Iris Chen is ‘Untigering’ the Tiger Parent

Write Quin Scott talks with the author and parenting coach about unlearning the ways of our parents for the benefit of a new generation

Iris Chen with her family

Courtesy of Iris Chen

Words by Quin Scott

When I spoke with Iris Chen, I was struck by how her work falls so organically into alignment. The span of her work can seem sprawling—her LinkedIn profile describes her as a “founder of Untigering movement, author, and certified parent coach” and “advocate for peaceful parenting, unschooling, and anti-oppression”—but when she describes her journey of healing from tiger parenting, you can see how her work grows from the same roots. Chen’s site describes tiger parenting as having “roots in authoritarianism, domination, fear, and trauma,” whereas untigering is a “global movement of cycle breakers who are committed to the practice of peaceful parenting and self-directed education.” As she says, “These values just spread into the way I tried to relate with everybody around me.”

As she shares her learning and experiences as a parent and advocate, Chen opens up beautiful possibilities for new ways of being in our families, schools, and communities. I sat down with her to talk about untigering, unschooling, and being in relationship for collective liberation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A photo of a woman with long black hair from the bust up.

Iris Chen

Courtesy of Iris Chen

QS: How did you arrive at your work on untigering?
IC: I had a pretty typical second-generation Chinese American upbringing, where my parents came here to study and got jobs, and they expected us to get good grades, fall in line, obey, not talk back, get good jobs, marry, and have families, all of those things. 

When I started having kids of my own, I realized I still had those expectations of my children in some ways. My oldest child would have epic meltdowns and I didn't know how to control him. And I realized later on that I was trying to control him. 

A big turning point for me was when I went to a parenting workshop, and the speaker was talking to us about the neurobiology of children, and what is going on in our children's brains when we threaten them, yell at them, spank them, come at them with control. The thinking part of their brains shut down, and this survival part of their brains overreacts, and that's why they're melting down. They can’t just calm themselves down and be in control, so that was a really big “aha” moment for me. 

Biologically, I had these expectations of my children that they were unable to meet. My expectations were really unfair, and I needed to really re-evaluate all the things that I had been doing.

QS: When you recognized that you had unfair expectations for your children, did you also have a feeling that you were placing unfair expectations on yourself?
IC: I think whenever you do the work of healing your relationship with your children, a lot of that has to do with healing your relationship with yourself and your inner child. In many ways, the tiger parenting way that I had been parenting was about reinforcing the lie that it was okay for me to be parented like that as a child.

A family of 4 stands in front of a waterfall, smiling at the camera. A young boy has his hand raised in a thumbs up.

Parenting is a continuous journey for Iris Chen.

Courtesy of Iris Chen

QS: As you’ve re-evaluated your approach to your relationships with your children and yourself, how has that changed your relationships with others around you, such as your partner and your parents?
IC: It's very integrated, because once you change your thinking about what the definition of love is, then you see it playing out in all your relationships.

My natural bent is to be perfectionistic, to have really high standards for myself and for other people. So this definitely played out not just with my children, but with my partner. Through this process, I was really challenged to accept him unconditionally instead of trying to make him who I wanted him to be. 

My relationship with my parents is by no means perfect, but I think part of it for me, again, is that unconditional love and acceptance that I want to extend to them instead of another standard that I have for them. I can hold them as their own people and navigate those boundaries and those differences, instead of feeling that enmeshment where we have to be the same and totally aligned in order for us to be in relationship.

In parenting, I'm looking beyond the behavior. Like, “Okay, my child threw a toy. Am I just going to remove the toy, send him to his room, spank him, punish him?”...I’m going to think, “What is the need underneath the behavior?”

QS: How do you see those values in a broader social context? One reason I was drawn to your content is that you post about parenting, but also about important social issues. How do you see that in alignment with your work on parenting and relationships?
IC: I've always been a very justice-minded person, and maybe in the past that came out in unhealthy ways in terms of wanting to be right and stuff like that. Nowadays, I want to ground that in love and in liberation. And I feel like when these are the things that we want for ourselves and our kids, then we have to want it for other people. 

For example, in parenting, I'm looking beyond the behavior. I'm not just looking at the behavior and punishing or trying to manage the behavior. Like, “Okay, my child threw a toy. Am I just going to remove the toy, send him to his room, spank him, punish him?” Through the parenting lens, I’m going to think, “What is the need underneath the behavior?” When I dig deeper into that need, then I can validate that need, and I can guide him towards healthier ways to express that need. 

So in the social context, if we just see behavior, like people committing crimes, in a very punitive way, and say, “You did this, therefore, we need to incarcerate you,” that doesn't actually help to solve the problem. That doesn't create more connection or more health in this society.

QS: When you look back at your trajectory in this work, at what point did you recognize that you wanted to share what you were doing beyond just you and your family?
IC: I think it started out because I've always wanted to be a writer, but I was scared to put myself out there. I knew that something was happening within me and within my family, and I wanted to write about it, especially within the Asian context. I didn't have all the answers. In some ways, that's the best stage to write from. I started a blog, and it was really me just wanting to share this transformation that I was seeing in my own life. 

It was also because we were starting to unschool and I knew that was also very countercultural not only to mainstream American culture, but very much so to Chinese American or Asian American culture. I wanted to talk about our choices, our struggles or challenges through that process, especially from an Asian American lens.

A woman with long black hair stands in front of a lectern. Behind her is a big screen that reads "Redefining Success."

Iris Chen aims to empower families to break out of traditional cycles.

Courtesy of Iris Chen

QS: You have a platform with a big following at this point. Does that feel like a different kind of responsibility or pressure than when you were starting out?
IC: Yeah, I mean sometimes I’m just like, “I didn't ask for this.” And then at the same time, I know that I can't put my identity in things like follower counts, because that's what gets us in trouble. Like recently with what's going on in Palestine, I lost a ton of followers because of where I’ve taken a stand on certain things. How am I going to use whatever social capital I have, the influence that I have, to really speak whatever truth is on my heart and be aligned?

That's something really important to me. I don't actually see my responsibility to my followers. I see it as more of a responsibility to myself, if that makes sense.

QS: Yeah, that sounds good.
IC: Responsible to myself and my own conscience. And my own values and my own alignment. And if I am violating that in order to appease my audience, in order to gain more people who agree with me, then that feels disconnected with why I'm doing this. 

QS: Let's talk a little bit about unschooling. How did you come to that, and how does it connect with untigering?
IC: When we were living in China, we were foreigners, even though we're Chinese, so our children couldn't attend the local schools because they just had too many kids. And so our educational options were sort of limited. It just came to the point when we were running out of options and pretty much the only thing left that I could do was homeschool full time. 

It was at another parenting workshop where this guy just randomly mentioned that he was an unschooler, and he and his children did self-directed education where they don't come in as the adults with a set curriculum or any arbitrary standards that a child needs to learn. They follow the child's lead, and they see what the child is interested in. They empower and support the child. 

It sounded interesting, so I did more research on it. It was just very much aligned with early childhood development, with the idea of play as learning and what true learning is. Everything really just made sense to me. We jumped in and it was very open ended, and we saw how life evolved through this sense of freedom and agency. 

QS: How has the unschooling journey been for your kids?
IC: It's been so transformative. Sometimes we think of unschooling as just this way of educating children, but for us, it's been really a whole lifestyle change because so much of our lives is actually framed around school. For families, once you have children at school, that sort of defines your rhythm of life, right? When you wake up in the morning, what you do on the weekends, when your holidays are. Once you have that out of the picture, there's actually so much out there. You can really attune to yourself and your needs, and to the environment and to the seasons and all these things that are not these man-made arbitrary systems. 

A family of 4 and their cat lie on a bed, smiling at the camera.

Iris Chen's work extends beyond helping just her family.

Courtesy of Iris Chen

QS: I’m curious if you have a vision for what an unschooled community would look like. Like you said, the school system is so central to life for families who are in it. What are the sorts of shifts that would happen to unschool on a larger scale?
IC: I think a lot of it has to do with empowering people to be attuned to themselves within a community. There are systems that we are a part of that don't allow that, that actually tell us to ignore how we feel, ignore our emotions, push through, and do things by a certain date instead of following our own rhythms. So I think part of it is having our eyes open to the reality of these systems.

And a lot of it is the freedom to be fully yourselves. But I think the whole thing about collective liberation is that I don't want to have the freedom to be myself but then not give you the freedom to be yourself. How can we learn to do this in community? 

My hope is to help families dream outside of the system right now. There are a lot of resources so that people can begin imagining what life could look like outside of the school system.

QS: What are you working on? What's next for you and your work?
IC: I'm working on a second book about unschooling specifically. And specifically from an Asian American perspective, because some people think, “Oh, homeschooling is very white, unschooling even more so.” I want to bring a different perspective into that 

In terms of what else is on the horizon, I'm approaching it in a very unschooling way where I don't have any set goals for this year, especially with everything that's happening in the world. I'm just trying to be present, trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what's happening in the world and within myself.

Published on February 21, 2024

Words by Quin Scott

Quin Scott is a writer, painter, and educator in the Pacific Northwest. They like reading, running, and making jokes with their friends.