Amy Chua launched the phrase "Tiger Mother" into our cultural lexicon in 2011 to describe a harsh, demanding style of parenting Chua identified as being especially common among parents of Chinese ancestry. The term clearly stuck.
A few recent works focusing on the "Tiger parenting" idea caught our attention, and were the focus of a segment on Tuesday's Tell Me More. (You can hear the full segment above.) The first is a study in the March 2013 Asian American Journal of Psychology, called "Does 'Tiger Parenting' Exist?" Jeff Yang gave an overview of the study in his Tao Jones column this week:
As a doctoral student at the University of California at Davis, [Su Yeong] Kim decided to focus her research on parenting techniques of Asian American immigrants, and recruited over 400 Bay Area Chinese American households into a longitudinal research program — assessing the parenting of mothers and fathers on eight different dimensions, four positive and four negative, and tracking how these profiles evolved over the course of eight years, while also measuring the academic success and emotional health of their children.
The parents were ultimately divided into four categories. Those with low positive, high negative characteristics (essentially, cold and remote yet strict and controlling) were dubbed "Harsh"; those with high positive, low negative characteristics (warm, engaged and flexible) were dubbed "Supportive," and those with low positive and low negative (distant and laissez-faire) were dubbed "Easygoing."
Kim wasn't sure what to call the final category, who scored high on both positive and negative characteristics — until Amy Chua's 2011 book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" was released, unleashing the controversy that continues to this day. Kim realized that the high positive-high negative profile mapped closely to the "Tiger Parent" persona, and decided to give the quadrant that name.
"As we reviewed the data, we were really surprised at what we found," says Kim. "When we looked at mean GPA, the Supportive parents had kids that were substantially higher than any other group — including Tiger parents. In fact, by the end of our study, with the kids in high school, kids with Supportive parents had mean GPAs of 3.4, and kids with Tiger parents had 3.0. That's a huge gap."
In an interview on Tuesday with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Kim went into more detail about her interest in the phenomenon:
I got interested in this topic of Asian-American families mainly because of my own heritage. Because I'm Korean-American myself and when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California taking my psychology classes I noticed that there was a lack of mentioning of anything to do with Asian-Americans or even ethnic minorities in general. And so when I got to graduate school, I really wanted to study Asian-American families, because I wanted to make sure the experiences of Asian-Americans were actually being represented in these text books ...
When we started this study we obviously didn't know about this term "Tiger Parenting." But we always knew in the scholarly literature there has always been this perplexing finding that Asian-American parents when we compared them to European-American parents — they looked like authoritarian parents. Typically ... when that parenting style is used by European-Americans, we often find that children of those authoritarian parents often have low GPAs and also low socio-emotional health.
And so when we saw this book by Amy Chua we thought, wow, maybe the children who have these Tiger Moms will be the ones doing really well extraordinarily in terms of their academic outcomes. And perhaps in terms of their socio-emotional outcomes they may not be as healthy. But what really surprised us was that despite our hypothesis, the children of Tiger Parents are actually not doing well academically and also not doing well socio-emotionally either. So, even though Amy Chua sort of made us think that being a "Tiger Mom" or "Tiger Parent" would produce academic superstars, it actually didn't. The children who had what we would call "supportive parents" were the students who were doing the best in terms of their academic performance.
The study also suggests that "Tiger parenting" isn't the most common approach among Chinese-American parents.
"When you're raised in an Asian household and you're expected to get straight As, you're expected to do everything perfectly and there's no room for mistakes," said Keltner. "I think the parents might feel that they are spurring you on but what happens is you just feel spurned. And you learn to detach from them, and that's probably not what they wanted in the first place."
"My father was the disciplinarian," said Singla, herself a mother of two. "He was the one who pushed me to get straight As. If I ever got a B, it was just this level of shame in our home. But at the same time, I also believe they were a product of where they came from in India. I came to this country when I was 3. They didn't have the luxury of communicating with me at that time because they were fighting to get food on the table. ... Raising my children here, I have the luxury of being able to communicate more."
"I'm kind of this lab-grown hybrid of tiger and panda," said Yang. "I look back and the common thread is that parents do want ultimately what's best, what they think is what's best for their kids. It's just that from the perspective of many immigrants they feel strongly it should be first and foremost academic achievement and secondarily the soft and fuzzy stuff. My parents did set those high expectations but they were also very conscientious about telling us that they loved us. The one thing they used more than anything else, perhaps, was guilt and shame."
Of course, the study reminds us, parenting styles aren't necessarily fixed; they're likely to change over time. Parents may use different strategies in different scenarios (and with different kids, as any younger sibling might attest).
Beyond the main debate about the effectiveness of tiger parenting, another finding in the study drew our interest:
Despite the widely accepted notion of an "achievement/adjustment paradox" in Asian Americans, particularly in the children of tiger parents, the current study findings do not seem to support the existence of such a paradox. Regardless of the parenting profile, high academic achievement and high educational attainment are always accompanied by high levels of psychological adjustment, and low academic achievement and low educational attainment are accompanied by low levels of psychological adjustment. The widely agreed-upon paradox may be operative when comparing Asian American adolescents to their non-Asian peers, but within the current sample of Chinese American adolescents, levels of achievement and adjustment are found to go hand in hand.
If you've read the study, or picked up Kim Wong Keltner's book, share your thoughts with us in the comments.