'Tiger moms' stereotype doesn't hold up, new study says

Published: Friday, May 10 2013 2:42 p.m. MDT

When Yale professor Amy Chua wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior" and then followed it with a book called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," she launched a debate about what's involved in raising high-achieving kids. Now, a study says folks who focus their kids solely on studies and music don't always end up with children who outperform those who have less regimented lives.

Instead, it suggests that what we'll call "tiger cubs" had lower grades, more emotional troubles and were often estranged from their families compared to kids of parents categorized as “supportive” and “easygoing.”

Su Yeong Kim, an associate professor at the University of Texas, decided to compare Chua's beliefs about her parenting choices with data. The result is a study in the Asian American Journal of Psychology. The researchers noted four parenting styles: supportive, tiger, easygoing and harsh parenting. "Over time, the percentage of parents classified as tiger parents decreased among mothers but increased among fathers," it said.

Paul Tullis of Slate summarizes Chua's provocative writing this way: "Chua’s book was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek memoir of her experiences raising her two daughters with her (non-Asian) husband, which involved hours of forced music practice every day, severe restrictions on extracurriculars, outright bans on social activities like sleepovers, and punishment and shaming on the rare occasions her children failed to attain their mother’s high expectations. Chua eased off as her kids grew older, and she admitted that she might have been wrong in some instances. (Mainstream media coverage portrayals were somewhat less nuanced). Nonetheless, the story of a Yale-professor mother who had pushed her child until she landed at Carnegie Hall seemed to confirm that Asian-American parents are tough, demanding — and they consistently produce whizzes."

Tullis pointed out that since the 1960s, academics have separated parenting styles into three categories, or “profiles”: permissive, authoritative and authoritarian. Researcher Kim didn't believe any of those styles quite captured how she'd grown up with her own childhood. She told him that “whenever scholars compare European-American and Asian-American families,” parents among the latter “almost always score higher on controlling and lower on warmth, which means they’re more likely to be classified as authoritarian.” Yet, their kids were outperforming whites in school. This gave rise to the “achievement/adjustment paradox,” in which kids do well by external measures but feel torn apart inside.

Kim created a broader parenting model that she felt fit reality more completely. According to Susan Adams of Forbes, "Kim expanded on the categories, coming up with profiles that more closely matched what she knew about East Asian families. She started with eight different parenting attributes, four positive and four negative, including one she says is prevalent in Asian-American homes while not widespread among white families — shaming, where parents point out how their kids are failing to behave as well as other more successful children.

"The other attributes included positives like warmth; inductive reasoning, where parents explain the reasons for their rules; and monitoring, where parents track their kids’ whereabouts away from home. Negative attributes besides shaming included hostility and punishing without explanation."

Instead of affirming Chua's thoughts, Kim's research found that "the supportive parenting profile, which was the most common, was associated with the best developmental outcomes, followed by easygoing parenting, tiger parenting and harsh parenting. Compared with the supportive parenting profile, a tiger parenting profile was associated with lower GPA and educational attainment, as well as less of a sense of family obligation; it was also associated with more academic pressure, more depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of alienation. The current study suggests that, contrary to the common perception, tiger parenting is not the most typical parenting profile in Chinese-American families, nor does it lead to optimal adjustment among Chinese-American adolescents."

Kim told Forbes that the results surprised her because, as Adams wrote, "the idea that Asian-American parents fit the tiger mold has become so pervasive following Chua’s book, not just among the general public but in the academy as well." “Tiger parenting has become the most common profile,” Kim told Forbes. “Our study shows a different result.”

Livescience reporter Stephanie Pappas wrote in January that the disagreements over Euro and Asian parenting styles may not be as contradictory as they appear. What matters, she said, is what the child takes from it and the difference there may be cultural.

"Both high-intensity tiger moms and low-key Western moms may have the right idea, depending on what their cultures expect from parenting," she wrote.

"The European parents, they provide their children wings so their child can fly away and be free on their own," Alyssa Fu, a doctoral student at Stanford, said. "The Asian-American parents are more like the wind that is beneath the wings of their child, because they're always there, supporting the child, letting the child fly and reach success."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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