When Parenting Doesn’t Come Naturally

tiger parenting chinese immigrant family

When Nori was about a year old, my mom was visiting and kindly offered to put her down for a nap. I was in the other room, but I could hear them reading books, singing songs, and then as she gently closed the door I heard my mom say: “have a good nap, Nori. I love you.”

It struck me. Not as odd or forced, but just…completely foreign sounding to my ears. I’d never heard those three words spoken by my parents before, in any language. Growing up, neither of them said it to any of my siblings—it just wasn’t how we talked with each other. I knew they loved me, but as immigrant parents they showed me it in their own ways.

I was raised in a household characterized by the hallmarks of tiger-parenting, and from reader messages, I know it’s something many of you are familiar with. Hugs and kisses were as rare as a sleepover with friends (aka…they never happened). “Conversations” were mostly one-way lectures or screaming matches that abruptly ended with “don’t talk back!” because your parents are never wrong. There were lots of rules and lots of studying. And by studying, I mean homework assignments made up by my parents, not for school. While my friends were off at the movies, I was at home memorizing my dad’s daily quota of PSAT vocab words.

The way our relationship was, my parents were not the first people I’d go to with any news, good or bad. I couldn’t wait to get out of the house, move to a new city for college, and start carving out my own path. Even later in life, though, I felt like a disappointment by not giving them bragging rights about going to an Ivy league school or becoming a doctor or lawyer like so-and-so’s kid. 

But now, as a mom, I’m finding myself viewing my upbringing through a different lens. And bit by bit, being on the other side has allowed me to slowly work on strengthening my relationship with my parents. The question that’s constantly on my mind, though, is how can I impart the values and work ethic they gave me to my own kids, while allowing my children to feel comfortable expressing their emotions, thoughts, and fears in a way I never was? 

Part of it, I know, is understanding and appreciating where their brand of tough love comes from. They were immigrants who uprooted their lives to come here with all their possessions in two suitcases. They landed in downtown Philadelphia, studied hard during the day, and paid rent working nights at corner stores and the back of restaurants peeling shrimp. While our generation has many non-linear paths to success, in the world they knew there was only one clearly defined path, so everything they did was to prepare me for that. And the bottom line is they did their best. It’s because of all those sacrifices they made, the risks they took, and the ones they didn’t take, I have the privilege of raising my kids here and even musing on this topic.  

A lot of people told me, the moment you become a parent it will all come naturally. “Trust your instinct…You’ll just know what to do.” But for me, it’s something I consciously work on each day. I only know the type of parenting that I grew up with. And while I truly respect my parents for raising me the way they did and am grateful for it, my hope is to find a new balance with my own kids that’s right for who they are and where our lives are now.

A few years back, I spoke these fears and questions out loud and was met with some wonderful advice from readers, which I saved. I find myself often referring back to some of these words, and wanted to pass along the ones that have really resonated with me.

1. Listen to the little things they tell you now, and one day it’ll be the more important things.

I want more than anything to be that safe, trustworthy place for my kid to call or talk to first if something is wrong. Growing up, my fear of being chastised right off the bat would outweigh my desire to tell the truth, or to just share and chat about things in general. As several of you put it, being able to listen to ANY type of news from your child without reacting immediately will go a long way in your relationship with each other. 

This advice also stuck with me, as a lot of times in our busy everyday lives glued to our screens, it’s easy to be dismissive of something small kids are trying to tell you. When to them, in their minds, what they want to let you know is very important. 

And when it comes to how to talk to them in more important situations, I thought this advice was also very helpful: try to see the world through their eyes and then respond as a parent. 

2. Set boundaries, be consistent, and be on the same page as your partner.

As we’re navigating toddler behavior and tantrums, one common thread of almost every piece of parenting advice I’ve read is that toddlers crave boundaries. They may enjoy constantly pushing those boundaries and limits, but at the end of the day, they feel most secure when they know their caregivers are firmly and unwaveringly in charge.

3. Don’t compare your kids or label them to others in front of them

This piece of advice hit home – while I know the constant comparisons and talk of accomplishments by “so-and-so’s kid” or even my other siblings were intended to be motivational, for me it did the opposite. Even to this day I’m unsure if I make my parents proud. Yet now that I’m a mother, I find it so easy to slip into the comparison game subtly and subconsciously, even at an early stage (seeing other kids walking sooner, talking sooner, being more social at preschool…). 

Thanks to advice you guys have shared, I’m more aware of not typecasting my kids in front of others (i.e. “oh she’s just shy”), because they’re always listening and might start to believe how you label them, whether or not it’s true. 

4. Apologize when wrong and be okay with showing you’re not perfect

This was mentioned a lot and honestly a very foreign idea to me given my upbringing. I’ve been practicing this with my marriage relationship and making sure to apologize and acknowledge when I’m wrong on both the little and big things! 

5. Don’t let your own expectations of who you want them to be get in the way of supporting who they truly are

While this one is a little less tangible and more long-term, it resonated with me most deeply, and is something I hope to continuously remember throughout this lifelong journey of being a parent.


Whether it’s from your experience as a parent or as a child, please feel free to share any advice that has really stuck with you or become part of your parenting journey!

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