Study: The Tiger Mother Phenomenon May Explain Why Asian Students Do Better

Sumatran tiger Jumilah with one of her cubs at Taronga Zoo. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Why do Asian students do better at school than others? American scientists asked the question and came up with an unsurprising answer: some work harder than others.

The better question was: Why do they work harder?

And the researchers found that parental expectations, or the so-called Tiger Mother phenomenon, might be one aspect which helps explain Asian Americans’ relatively greater academic effort.

The study found that work ethic, not cognitive ability or brain power, was a key to the ethnic differences.

However, Asian Americans were less inclined to have positive self-images. They spent less time with friends and faced more conflict with parents compared with their white peers.

According to US research, most children enter school level with their peers but by Grade 5, Asian Americans significantly outperform whites. The gap peaks in 10th grade.

That superior academic attainment compared with that of white peers has been variously proposed to stem from family demographics, superior cognitive skills and sustained academic effort.

Assistant Professor Amy Hsin of Queen’s College, City University of New York, and Professor Yu Xie analysed data from two national surveys, one with 1,368 whites and 244 Asians and the other with 2,878 whites and 745 Asians.

Using a combination of measures, the authors report the Asian Americans’ educational advantages relative to whites could be correlated with academic effort but not cognitive ability.

Parental expectations, cultural emphasis on effort over ability and immigration status (defined by whether the student and mother were foreign-born) might explain Asian Americans’ relatively greater academic effort, the authors suggest.

The Tiger Mother theory became popular with the publication of the memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by American Amy L. Chua, who set out to write about how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones.

The study, “Explaining Asian Americans’ academic advantage over whites”, is published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

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