When Yale Law Professor and mother of two, Amy Chua, released her parenting memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” last year, she triggered a lively debate about cultural differences in parenting norms. The book suggested that a tough, demanding parenting style — supposedly typical of Asian “tiger mums” — was a sure-fire way to create superstar children.
Following more than 400 Asian American families for 8 years, Kim assessed the parenting of mothers and fathers on four positive and four negative aspects, and tracked how these profiles affected the development of children. Her results reveal that children of parents classified as “tiger” show lower academic achievement and greater psychological maladjustment than the children of parents characterised as “supportive” or “easygoing”.
Dr. Kim says the finding has the potential to break stereotypes.
“The stereotype is that all Asian American families have tiger parents, which was reinforced by Amy Chua’s book,” Kim says. “Yet we’re finding that the largest group of Asian American families would actually be classified as supportive parents rather than tiger or harsh parents.”
The majority of parents in the study hailed from Hong Kong or southern China, with relatively low educational attainment and median income between $30,000-$45,000. This lies significantly below the national average Asian American household income of $66,000. Some critics say this makes the study’s findings less applicable to the general Asian population.
Jeff Yang, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal who has written about both Chua and Keltner’s books, interpreted and critiqued the research.
“The lower median income of the study sample can explain why “tiger” parenting was ineffective in the study,” says Yang. “However, the study can’t explain why so many Asian Americans are over-represented in the Ivy Leagues and conservatives.”
His argument is that high-achieving Asian Americans typically hail from higher-income families. As such, working class families in the study aren’t able to spend time working with their children after hours to ensure academic achievement. Kim’s response is that she statistically controlled for parental educational level and socioeconomic status, with 30 per cent of the study’s families making more than $60,000 a year. By high school, the children in the study with supportive parents had mean GPAs of 3.4, compared to a GPA of 3.0 for those with tiger parents.
“Our findings demonstrate that regardless of socioeconomic status, “tiger” parenting is not effective,” says Kim.
Other interpretations say the study supports a pro-Western style of parenting, which Kim vehemently denies.
While Kim did find that the “supportive” Chinese immigrant parents employed many of the same parenting techniques as traditional American parents, like parental monitoring, warmth, reasoning, and democratic parenting, there was one characteristic unique to only Chinese parents: shaming.
Both Chua and Keltner mention shaming in their memoirs; it’s the constant feeling that children are letting parents down and not living up to the ideals their parents sacrificed for.
“Shaming is a very prominent parenting strategy among all Chinese Americans … even among the supportive parents, we do see some levels of shaming that would probably not be as apparent among European Americans,” says Kim.
So should Western parents start making their children feel guilty for not getting into Harvard?
Not quite, says Kim. “One key difference between Western and Asian-style parenting is that children of Asians often internalize the success of the parental sacrifice that their immigrant parents have made,” says Kim. “This is why the shaming socialisation method works better in enabling Asian children to do better in school. It wouldn’t have the same effect on others.“
Indeed, the drive for children to succeed, at least academically, seems very much ingrained in the cultural constructs of the Asian heritage.
A recently updated version of a 2012 Pew Research Study on “The Rise of Asian Americans” highlights the Asian American belief in hard work. In the survey of more than 3,500 Asian adults living in the US, almost 70 per cent said people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard, compared to 58 per cent of the American public as a whole. 90 three per cent of Asian Americans describe members of their country of origin group as “very hardworking”; just 57% say the same about Americans as a whole.
“In Asian American families, being a good mother is equated with having children who perform well academically,” says Kim. “Mothering and having school success with your child is an important parenting strategy among Asian Americans.”
Past research from Vivian Louie in her 2006 book “Compelled to Excel” verifies that the premium placed on academic excellence is a product of culture, not socioeconomic status. Louie’s book uses low-income parents in New York City’s Chinatown as an example; parents are constantly networking with each other to get information on how to get their children into the best schools.
Yet there remains no easy answer for how to raise a successful child.
“The types of parenting measures and the nuances that help Asian Americans kids do better do not necessarily transport easily to European families because of different cultural constructs,” says Kim.
Regardless of cultural difference, Kim’s study indicates that certain “tiger” parenting techniques, such as yelling, blaming, and bringing up past mistakes, should be avoided to prevent negative outcomes (ie. lower academic achievement and greater psychological maladjustment). Positive parenting qualities — warmth, monitoring of activities, allowing independence when appropriate, and enjoying a good laugh — meanwhile, should be encouraged. Less growling and more play may, in fact, produce the healthiest cubs.
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