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.
A new book by Kim Wong Keltner, called Tiger Babies Strike Back, offers a look at the phenomenon from the perspective of the children. During a roundtable on Tuesday's Tell Me More, Michel Martin discussed the book and the study with Keltner, cookbook author Anupy Singla, and columnist Jeff Yang.
"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.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, you might remember that May is Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. That's the time of year when we celebrate the achievements of Americans with that ethnic background, and while over the years there's always been a lot of emphasis on the achievements, in recent years there's been a lot more on what's been presumed to be one of the key ingredients behind that success, so-called Tiger Moms and Dads.
The term itself got a lot of currency last year when law professor Amy Chua wrote a parenting memoir that quickly became a bestseller. It was called "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" and she wrote about her no-nonsense parenting style, heavy on homework and approved activities like playing piano, and light on fun. She said that brought out the best in her children.
For the rest of the program today, we're going to talk more about this and we're going to start with a new study that suggests that so-called Tiger parenting could do more harm than good.
Su Yeong Kim is an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. She followed hundreds of Asian-American families for a decade and recently published her findings.
Professor Kim, thank you so much for joining us.
SU YEONG KIM: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: I just want to point out here that your interest in this predated Amy Chua's book, that you've actually been gathering this data for quite some time. What got you interested in this?
KIM: Well, 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 textbooks and that - because most of the textbooks just talked about European-American families, neglecting the experiences of ethnic minorities.
MARTIN: Your research was recently published in the Asian-American Journal of Psychology, and as you said, you studied about 450 Chinese-American families in northern California. You followed students in middle school, high school and after high school.
So how did the parents - the children of Tiger parents - come out, if I can use that term?
KIM: Yeah. You could definitely use that term. What we found - I mean when we started the 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 and, typically, the authoritarian parents, 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 those children who have these Tiger moms would actually be the ones who are doing really well extraordinarily in terms of their academic outcomes. And we thought, perhaps in terms of their socio-emotional outcomes, they may not be as healthy.
But what really surprised us is that, despite our hypotheses, 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 a 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.
MARTIN: Just to clarify, Amy Chua's book came out in 2011.
MARTIN: But you also say that, contrary to popular belief, most Chinese-American parents are not Tiger parents, at least as Amy Chua describes, which is, you know, heavy on the shaming, a lot of kind of tight control over the kids, that kind of thing. You said, actually, there's a range of parenting styles among Chinese-Americans, too.
KIM: Right. So, in our study, we were able to use seven different parenting dimensions to see how different parents could be classified. We used four parenting strategies which we would consider positive parenting, like parental warmth, parental monitoring, parental inductive reasoning where they're using reasoning and explanation in disciplining their children and, also, democratic parenting - were our four positive categories.
And, also, we have four negative categories, such as parental hostility, shaming, which we thought was a very important component of parenting in Asian-Americans, as well as punitive parenting and psychologically controlling parenting.
And what we found was that parents really did show a range of different types of parenting so that parents who were high on both positive parenting and high on negative parenting is what we classified as Tiger parents. And then the parents who were considered high on positive parenting, but low on negative parenting were considered - let me talk about the harsh parenting - and those are the harsh parents.
And then the parents who were easy-going parents were low on both positive and negative parenting.
MARTIN: Well, we need to take - we only have about four minutes left, so I kind of want to get to the kind of the meat of the thing and that is that I think the question a lot of people have is the stereotype that Amy Chua put out there and...
MARTIN: ...which, frankly, a lot of other memoirs are increasingly talking about this being heavy on the shaming, a lot of control. You found that there is some truth to that. Did you not? And that the outcomes are not as positive as many people would believe. I mean, you've also found that the adolescents themselves - one of the things about your study is that the adolescents themselves were interviewed, as well as the parents, and a lot of adolescents had a lot of - they didn't appreciate that particular style. They had a lot of negative feelings about it.
But, on the other hand, you know, you look at the numbers - right - in terms of the median household of your study's participants was around $35,000, but the average income for Asian-Americans is closer to $66,000. You kind of wonder, is that part of it? Was it the resources to back it up or was there some - maybe this is not just about the parenting style, per se, but maybe it's really about resources or is it adjusting to a new country, for example, since a lot of these parents were foreign born?
KIM: Well, you have to keep in mind, we have a range of income level in our study, so about 30 percent of our families make $60,000 or more and, also, only about 28 percent of our families in our study were classified as Tiger parents. The large majority of them would be classified as supportive at 45 percent and about 20 percent were classified as easy-going parents and only seven percent were classified as harsh parents.
MARTIN: So what would be your take-away from this? What would you want people to know about this?
KIM: So my take-away from my study would be that the most effective parenting strategy we found was actually supportive parenting because children who had supportive parenting - their average GPA was about 3.6 compared to about 3.3 for the Tiger parents - children of Tiger parents.
So it seems that Tiger parenting may not be as effective in producing academically talented kids, whereas children of supportive parenting would actually have more successful outcomes, not only in terms of their academic well-being because their GPA is higher, but also in terms of their socio-emotional health, as well, because they're doing better socio-emotionally and have better relationships with their parents and have a stronger sense of family obligation, which is a very valued trait among Asian-American families.
MARTIN: Finally, we have about a minute and a half here. Why do you think this image of the Tiger parent being, you know, heavy on the discipline, low on the hugs persists? I mean, do you think it's in part because of media portrayals or do you think that there is a grain of truth in it for people who are high achieving and they're talking about it?
KIM: Well, I mean, our study did find that Tiger parents do exist in our study, so at least about 30 percent of the families in our study do fit that stereotype. The thing that's surprising is that it actually doesn't produce the most optimal outcomes like Amy Chua and possibly the public may believe about the outcomes of Tiger parenting because it's really supportive parenting that's going to have the most positive outcomes on children.
MARTIN: Any advice for people who want to adopt those styles, but may have, you know, bought the hype about the heavy on the discipline, low on the hugs? Anyway, would you briefly urge people to redirect their efforts?
KIM: Well, I mean, certainly, it worked for Amy Chua and her kids, so there must be some group of kids for whom it may work, but the average Tiger parent in our study, which is about 30 percent of our kids, it shows that empirical data is demonstrating with over 400 families that it doesn't really work as effectively. So I would really encourage parents to really steer away from the Tiger parenting model and think more about doing supportive parenting because that's what we know works over the course of the eight year longitudinal study that we have on over 400 families living in northern California of Chinese-American descent.
MARTIN: You heard it here from an expert. More hugs, less violin. OK. Su Yeong - well, I'm saying that, not you. Su Yeong Kim is an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. She joined us from member station KUT in Austin.
Professor Kim, thank you for speaking with us.
KIM: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.