Feature Article

What is “tiger” parenting? How does it affect children?

An examination of a parenting practice growing in popularity.

By Su Yeong Kim
Why all the fuss around "tiger parenting"?

As far as we know, the term “tiger parenting” did not exist until the publication of Amy Chua's (2011) book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother . Amy Chua, a Yale law professor with two daughters, writes about her Chinese heritage and the way in which it has influenced her parenting choices. Her daughters are not allowed to watch TV or play computer games, have sleepovers or play dates, or get any grade less than an A. Chua claims that these strict policies are the reason why her children have been so successful in school and in their music studies and argues that this type of parenting is common in Asian families.

People have had a strong reaction to her book. Chua's supporters believe that her parenting methods are justified by the extraordinary academic and musical successes of her two daughters. Chua's critics, on the other hand, feel that her parenting methods will not lead to optimal developmental outcomes in children. One concern is that the evidence presented in Chua's book is based on her personal experience and not on scientific research that can take into account the differences across families and the variety of possible outcomes. This is especially problematic when reinforcing stereotypes about groups, and when giving advice to mothers around the world.

Why is the study of Asian American parenting an important scholarly endeavor?

Asian American parenting started gaining scholarly attention with the landmark publication of Ruth Chao's (1994) paper in the journal Child Development , one of the leading journals for developmental psychology. Her study was one of the first to ask the question, “Why are Asian American children performing so well academically, given that their parents are more likely to be classified as authoritarian in parenting style?” This was an important issue to untangle, because authoritarian parenting, characterized as very strict or harsh without much warmth, often goes hand in-hand with poor academic outcomes in European American children. Also, research on Asian American children had begun to uncover an achievement/adjustment paradox: despite their academic success, these children had lower levels of socio-emotional health. Thus, it is crucial to be clear about what we mean when we talk about “successful outcomes” in children.

What have we learned tiger parenting?

Tiger parenting is a little different than authoritarian parenting in that tiger parenting includes high levels of negative parenting (e.g., strict rules) and high levels of positive parenting (e.g., warmth and support). Scholarly research on “tiger parenting” began after the publication of Amy Chua's book in which the concept of tiger parenting was introduced. In March 2013, the Asian American Journal of Psychology, one of the American Psychological Association's journals, published a collection of six empirical papers and two commentaries – using samples of Hmong, Chinese, and Korean American parents all aimed at testing the new theory of “tiger parenting.” The goal was to use scientific methods to test whether tiger parenting is a common parenting style in Asian families, and to test whether tiger parenting leads to positive outcomes for children. Overall, these studies showed that parenting in each of these cultures is a mix of power-assertive type parenting and supportive parenting. The purely power-assertive type of parenting described in Chua's book was not common. But, what about the children? What kind of parenting is best for child outcomes? The best way to answer this question is to have a large sample, so that there are a variety of types of parenting represented, and we want data over time. We want a large sample so that we can link different types of parenting with different child outcomes. We want a longitudinal study ; that is, we want data over time so that we can see how different types of parenting influence a child's development over time. If we only have data from one time point, then we cannot say whether parenting is leading to child outcomes or perhaps different types of children influence how their parents behave. Fortunately, we had a longitudinal study we could use to address these questions.

We defined tiger parents as those who practice positive and negative parenting strategies simultaneously. Tiger parents are engaging in some positive parenting behaviors; however, unlike supportive parents, tiger parents also scored high on negative parenting dimensions. This means that their positive parenting strategies co-exist with negative parenting strategies.

Tiger parents and harsh parents are alike, in that both use negative parenting strategies. Unlike tiger parents, however, harsh parents do not engage in positive parenting strategies. Easygoing parents have a more “hands-off” approach, and do not engage as much with their children, either positively or negatively.

What are the main study findings?

Despite the popular perception of Asian American parents as “tiger” parents, we found that supportive parents made up the largest percentage of parents at each data collection wave.

Although there is a popular perception that the secret behind the academic success of Asian American children is the prevalence of “tiger moms” like Amy Chua, we found that children with tiger parents actually had a lower GPA than children with supportive parents. In fact, children with supportive parents show the highest GPA, the best socio-emotional adjustment, the least amount of alienation from parents, and the strongest sense of family obligation among the four parenting profiles. Thus, our findings debunk the myths about the merits of tiger parenting. Children with supportive parents show the best developmental outcomes. Children of easygoing parents show better developmental outcomes than those with tiger parents. Children with harsh parents show the worst developmental outcomes.

What is the reaction from parents?

The response among Asian Americans has been generally positive; some have said that they are pleased to see the stereotype of Asian Americans being challenged by our data. Amy Chua's book gave some Asian Americans the “license” to be as strict in order to ensure the success of their children in today's competitive global economy, but our study findings are a wake-up call to these tiger moms and dads, because they suggest that the average tiger parent will not produce extraordinarily successful children. Some European American parents have told me that they felt guilty about being too lenient after they read Amy Chua's book, and wondered whether adopting Amy Chua's methods would make their children more successful in school. After learning about my study, however, they feel better about their own parenting, and are glad to know that their children are better off with supportive parents, just as they always suspected.

Many parents have asked me, “If I am a supportive parent, will my children be as successful as the Chinese American students in your sample, whose average GPA in middle school is 3.4?” The answer is, “Not necessarily.” Ruth Chao's work has demonstrated that relationship closeness explains why authoritative parenting is related to better academic performance among European American adolescents, while children's recognition of parental sacrifice may be the key to understanding the academic performance of Asian Americans. Work by Eva Pomerantz suggests that Chinese mothers think, “My child is my report card,” and that they see the academic success of their children as a chief parenting goal. The reasons why a particular type of parenting works in one cultural group may not translate to another cultural group, partly because parenting goals are different in different groups.

What is Amy Chua's critique of our research?

Jeff Yang, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writes about Amy Chua's reaction to the research findings. Jeff Yang and Amy Chua criticize the research for implying that Chinese parenting is the same as Western parenting. They also suggest that the lower median income of the study sample explains why “tiger” parenting was ineffective. They feel that parents of working class backgrounds, who made up about 50% of our sample, cannot provide the time, energy and money required to groom their children for success. Finally, they say the study can't explain why Asian Americans are overrepresented in the Ivy Leagues and in music conservatories.

What is our repsonse to Amy Chua's reaction to the research?

“Supportive” parenting, as defined in our study, is not the same as Western parenting. While seven of the eight parenting dimensions we used would be considered “etic” dimensions, or general measures of parenting, there is one “emic” dimension, or culturally specific measure of parenting: shaming, which Heidi Fung (1999) defines as a culturally specific type of Asian parenting in which parents actively pressure their children to internalize feelings of shame for not conforming to norms or for failing to perform as parents expect.

About 30% of the study sample had an income at or above the median income of Asian Americans in the U.S. The study statistically controlled for parental educational level. Our findings are therefore demonstrating that “tiger” parenting is less effective than supportive parenting, regardless of parents' level of education.

Vivian Louie's study on working-class Chinese immigrant mothers suggests that even if they can't directly help their children with homework, their social networks help children “make it” to the best public schools. In a similar vein, Cynthia Garcia Coll highlights the “immigrant paradox” that is apparent among groups such as Asian Americans, who tend to outperform their native born counterparts despite their lower socioeconomic status. This may be the reason why so many of the children in our sample (90% had immigrant parents) are able to achieve in school despite having fewer economic resources.

If "tiger parenting" is not the answer, what explains why Asian Americans are over-represented in the best universities and science competitions?

Carol Dweck's work suggests that Asian Americans may be more likely to endorse an “incremental” view of intelligence, whereas European Americans are more likely to endorse an “entity” view of intelligence. Angel Harris's work suggests that the success of Asian Americans can be attributed to their schooling behaviors rather than to prior skills. Collectively, these scholars are suggesting that Asian Americans are more likely to endorse the idea that academic success is due to effort instead of innate ability, and that they are more likely to believe that putting effort into school work will result in better academic outcomes. Andrew Fuligni's work suggests that Asian American children's key to understanding their academic success.

What is the take home message for the average parent?

Regardless of how we analyze the data, we find that supportive parenting always comes out on top: parents who scored high on the positive parenting dimensions and low on the negative parenting dimensions had the most well-adjusted, successful children. Thus, we encourage parents to consider using supportive parenting techniques.

Being warm, using reasoning and explanation when disciplining children, allowing children to be independent when appropriate, and monitoring children's whereabouts and activities are all good parenting strategies. Parents should also ensure that they minimize shouting or yelling at their children, shaming their children by comparing them to other children, expecting unquestioned obedience from their children, and blaming their children or bringing up past mistakes.

References

Kim, S., Wang, Y., Orozco-Lapray, D., Shen, Y., & Murtuza, M. (2013). Does “tiger parenting” exist? Parenting profiles of Chinese Americans and adolescent developmental outcomes. Asian American Journal of Psychology , 4(1), 7-18. doi:10.1037/