BOOK REVIEW Untigering by Iris Chen

Motherhood was ruining my straight-A reputation.

When I ‘met’ Iris Chen for my podcast earlier this year, I half jokingly sang to her that she was “strumming my pain with her fingers, singing my pain with her words…” I knew of her from her website and her Facebook Community. I then joined the private Untigering Parenting Group. As I got to know her work better, I realized I had to interview her and hear her talk about her journey (and I did). Imagine my surprise and delight when she told me that she had a book coming out!

It would be easy to assume that the reason I loved this book so much is because every single word Iris Chen wrote about her deconstructing journey paralleled mine. Iris does not claim to be an expert on parenting. She calls this a journey. You’ll notice that she says UntigerING, as in it is a continuous effort. She doesn’t claim to know how to do it right all the time. She encourages everyone to remember that we aren’t aiming for perfect. She reminds us that we are human, but that how we choose to parent has a huge impact on the health and happiness of our children. We can unlearn, unprogram, and give unconditional love to our children regardless of their achievements. And ironically, if we don’t try to coerce them using fear and control tactics, they can gain the agency to make great decisions that are suitable for them… which leads to more success, as defined by them.

There’s no need to feel shame or frustration at an impossible ideal. We will fail. We won’t always live up to our principles. But we can continue to grow and move in the direction of our vision. There is no other choice for those of us to seek to parent without oppression. We must do the work.

Most parenting books are written by white men and women. Mommy bloggers are primarily American stay-at-home moms or momtrepreneurs. In all my years of studying at the University of Google Parenting, I never came across someone who had a similar experience as mine. This vacuum of Asian parenting support means that most of us get our parenting advice from white experts. Some of their advice and research is invaluable, but a lot of it doesn’t work in the context of our Confucian/Asian backgrounds. Iris Chen’s Untigering voice is a beautiful and thoughtful response to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua). Tiger parenting was idealized in that book where the stereotypical Chinese parenting approach was shown to produce top notch academic and career results. But, at what cost? Untigering highlights a different journey that many of us have been on, with varying levels of success, prioritizing the respect our children deserve and would not normally receive based on the way we were raised.

What is particularly powerful is that balance she takes between being a strong advocate for this approach and being non-judgmental about it. Frankly, that’s not easy to achieve. You know how woke scolds can be particularly harsh critics. But Iris (woke, but not a woke scold) writes as though she’s a big sister, who went through adolescence earlier, and she’s giving you some heartfelt advice that you can tell will help make your trip through that stage much easier. At least that’s how the first half reads, as she helps us understand that we don’t have to be a product of our environment. There is not some perfect score to strive for, so much as a set of values to lean into, like: unconditional acceptance of our children’s individuality, unpacking our own trauma and the impact on our parenting, connection over achievements, honouring the uniqueness of your children and family situation, and much much more. She provides practical suggestions with lots of room to tailor it to our own family situation. Her stories are vulnerable, relatable, familiar, and eye opening.

She doesn’t stop at what parents can do to make the home a safer place; she reminds us that we do not live in a vacuum and that the world, our society is the ecosystem we exist in and there are threats to our safety. The second half of the book gets super interesting, and, while totally unexpected (to me), makes completely sense. Her brilliant analysis on the myth and paradox of meritocracy (which has the opposite of its intended effect) points out that it’s never fair, but we keep pretending it is. We keep pretending that our achievements are only based on our hard work and expertise. She asks us to really understand the systems that are set up for ‘us to fight for the crumbs’. We are playing in a rigged system that favours those at the top and she wants us to change it. Not just for our children, but for the children of others who have had systemic barriers in their way, often for generations.

It’s a call to arms — to decolonize education and question the stories of white supremacy. Radical and poignant, Untigering is a must read for any “model immigrant” parent who is raising a child differently than the Tigering way.

Many Chinese immigrants accept racism and condescension as part and parcel of the immigrant experience. There’s no use complaining about it. Instead, beat them at their own game. Outperform. Outshine. Outlast. But in doing so, we often end up tolerating injustice and becoming complicit in perpetuating oppression. We’re not interested in dismantling these systems; only in gaming them.

I got so caught up with the initial Untigering concept that I almost missed the second half of the real message, that Untigering isn’t just about a parent changing the way they treat their child, but rather how they look at the society as a whole: the injustices and systemic issues that cause trauma for specific populations. It is deconstructing a white supremacy structure, decolonizing what competitions we sign up for as human beings. Do we compete and win at the expense of others less privileged, hiding behind the myth of meritocracy? Or we collaborate and work together as a community to support those who need it so that we can thrive as a whole?

[Untiger] is the process of unlearning and dismantling tiger parenting so that we can practice peaceful parenting. It requires us to look back and address our childhood wounds, consider the present and what cycles need to be broken, and look ahead for how we hope to change the narrative for our children. It calls for us to question societal and cultural norms that are rooted in trauma and oppression so that generations after us can walk in greater freedom.

Iris asks a lot of us. It’s not easy to do. But during and after reading her book, I am left with a burning desire to first re-examine how I parent my children and second invest in how we all parent the less privileged children in our society.

When you are at the beginning of the Untigering journey, really, you’re just wondering, hey, is this critical, yelly thing how I want to treat my kid? But she goes way beyond that. She asks us to look at our environment and what we are doing to make it better, not just for our children, but for the children of others. As a parent, I don’t think I will ever stop wondering how I can make things better for my children, that is to say, give them more privilege so that they can succeed in a competitive world. But Iris wants us to think about the rules we are playing by, the stories we are told and tell ourselves, as well as the actions we can be taking to make the world a better place. No — the actions we SHOULD be taking to make the world a better place.

5 out of 5 stars. A phenomenal read. Inspirational.