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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67 Comments

  1. Patty wrote:

    Thank you for posting this! I struggle daily with my 3 kids and this helped me realize that I am doing more than an okay job! ❤️

    Posted 7.27.21 Reply
  2. Elizabeth wrote:

    I didn’t grow up with immigrant parents but my parents were much older than my friends parents and were from the depression era. I can relate to what you wrote regarding the lack of emotional love. I myself struggle with it as well because I wasn’t raised with it. I am not a hugger and I can come across as cold. Thankfully, one of my children is very affectionate and has really helped me in this area. 🙂 I also work hard to keep communication open with my children. Good luck! Thank you for your open posts, I appreciate them.

    Posted 7.25.21 Reply
  3. This is such a great post Jean. Daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and I was the one who did end up going to an Ivy League and become a doctor. While they didn’t pressure me as bad as some of my friends in college, this post resonates a lot and is something I’m trying to decide as I raise my daughter

    Posted 7.25.21 Reply
  4. Ariel wrote:

    I vaguely remember that post asking for advice a while back! This is such a great summary of parenting wisdom. I grew up in a similar immigrant story, but I personally put more pressure on myself than my family did. I’m still peeling back the layers of toxic perfectionism and my own fears today. I recently read this book called “mindset” by Carol Dweck. I didn’t read it for parenting advice but the book made me really think about what I wanted to instill in my kids. (Growth mindset vs fixed mindset). I would highly recommend it!!

    Posted 7.20.21 Reply
  5. Valeri A Pighini wrote:

    This really hit home Jean.

    Posted 7.20.21 Reply
  6. Kristin wrote:

    This was such a beautiful post! I struggle with the same as my parents were immigrants from the islands. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    Posted 7.20.21 Reply
  7. Kim wrote:

    Your post was very relatable to me. My parents also immigrated from Vietnam and I had the typical Asian childhood.
    Still to this day, in my mid twenties, I get triggered when I see my friend’s parents be supportive of anything my friends decide to do.
    I do want to add that my parents did change a lot – but it also depends on how you interact with them and if you’re willing to set boundaries with your parents (even though you’re scared you might get disowned). Me and my mom fought so much when I was living at home. My dad would fight with me via text messages (even though we lived under one roof. We just didn’t know how to communicate with one another).
    By the time I got into my second relationship a lot of things changed. Not because they decided to be more open minded because I was defending MYSELF. I was defending my relationship and I was loyal to who I was and who I loved. I had to move out because of my dad’s tyranny and it was not easy for me.
    Although I know my mom would’ve loved to have a Vietnamese son in law, I do see how she learned not to only see the color of the skin. She saw that my boyfriend was a good human being. And now, all she ever says to me and to us is that she wants me to be happy and she wants us to be happy and that we’ll be able to overcome any obstacle. My mom and I did get closer because of all the interracial relationship “topics” and I’m glad to have her. She’s still not the first person I’d tell things – but we got to a point where I feel like I can tell her things without her judging me anymore. But you have to set boundaries with your parents, too. Otherwise it won’t work.

    I also just wanted to add something someone once told me, and something that also stuck in my mind, is that our parents didn’t have it better either! They were probably raised with even less affection and love. If you didn’t experience yourself, it’s hard to give it to someone else. So that also made me have more compassion towards my parents.

    Posted 7.20.21 Reply
  8. Allison wrote:

    Jean:

    Thanks for capturing my childhood and parenting journey in a single article. I was amazed at how affectionate my mom was when my kids were toddlers. She actually got on the floor and played with them. Unless I have a completely skewed memory, she never did such a thing with me and my brother. She’s constantly saying she loves them. Again, foreign. But I love seeing this in her.

    The part I actually struggle with, is that she is starting to Tiger-grandma my kids. I have to remind her that her job is to be grandmother and spoil them. My job is to parent.

    It’s needed a lot of reminders but at the end of the day, I am so thankful for my mom opening up to showing her love in a more direct manner with me and my kids.

    Posted 7.19.21 Reply
  9. Karin wrote:

    Thank you for starting this conversation–plan to read through all the replies that people took the time to leave. A lot of this resonates with me, as the child of immigrants who now appreciates the benefits gained, but also how I need to parent differently in order to have the relationship I desire with my children and still foster resilience, grit, and achievement in them. A couple of thoughts:
    1) Parenting is not “intuitive,” as my friend told me, but requires a LOT of reading up, reflection, self-analysis, and trial-and-error . . . there is intuition, but if one values intuition above all, one would be simplifying it too much
    2) There is great value in shared time and experiences: in our household, dinner is together most nights, with cooking, cleaning, and conversations where we connect with each other. Sometimes the connection is more like arguing, but there’s value too in airing disagreements and working through them. Some of my friends have taken week-long trips, one-on-one, with their child (a luxury for sure), but I can see how these longer experiences can build memories and connections
    3) As hard as it is, I know I have to let my kids make some mistakes (hard for any parent to do), but I compensate by overwhelming them with positive experiences and connections, so hopefully it balances out on the positive side.

    Anyway, I really appreciate your blog–it’s the only one I follow and I’ve been admiring all the thoughtful content for years!

    Posted 7.19.21 Reply
  10. Rochelle wrote:

    This post really resonated with me. My Asian mother now thinks I’m too strict with my kids (expecting manners and not allowing too much sugar), when she spanked me as a child lol. I do try to acknowledge when I’m wrong and take care to promote the development of them as people versus my image of them, but I wonder if the difference in upbringing will help or hurt them. My partner thinks I’m too soft on them and the lack of adversity will make them more dependent. Regardless, I’m trying my best to raise them as best I can. I think as parents if we’re always trying to learn and better ourselves and our methods we will do alright.

    Posted 7.19.21 Reply
  11. Sarah wrote:

    You write with such beautiful authenticity. Your posts about childbirth and early parenthood really helped me know better what to truly expect before my son was born. Thank you for thoughtfully sharing your story. Based on the vulnerability you show in your writing, I imagine you are a very warm and loving mother and friend. That kind of self awareness and introspection makes you so approachable and relatable. Love your blog!

    Posted 7.19.21 Reply
  12. Lynn wrote:

    Oh my goodness, as I read your blog post and the reply from your supporters, I couldn’t help but feel such deep sadness. I thought that I was the only person in the world who grew up in a very strict and emotionally unavailable household where, I, too, was never told the words “I love you.” I was raised with the words, “children should be seen and not heard.” Subsequently, I never learned to ask for anything in life. I felt like just an object. One day, however, I realized that my real purpose in life was to become the family change maker. I have 3 adult grown children and two grand babies. We live quite a distance apart but when we chat on the phone to do FaceTime, I ALWAYS sign off with 3 simple words. “I love you!” And they ALWAYS say it back. How lucky am I that I figured out my real purpose in life! Stay the course to all of you!

    Posted 7.19.21 Reply
  13. Kathy wrote:

    It was an interesting post. You never know what someone else’s life was like growing up until they share it with you. While reading the post, I wondered why/what made your mom change from when she raised you. I also noticed how you’ve spoken to Nori in several stories (continual demands in what she should/should not do) and wondered why so strict but now it makes sense. We learn from our parents how to parent. We take the good, the not so good, and come up with our own parenting style. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted 7.19.21 Reply

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