself and things like that. I'm really interested in that idea and went on that journey quite late in life–realizing that we carry so much shame. And, parents often have this stick we're hitting ourselves with. Why do you think we have that? And I'm probably generalizing, but I definitely feel women carry more shame. Where do you think this comes from and what are the practical steps you took to try and release that shame?
Yeah, I mean, I think there's so many layers to that. I think the earliest relationships that we've had, where we learn to internalize those messages that we got, where like okay if we cried how did our caregivers respond to that? Was that validated? Or were we punished for it, were we shamed for it? And then we learn over time, like oh–it's not safe for me to express that–I need to suppress it in order to not get punished, in order to be accepted as part of this group or a part of this family.
So I think there's definitely those messages that we receive. But it comes from the greater society that we live in too.
Even if our parents were super loving and supportive, there's all these messages that we are receiving from society. You know, just like you said, as women, the messages that we receive –we're labeled weak or over emotional or dramatic or neurotic or whatever–for expressing certain emotions or showing up in certain ways. So even as a society, we're conditioned to believe certain things about ourselves and to internalize that shame. It's very multilayered.
And you were just talking about the anxiety that we're feeling as a world, as a global community right now. All the things that are going on–I think all of those things heighten the stress that we feel in our bodies. Our nervous systems are very haywire right now. And so, what you said about just being compassionate with ourselves when we're feeling all of these things. How can we notice them and just be really compassionate to ourselves when we realize, I'm feeling really anxious right now. I'm feeling ashamed. I'm feeling all of these things. So just to be aware, to name it, to make room for it and let it flow through us and work through us.
Yeah, I started doing this practice a while ago which seems so silly. But, when you look in the mirror and you tell yourself that you've got this and you're going to be okay and you give yourself this kind of loving compassion. And at first it seems so… you know, we used to get teased if you loved yourself or if you showed yourself any kind of self-compassion. So there's that shame you're carrying with telling yourself that you love yourself. But then once you break through that, it's very empowering to actually speak to your inner child. Do you do any of those practices?
Yes, definitely. I think that's all part of the re-parenting practice, because that script that we have, those voices we hear have made pathways in our brain and our psyche, and it takes practice to create new pathways, to create new mantras and new voices that can change the way we think about ourselves.
So those affirmations that we speak to ourselves every day, I think are important. It’s not a huge aha moment, where you flip a switch and all of a sudden it's like: oh I love myself. It takes so much practice because of all all the conditioning that we've had over the years. So, as we are doing this re-parenting process, for us to learn to be really compassionate and patient with ourselves when we struggle– it is a practice. And so for me, definitely having mantras that speak to myself to remind myself when I'm feeling certain things. I didn't grow feeling like I was allowed to show a lot of emotion. So when I do feel emotions, that makes me really uncomfortable, or I feel like I need to shut it down. I feel like I need to ignore it. So in those moments, I remind myself that these feelings are meant to be felt. All these feelings are okay–there is no good or bad feeling. I’m really trying to resist judgment about it even though my natural instinct is for me to judge it to say:why are you such a mess? Why are you so sensitive? You know? But to notice that I have those voices and then respond to them with this loving kindness is really compassionate.
It's interesting. The sensitive thing… I was also told I was too sensitive a lot of my life and it definitely backfired. And I have three beautiful children, including one who's quite sensitive, and I find her sensitivity quite triggering. It's interesting, isn’t it? That is the part you need to work on the most, I suppose. Because it does remind me of being told off. So,in our family. we're not allowed to say, “you're too sensitive,” because it affected me so greatly. But it's still triggering. Is there anything about your kids that triggers you more than other things?
Yes, definitely. I also have a child who is highly sensitive and I feel like it is difficult for me because I'm probably highly sensitive too. And I feel like there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of judgment about some of those behaviors because it triggers in me this feeling of…lack of belonging or judgment, or lack of safety.
Dr. Becky Kennedy has said something like: the things that we are most triggered by are maybe things that we need to expand and explore more in ourselves. I'm paraphrasing, but just realizing that if there is something about our children that makes us really feel uncomfortable, that may be pointing to something within us that we need to learn to accept and make room for.
So yeah, I think sometimes when he behaves in certain ways or is a little bit more anxious, I feel uncomfortable because, even though I'm the same way–I have a really hard time in you social situations and doing new things makes me anxious–I was just told to push through or don't make it a big deal, or you need to do this anyway. And all of those messages that I received and so it's hard to honour his personality and his unique gifts, and not push him too hard. Instead I have to learn how to support him in a way that he feels really seen and loved. It's very much a challenge.
And I think I think that's really interesting because that's where I get confused. You know that being told you're too sensitive isn’t great, but then sometimes kids need to be pushed a little bit. There's this fine balance in it to actually create a resilient being. And so that's where I get a bit…you know, sometimes I'm reading things and it's like: oh the child didn't want to do that. We should say that's okay to the child. But then, when is it okay to be like: no we are going–we're going to try this–without being a bully. I get confused and worry that I was too much, or was it actually enough?
Yeah, and because it's a relationship that we need to build with our child, and to learn the push and pull of it. So, it's not just like: do whatever you want. We do want help and to support them, and we want them to live their best life, and we want to encourage them and for them to grow. But yeah, we really need to just be sensitive to how our child is responding to it and be in partnership with them. So that they don't feel like bullied into something but they also know that we're there to help encourage them and support them when they themselves are maybe lacking the courage to do something.
Yeah, what about slipping back into old ways of parenting, or the old kind of reward and bribe paradigm, which–if I'm honest–has probably happened a lot these school holidays.
We have our six week school holidays in summer and it's quite stressful to manage work. I sit in these spaces and kind of laugh at myself because I know they're hopeless, and I'm fully aware of what I’m saying–especially to my youngest. I’ll say, “You can't do that. If you're not going to do as I say…” and I know it's ridiculous long term. There is no benefit from this. But I feel so powerless often, that I'm like: I've got nothing in the tank.
You know, I suppose I've got no creativity in the way I'm parenting either. So I suppose, just in those moments–which have been quite frequent, and I probably speak for a lot of parents in this Christmas period, and you know the stress of giving and then thinking, oh have I given too much–in those times when you're not responding in an emotionally mature way, what are the tips you would give?
I think it really goes back to self-compassion in those moments, for us to say: what am I needing right now? Or, why did I respond in that way? Like maybe I just needed a break. Maybe I was overwhelmed. Maybe I was overwhelmed at all of those things. So, I think when we offer a lot of compassion to ourselves then we don't have to get stuck in certain patterns. We're free to be like: okay, that happened yesterday. I am free to choose something different tomorrow and so we don't get stuck in these cycles of shame where we’re just like: well screw it, I'm a horrible parent anyway, I'm just gonna lean into this.
Instead, we can be like: okay that didn't turn out so well, but I can go and repair. I just need help to regulate myself and show compassion to myself ,and then go back to my child to repair and say, “I'm sorry I said that and I did that and that's not what I wanted to do. Can we find more solutions together?” I feel like our children are really open to that when we can come to them with humility and some vulnerability and accountability.
So, maybe even as parents we don't always need to know what to do? We don't have to have all the answers. Sometimes we can just say: Can we as a family together, with our child, to think of some things together that might work for all of us.
If you have this work that needs to get done, you can tell them. “I have this work that I need to get done. How can we keep ourselves busy while I get this thing done?” And they might come up with really creative solutions that we would have never thought of. Try inviting them into the process of co-creating this family life.
That's beautiful. I love that.
What about as your kids get older. My eldest is now 11, turning 12 this year. And there's a fear and an excitement about them aging. I actually love seeing them in their new stages and I think I feel ready for teenage years, but I know it will be quite triggering because I was a very naughty teenager. I was very bored, felt very unseen at times–as many teenagers do–so I'm waiting with bated breath.
What has challenged you as your kids have aged? Have there been different challenges? And how have you coped, or how have you adjusted?
My children are about to turn 13 and 15 and it's like, wow, how did I get here. I have honestly really enjoyed this stage.
Toddlers get a bad rap and teenagers get a bad rap too. There is the stereotype that their emotions are out of control and all of that stuff. There are definitely biological changes that are happening with them that we have to be sensitive to–hormones and brain development and all of that. And that may lead to certain types of behaviors or reactions that were like: whoa where did that come from.
But for the most part, what I've seen is…because we've laid this foundation of connection and trust and respect, it has really made the transition a lot easier. I have already checked myself for what I feel like is my responsibility, because I haven't been in that role of power over and control over the child.
I think that's part of the tension and the shift when parents start parenting teenagers. It's like, when they're younger, you feel like you can already control them and then when they become teenagers you realize: oh, I really cannot control you. You're going to do your own thing and that makes for a really uncomfortable shift for parents sometimes.
But if you've already started with: you are your own person, I'm going to learn how to share power with you, to be in a respectful relationship with you, to communicate and problem solve together, then the transition is a lot easier. You've already been doing that from when they were younger. You already see them as whole people worthy of respect, who have their own ideas, their own goals and needs, and all of that. And so you are again, standing in the position of loving and supporting them instead of trying to control them.
Yeah, and I suppose if parents are sitting here listening, feeling bad, I just want to talk about the fact that it's never too late to repair. It's one thing that was taught to me that I feel allows you to be kinder to yourself. You know? Can you talk a little bit about that and some practical tips on repairing? How do you approach it?
Yeah, it is absolutely never too late. I mean, something that I like to think about, even for myself–I'm a 40 -something year old woman–and if my parents approached me now and just admitted to doing some things that maybe they shouldn't have done in my childhood, and expressed a desire to repair– I would be so open to that. To that healing and powerful transformation in our relationship. And so, no matter how old our children are, it's never too late.
We can't give into the fear of like, “Oh their neurobiology is set by a certain age or whatever.” We’re very neuroplastic and we're always open to change and growth and all of that. And so really for us, as we do the work of re-parenting ourselves again, that resistance of shame where it's like: oh I did this when they were younger – it was so horrible. For myself, I spanked my kids. I punished them. I sent them to their rooms. I remember scenes in my head that are very horrifying to me now. Um, but instead of fixating on that and sort of like being caught up in shame about that, I can offer myself a lot of compassion and just remind myself that I didn't know what else to do. That I was overwhelmed and that I'm still loved and still worthy. And from that place of self-compassion and radical self-love, I can come to my child and say, “Yeah I did this, and I'm so sorry.” I don't have to justify it, I don't have to explain that I was overwhelmed and that's all I knew how to do. When I approach my child I can just say, “You know I did this?? Um, and I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to. I know that hurt you. I want to make it right? And how can I make it right with you?”
That humility, that desire to be accountable…for me when I apologize, I don't say things like “I will try not to do that ever again,” because I don't feel like that's honest. I mean like sometimes, I'm so out of control that I'm probably going to yell again, I'm probably going to try to bribe you again. I don't know. But I can say, “I'm trying, I'm working on this, you can hold me accountable when you notice when you notice that my voice is rising, or when I try to punish, and then you can call me out on it. You can say: I thought you said you weren’t going to do that anymore, Mummy.”
So inviting our children to hold us accountable and of course, that's not comfortable. Of course we can be very offended by that. But when we invite that into our lives with humility– because we're just practicing this right–we're just trying to make these shifts. And so we can treat ourselves with more–I don't know if playfulness is the right word but, just know we're just experimenting, we're playing. We don't have to get it right. It's not about perfection right? It's this practice where we're just working on it every single day and if we fall, it's okay, we get up. And we try again.
Yeah I love that.
Tell me about your relationship with your parents. Has that matured or have you come to a place of acceptance? Because carrying around any sort of, unresolved hurt, can also keep triggering things. e.
I did a lot of personal work in terms of my own inner child healing. My father actually passed away two or three years ago and there's been a lot of, you know, change along the way for them as well. You know they're not the same people that they were when we were young and they had just immigrated here and were trying to figure out life here and um, you know they've eased up a lot. I have softened a lot too. They were doing their own Untigering as well, so I feel a lot of compassion, a lot of understanding and peace with my relationship with them.
I also have boundaries and I also recognise that in some ways, they won't change or they can't change, or you know, choose not to change. In some ways I will never receive the things that I really needed from them. So I can't wait for them to re-parent me, if that makes sense. I had to let go of my expectations for them to be a certain type of parent and meet my needs in a certain way. Um, so that I could really be in a relationship with who they are now. Like just accept them for who they are now.
So I think because, you know, I'm a grown person, I no longer need them to take care of me in that way. I can release them of the expectation of being that parent for me. Of course there's still going to be those wounds but there's also been a lot of healing and recognizing as I repair myself. Recognizing that, yeah, they have their own journey as well and I can release them of that need to be that perfect parent for me.
That's so beautiful. I'm really interested in the idea of play and taking time out for yourself to kind of be a better parent. What do you do that aligns with helping you be a more gentle parent that gives you that space?
I Love this question because I think sometimes when we talk about parenting. We're just like okay, what can I do with my child to make this like an easier relationship. But so much of it is our relationship with yourself. Or just who we are as a person when we feel more grounded and more joyful in ourselves. Then we can bring more of that into our relationships, right? So it's important for us to create more space for us to feel joy. Because parenting requires so much from us. We can feel like it's this big old drain, like it sucks everything out of us. And of course, we don't want our relationships to feel that way, we want it to feel like a joyful relationship.
But the question of what I do…When our whole identity is about parenting our child, it can make us feel really insecure or upset when our children don't turn out the way we want them to, or aren't doing what we want them to. So finding our full identity as complete beings, apart from just our role as parents, is really important.
I think the work that I do through Untigering is a huge part, like the writing that I do. When I started this Untigering journey, it was a blog. Even as a child, writing had always been a passion of mine and had been a dream. But I had let it go and I had imposter syndrome. And then coming to a point–maybe it was a midlife crisis or something–when I was about to turn 40, and it was like: if I don't write, I will feel regret for the rest of my life. It will always be something in the back of my mind where it's like: why didn't I do that.
And so I began writing and blogging, even though it was about parenting. It was still an expression of myself that felt like mine, so that was something that I leaned into and was really life giving to me. And so I hope for every person, every parent, that they will find that for themselves as well.
Yeah, and just lastly, I know we’ve been chatting for so long. But it's so helpful and you're so calming to talk to you, I feel like it’s therapy. I'm really enjoying this. But what would be your top three tips on getting to a place of gentle parenting? What are the three most important things to consider?
Just like I said before, we need a lot of compassion for ourselves, because so much of the way that we parent is really again, not about our children. It's really about our own triggers, our own wounds, our own unmet needs. And so how can we really slow down and take the time to know ourselves and just really be compassionate and aware of what's going on inside of us. I think that's really been the key for me.
I think another piece is again seeing our children through new eyes. Instead of just looking at their behavior–because a lot of parenting feels like it’s about behavior management–what if we looked at the needs underneath the behavior. Just ask: what is the unmet need? What is the reason they're behaving this way? It’s not because they're bad, it’s not because they are manipulative or any of those negative labels that we place on children. Maybe they need connection. Maybe they need more sleep. Maybe there is an underlying need there. So, how can we be more curious about it and more empathetic, taking the time to slow down instead of just reacting?
And then I think that other thing that we talked about is the repair piece.
Again, be very gracious with ourselves. We mess up and we do the things that we don't want to do, just like our children do, and come back to repair and start again. It's fine, it's all a process and a practice and there's no shame in making mistakes and having a hard time sometimes.
Ah, that's so beautiful and I think it's so helpful for everyone listening. I really appreciate your time. Obviously you've still got your book out, Untigering. Are there any other books in the works or is that a secret?
It’s no secret. I've been saying for a while that I wanted to write a book about unschooling. So I'm working on that–I'm plugging away on writing a book about unschooling.
Amazing. I love Untigering. It's a very helpful life manual I think, and it's a very compassionate text. So I appreciate you writing it and I'm very grateful, and thank you so much for being on our podcast.
Thank you Louise, it was great.
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