Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Indian Tiger Parenting

Indian Tiger Parenting

July 24, 2012

The ongoing search for the elusive ideal parenting style.

When the controversy raged last year over “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” many an NRI saw her parents or herself reflected in the description. Amy Chua asserts that children of “Chinese parents” are not allowed to, “choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama.” One could practically hear a worldwide chorus of Indians shouting, “Hey, that describes Indian parenting precisely!”

Indeed, many Indian kids can attest to parental pressure to succeed. Some were told at a very young age what after-school activities they would participate in, which university they were going to attend, and what career path they would pursue years down the road. “Good” Indian kids get As in all classes, even a B+ is jokingly, even endearingly nicknamed an “Indian fail.” NRI kids often choose to comply rather than suffer the wrath and consequences from their parents.

With the “brain drain” partly to blame, NRIs are arguably one of the most successful immigrant groups in the west. Indian-Americans have the highest median household income in the US according to 2010 census data. They are far more likely to be doctors or engineers, and are more educated than their counterparts. Based on this snapshot, many NRIs declare that Tiger Parenting is working out perfectly for the community. It is undeniable that certain types of kids thrive with this type of upbringing. Nonetheless, there are a growing number of Indian parents within and outside India who question the wisdom of pushing children to succeed at all costs.

Many an NRI has enjoyed the heartwarming and hilarious film, “3 Idiots,” or the Tamil version of the same, “Nanban.” The three main characters represent three stereotypes of Indian students. The first struggles to fulfill his father’s wishes that he become an engineer, all the while dreaming of becoming a photographer. The second of the three friends strives to become an engineer to release his family from the grips of poverty. The third pursues engineering simply because of his love and passion for the field.

One controversial stereotype in the film is the student who commits suicide. One student in the film commits suicide when he is rejected from the engineering school of his father’s dreams, another hangs himself when his engineering project is a failure. Yet another attempts suicide when threatened with failure, afraid to disappoint his family. Suicide is now a leading cause of death among Indian youth. Some may scoff, saying that parental pressure rarely leads to suicide, and often leads to its intended goal of success. I am inclined to agree, there is clear value to Indian tiger parenting. Widespread financial wellbeing, academic achievement, and respectable careers in any given community are a commendable and impressive collective feat, to say the least. Yet, there are also downfalls from this sort of pressure applied from a young age, downfalls that are unquantifiable in comparison with the benefits.

A question that must be posed but is rarely considered is, can NRIs as a group equate academic prowess, money, and career accomplishments with success? My (non-Indian) husband and I have noted that NRIs and Indians tend to derive their sense of self with education and/or career achievements. When being introduced to a non-Indian, one might hear, “This is my daughter Wendy.” Details about Wendy would come up in later conversation, while getting to know her better. When an Indian introduces his son, he might say, “This is my son Kumar, he is doing his undergrad in X, and is going to pursue Y after that.” It’s almost as if this guy has prepared an elevator speech about his son, reciting it to anyone and everyone in earshot. While these details about Kumar are important and meaningful, why do they need to be stated during the introduction? It reduces Kumar as a person to little more than his career pursuits prior to even getting a chance to know him. Of course this description of Kumar’s father is a caricature. Nevertheless, while most NRIs may not even realize how often this happens, pay attention and you will likely see the truth behind it.

One may wonder about “Kumar’s” childhood and how it affected his future sense of self. Unmistakably, there are many Indian IT professionals, doctors, and engineers who truly love their field, and pursue it of their own accord. Yet we all know that many other Indians are compelled to achieve their parents’ wishes while suppressing personal dreams and desires, like Farhan from 3 Idiots.

What happens to these kids’ feelings of self-competence and self-motivation? Children become confused as to whether their aspirations are due to their own drive, or due to parents’ desire and urging. With parents making most decisions for their kids up until adulthood, they find it daunting to navigate the world on their own. When children are forced only to obey and master whatever skills are required for admission to the best universities, they may end up lacking creativity and resourcefulness. They become adept at working hard and following rules, but may not possess leadership skills or the ability to think outside the box. Moreover, some NRI children pushed too hard, like Amy Chua’s daughter Lulu, may act out in rebellion. Although some children excel when pressured by their parents, others reach a breaking point and refuse to comply.

Additionally, the Kumars out there who are repeatedly equated to their accomplishments may subconsciously begin to feel reduced to nothing more than those labels. While this rarely leads to suicide, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and a clouded sense of self. As adults, many successful NRIs struggle with an intangible and elusive feeling of regret and emptiness. Some may not even realize the source of their dissatisfaction. After all, they have been taught from childhood that theirs is an enviable lot in life. Status and prestige are so very coveted by NRIs, and often act as blinders to what else is truly meaningful.

Some NRIs, including myself and some I know, have observed these phenomena. As a result, attitudes are already beginning to change. Increasingly, NRI parents leave many day-to-day decisions and problem solving up to their young children to help ensure their future independence and confidence. They encourage children to pursue their own interests and hobbies to encourage a sense of autonomy. Although they drive their children to succeed, these parents keep a careful gauge of their children’s psyches, to avoid pushing too hard.

That being said, I do not purport to condemn the Indian values of hard work, education, and achievement. It is a known fact that American children are falling behind when it comes to education. This is a multi-faceted problem, and along with the American education system, overly lax American parents are partly to blame. Indian students are drilled in learning how to memorize, and arguably lack creativity and communication, leadership, and real-world skills. On the other hand, American kids are indulged, their parents fearing damage to their child’s self-esteem. While some argue that India produces a glut of engineers, the US suffers a dearth of the same. Although Indian Tiger Parents may be too tough on their kids, it’s quite likely that their American counterparts are not nearly tough enough. It is evident that the ideal parenting style is a happy medium between the two extremes. However, reaching this happy medium is easier said than done.

Amy Chua asserts that Chinese parents assume strength, and not weakness in their children, and accordingly accept nothing but success. I wholeheartedly agree with this notion. As NRI parents, we should continue to expect the best from our children. However, we need to impart that success is also living a happy life, being a kind person, embracing beauty, and appreciating the blessings we have. We should expect our offspring to excel in their pursuits, even put some pressure on them. We must provide a firm structure, and simultaneously be a soft and loving place to fall.

Furthermore, I want to stress that this piece does not at all claim to provide an all-encompassing view of NRI parenting. With all the points I raise, I don’t contend that NRI Tiger Parents don’t love their children as much as any other parents. If anything, I wish to become part of the voice in the collective NRI head. I hope that this voice will be triggered when you’re introducing your son or daughter. If he has achieved laudable feats, let those be discovered while learning more about him as a well-rounded person. 


  • Sunitha
    18.03.15 08:36 PM
    Can I first of all express my heartfelt praise for the the style of writing of the author and also more importantly the content. Being an NRI myself,I would like to add that culturally, we are very hardworking and have grown up with the inherent belief that academic success is paramount in doing well later on in life. But personally, I have grown to believe that an overall rounded personality is what helps in later life. So apart from pushing our children to do well in studies,it's important to let them blossom into independent and happy individuals.
  • Rajpriya
    01.12.12 09:25 AM

    Your story reminds me of (Eddie Murphy) Queens’s Song,
    “Mm ba ba de
    Um bum ba de
    Um bu bu bum da de
    Pressure pushing down on me
    Pressing down on you no man ask for
    Under pressure - that burns a building down
    Splits a family in two
    Puts people on streets”

    Have a great future without pressure Dude.

    Another story hitting headlines today.

    Indian couple arrested in Norway for disciplining child, alleges their family.

    Are fundamental rights of Indians being denied in Norway? Indian consulate is planning to help them out.

    Old Habits Die-Hard.
  • SinSog
    01.12.12 12:23 AM
    I randomly stumbled across this article while reading Indian news sites but

    You guys actually have no idea how the situation is within India , i am 24 and i have just managed to get out of there and i now see the light.
    I was pressured to come first in every aspect of my life and i somehow managed to fail every one of them , I never got good marks in exams , never vould do very very well in sports but this all changed when i somehow i got into a college with a hostel back in india , i guarantee it was not an iit but there i learnt that i was actually smart and i did not need to constantly stuck in a depressed state being compared to my peers and always made fun off by my parents . Hell have u guys even taken a look at the iit jee entrance question papers , even a scientist who does serious research in the feild would be baffled by the questions there , and as for my parents i have no contact with them whatsoever . i don't even take their calls .

    Sure i know they love me but i kinda need someone to blame and i send them money to protect their hard investment but i have decided that i will never talk to them ever again in my life. As for kids i promise that they will not grow up contemplating suicide everyday like i did or i will not have kids at all .
  • Ginu George
    Ginu George
    29.07.12 03:35 PM
    Oh my! I have experienced this growing issue over parenting pressure here in India. I guess it had to be experienced by some NRIs too. To all those who feel this "Tiger Parenting" is a bane to society's wards, I recommend watching the highly controversial "2 Million Minutes" video. Stature and Success are the highest ideals every human being should aspire to. This aspiration has driven individuals since time immemorial. While monarchies are passe, bettering one's position and status with a view of a better legacy for one's progeny is a noble ideal. Personally, I would choose tigers and dragons over lions and bald eagles any day. Now let me go and pressurise my nephews and nieces to seek those ever elusive A's.
  • anna
    27.07.12 11:49 AM
    I still dont understand why amy chua is brought up constantly in child raising debate. She never wrote a book on how to make kids get grades but as she herself said,she wrote a satire. The books hilarious at some times and I think thats something alot of these yes I am a tiger mommie or daddie people dont get. As for education systems,the US has particularly inconsistent country wide education forms, where having good grades can simply be turning up for class and elsewhere you need to put in effort to recieve a good grade. But in India as well there seems to be a widening gap between public schools and private schools. Looks like both countries need to overhaul their education system
  • Rajpriya
    26.07.12 09:55 AM

    The picture with your article says it all. The most appropriate for this article that adds so much honest humor to a serious subject of a Happy Tiger = Happy Papas & Mamas. I cannot stop smiling looking at the smile of the Tiger on that picture. Being in the advertising trade we make great efforts to give meaning to a subject we need to advertise and it is always not that easy.

    I think we could effectively use your talent. We send you the subject you send us the pix that gives more meaning than words?

    The world is so competitive today one needs to get to the top and to stay there is harder than getting there. NRI parents stuck with their Indian ways of thinking have put to up with children born and bred abroad. It is not easy to make child born abroad to think Indian but it is easier if NRI parents change their approach.

    In the first place let a child have a proper childhood, then talk to them the importance of being the best for survival in a competitive world. Help them set goals and help them achieve with willingness and pleasure.

    It’s a well-known fact that Chinese are on top of the world when it comes playing Table Tennis but little known is the fact how come they are? The true name of the game is Ping Pong. Most us also know that telling one to say you are playing Ping Pong while playing Table Tennis really means tossing the ball high all the time and meant as an insult.

    So the Chinese Trainers threw Darts at kids repeatedly and in quick succession to improve their reflexes. Many of the kids got hurt trying to stop the darts charging at them and as time went on practice made them perfect. Is it not good the perfect to way to perfection for Indian parents to follow to create your Tiger?

    So try throwing darts at your kid the Chinese way and repeatedly until they become your dream Tiger. No Pain, No Gain.
  • Hanu Karunya
    Hanu Karunya
    26.07.12 12:10 AM
    Great article :)

    Parents wanting best things for their kids is the most natural thing in the world and usually kids get the right push to achieve great things. But occasionally the biggest problem that arises is that parents don't understand they are making a mistake by pushing their kids too far and they don't realize this till its too late.

    Hope this article gets them to re-evaluate the amount of pressure they put on their kids.

    24.07.12 10:43 PM
    @ Kavin

    I don't think NRI parents are as hard as people think they are on their children. I have always have let my children do, what they wanted to do in terms of education.

    I will hold my hands up, that I do pressure my kids. They see me as a villain, and damn right I am one, and why shoudn't I be, bearing in mind that I do pay for their education and success and when they are successful they will thank me ( I hope ).

    I think you forgot to add one very important point to the whole equation. The wages and the benefit the kids earn after their success are only kept by them in west. So anything that the parents do, is done out of love and wanting best for their children and not for them.

    When a parent pays for all the education and the activities, what is wrong in wanting standard and value for your investment. This is same as paying for all the extras on your car and getting them, and I am sure you would not be happy, when you have ordered full saree and only ended up with 4 yards.

    So it is our parental right to be angry with our kids, when they short change us by not performing best to their ability and if they feel it's cruel, then so be it.

    My question to you is this, what is wrong in wanting best for your kids?
    When you have no personal gain from whole thing.

  • Ragnheidur Jonsdottir
    Ragnheidur Jonsdottir
    24.07.12 07:46 PM
    Great article Kavin.
    The happy medium has to be the road of choice, however the challenge each and every day lies in finding the happy medium.
    Go girl!
  • Jyoti Agarwal
    Jyoti Agarwal
    24.07.12 01:29 PM
    Very well said Kavin :-)

    Things are changing but from what I see around me, they are changing for the worst. Earlier parents use to push their children to be first in school. But now, they are pushing children beyond their capabilities to excel in every field they can think of. For example, one of my colleague's child barely of age 7-8, goes to school followed by painting class, which is followed by subsequent karate class and finally tuition classes for good academics. Putting too much pressure on a child that he/she forgets the meaning of childhood is CRUEL and should be stopped.
  • Deepa Duraisamy
    Deepa Duraisamy
    24.07.12 01:01 PM
    So very rightly said. I like how you have looked at the issue from so many different angles.

    There's a couple other factors too leading to Indian children ending up as engineers or doctors - because our system needs us to decide our track right from std XI - at an age when a kid would hardly know what he wants to do for the rest of his life and parents having the child's best interests and secure future at heart decide to enroll him/her in a course that fetches the maximum dividend or the most job opportunities. All done for the best. Its a whole different story that now a lot of engineers/doctors are moving to varied fields to pursue their dreams.

    But in the midst of all the pushing to achieve the best, I feel like the kid loses out in terms of personality development. I do feel things are improving - I know Indian parents who now want their kids to perform well and get some all round development rather than come 1st, but the number is still too low. I am not sure why there's so much parental pressure on being 1st though. Being in the top 10% or 20% should be good enough shouldn't it? After all those other kids after the 1st rank do end up with good jobs and good careers too? Don't they?
  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    24.07.12 12:00 PM
    Could not agree more! There is no denying that most kids (and adults!) need to be pushed in order to perform at their best. The problem is, however, that we also choose the direction in which we push and so not properly assess whether we are pushing them for performance far beyond their competence.

    As for assessing success based on what gets you the most money, I am afraid that it is Society as a whole that is to blame. We respect money, we do not respect character. So parents cannot be exclusively be blamed for not teaching other values.

    And, yes, a child should know that he has more facets to his personality than his SAT scores :)

Leave a comment