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Commentary on the Tempest over Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mother” Provocation Pt. I

January 15, 2011

Is The Authoritarian Style of parenting as described by Ms. Chua in her WSJ excerpt and as is prevalant in a significant percentage of Chinese American mothers really superior?

First, let’s set the scene for those who missed this drama or would like to round out what all the hubbub was all about.  On January 8th, the WSJ online published an excerpt from an upcoming book by Amy Chua (A Yale professor of law), titled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”, to be published that coming Tuesday (Jan 11th).  Here’s the link:

The central thesis of the excerpted piece was that the very strict, authoritarian, achievement-obsessed parenting style of Chinese mothers was superior to the more democratic, socio-emotionally nurturing style thought of as ideal in the West (i.e. America).  By superior, Ms. Chua appeared to mean that it produced better academic achievement in their children and to a more generally extent superlative achievement in whatever was focused on (e.g., mastering the piano and violin figured prominently in the piece as well).  Ok, so far, not much to get excited about.  This point has been made one way or another for over many, many years in both scholarly and popular press commentary.  What made this piece light up the blogosphere and get into heavy rotation in mainstream media (CNN, New York Times, BusinessWeek, etc…) was the 2 characteristics that one gets hit in the face with when reading the WSJ excerpt.

1)      Amy Chua was not just extolling the virtues of Chinese Parenting (Tiger style!!), she was declaring it a no-contest, making it clear she firmly believed she and her daughters had won the race and were now teasing and taunting the rest of us losers from the gold medal podium

2)      The level of psychological control she described appeared to be beyond what is “reasonable” (I know how loaded a term that is).  For example, she describes calling one of her daughters “trash” and another time threatening (seriously it appeared) to set fire to her child’s stuffed animals if she wasn’t obeyed.

I should also make it clear that my initial reading of the article left me with the impression that some of what was being written was tongue-in-cheek or purposely over the top.  However, I’ll also admit that given the overall thrust and tone, it was hard to tell with any great confidence when that was the case

So, as night follows day and taxes are due in April, you could have predicted there was going to be quite the response from the online community, starting of course with the comments section of the article itself.  And it wasn’t pretty.  As the story was picked up by other media outlets,

You also saw the inevitable appearance of pieces by other pundits and “experts” trying to directly counter the claims made by Ms. Chua.  Some were vitriolic, some tried to attain some balance.  Here’s a nice one:

and some seemed to miss the point entirely, and essentially were making the same kind of provocative arguments Ms. Chua had made, simply substituting “Chinese” for “American.” ( ).

And finally, perhaps sensing the backlash against her (although I suspect all publicity is good publicity if you’re trying to sell books), Ms. Chua herself began to try to clarify both the tone and point of the book, contextualizing the excerpt within the larger story of the book. Fair enough.

So, where does that leave us?  As I wrote in my very first introductory post to this blog, my goal is to summarize what the empirical research tells us in an effort to cut through the jingoism that so often comes when we pit one ethnic or national approach against another, and the inherent bias that is so difficult to overcome when it comes to our own parenting and what works or doesn’t.  Parenting is one of those things that sparks an instant defensiveness when critiqued, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to evaluate it as best we can.

The Question:  Does a “Chinese” Style of Parenting Result in Superior Outcomes for Children”?

The first thing we have to do is define terms, which is something that very few of the people who have thrown themselves into this debate have done.  As a scientist, you learn to do this almost automatically because it is hard to evaluate something if you are not clear about what everyone means when they use certain terminology.  We end up talking past each other rather than making progress on the question.  First, what is the “Tiger” style of Chinese parenting being referred to? As best as I can make it out, Ms. Chua is referring to what the research literature calls Authoritarian parenting. This style of parenting, along with two others, was most famously defined by the pioneering work of Diana Baumrind, who began conducting research and publishing studies over 40 years ago on parenting style typologies and how they differentially predicted child outcomes.  Authoritarian parenting is characterized by an emphasis on unquestioning child obedience, respect for the parent, strict control and power assertion as a means of shaping child behavior.  This style is also typically lower on warmth and emotional support This is in contrast to Authoritative parenting, which is characterized by lower levels of strict control in addition to greater emphasis on child autonomy, and emotional warmth and support.  The third style, permissive/indulgent is exactly what it sounds like.  Many studies have shown that Chinese parents (and more broadly Asian parents) are more likely to adopt a style on the authoritarian end, whereas typical middle class, European American parents tend to display parenting more on the Authoritative end.

For a more comprehensive understanding of these styles, please see  Baumrind (1971, 1991), Chao (1994).  Full Reference citations for any studies mentioned in this blog will be posted on the General References page, available here:

The second term we need to define up front is what we mean by “superior” in reference to child outcomes.  The trick to watch out for here is the tendency to define the outcome in a way that makes your particular group shine the brightest.  If we mean grades in school, then that has to be clear. If we mean some other metric or socio-emotional development, then that has to be clear. If we mean staying out of trouble or avoiding teen pregnancy or ending up in a high paying job, the point is you need to be clear up front, or else we end up comparing apples to oranges.  And so if you define your outcome narrowly enough, you can make just about any national/ethnic group look good or “superior”.  Greek adolescents have exceptionally low suicide rates, Danish kids seem to avoid pregnancy and STDs better than most, and yes, Chinese, Korean, and Taiwanese kids do very well in school.

So what does the research tell us?

The good news is that we can summarize the relevant research findings across dozens of studies and several decades into 5 key points as they relate to Chua’s claims and others’ counter-claims.

1)      For most European American children in middle-class and above families, an Authoritative parenting style appears to produce the best child outcomes , including better academic performance, positive socio-emotional development, and lower rates of anti-social behavior.

2)      The above finding does not appear to apply to some particular first-generation ethnic groups in the U.S., including children of  far-East  Asian backgrounds (e.g. Chinese) for whom an Authoritarian style may in fact produce better academic performance, and for children being raised in high crime, low income neighborhoods for whom a stricter style may in fact be protective

3)      The parenting behaviors themselves may not be as important as how the child interprets said behaviors.  It appears that one reason, for example, that Chinese American children do not show negative effects from Authoritarian parenting is that they view this parenting style as culturally appropriate and as a sign of their parents love and concern for them.  European American kids are much more likely to view these same parenting behaviors as overly strict and punitive, and therefore rebel against them. In one very interesting and recent study Chao and Aque (2009) found that although Asian American immigrant youth consistently reported more controlling parents, they also reported less hostility about it relative to their European American peers.

4)      If we cross from the Authoritarian parenting into something that could be considered abusive by any legal standard, all bets are off, and you are almost certainly going to see very negative outcomes for children who experience such abuse.  Things get sticky, of course, when you are in that gray area where reasonable people might disagree as to what is very, very strict vs. abusive.

5)      Everyone in this debate may be over-estimating the effects of parenting behaviors on individual differences (e.g. IQ, basic personality, musicality, athletic abilities) given that tons of research from Behavioral Genetic research makes the following clear:  For most outcomes whereby you can point to one child and ascertain significant differences in abilities compared to any other child, the influence of genes is typically greater than the influence of parenting behaviors.  I cannot emphasize enough how clear this research is.  Case in point, in study after study of identical twins (monozygotic) who were adopted out to different families at birth, you find that they are much more similar to each other than regular siblings (despite their different environments) and continue to be much more similar to their biological parents (who did not parent them for a single day) than to their adoptive parents (who raised them).

Refer to Spera (2005), Turkheimer (1998) and Neisser & Boodoo (1996) for background reading on the points made above


From → Parenting

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