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

January 18, 2011

If you managed to get through Pt. I of this 2-part series, congratulations. You just took a mini graduate level course on parenting styles and outcomes.   If you didn’t, well, this post should still prove useful without all the background context.

Final Question: What does Amy Chua get right and what runs counter to what we know from the science?

On the money-

1) Here’s the reality, there is plenty of evidence that for Chinese American mothers a strict style of parenting that focuses on academics absolutely pays off in terms of academic achievement.  By most of the hard metrics of success, including average GPA, Standardized test scores, college acceptance, college completion) Chinese American children tend to outperform their peers from other ethnic groups.  Obviously, not always, but we are talking about averages here.  Just because this wasn’t the case in your school or just because you were class valedictorian and of Scottish descent does not make the general finding any less true.  And by the way, there are no group level differences in IQ scores between European American kids and Asian American kids, which argues for an environmental cause of the better academic performance, and parenting is as good an “environmental” explanation as any…at the group level that is.

2) Professor Chua is also right to argue that the obsession with children’s self-esteem in the West (specifically America, and if you really want to zero in, California) as a kind of “cure-all” to whatever ails them has little to no empirical support.  There has not been a single, well-controled, longitudinal, experimental study that has shown a positive effect of boosting children’s self-esteem, other than boosting self-reported self-esteem scores.  The case here is one of the tail wagging the dog or putting the cart before the horse, if you prefer.  Self-esteem is best viewed as an outcome of competency or mastery or achievement in some domain.  You do well as a student, you will build-up higher self-esteem as a student.  You do well as an athlete, you will build up higher self-esteem as an athlete, etc…  Getting kids to believe they are good students without investing the time and energy to give them the skills to make them better students will not accomplish much other than over-confident kids whose performance doesn’t match up.  In fact, going over-board with this self-esteem thing can produce some rather negative effects, as many studies have shown  (for a good theoretical review of this see Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996).

Missing the boat (forgive the mixed metaphor, but “off the money” didn’t sound right)-

1) While Ms. Chua’s parenting may have produced the desired effects in her children, it certainly not the only path to success.  In fact, there really isn’t one parenting style that can always produce success (loving, warm, responsive parents may end up with a complete screw-up as a kid, just as strict, tough and no-nonsense parents may), so the supreme confidence that Ms. Chau seems to have regarding the “why’s” of her daughters’ success annoy the casual reader.  And in fact, she knows this and having now spoken to people who have finished reading the book and listening to a very recent (Jan 18) interview with Ms. Chua herself (KPCC Airtalk Interview audio:, it is also clear that she had to adapt her style of parenting as it had unintended “dark” consequences for one of her daughters when she hit adolescence.  And she also acknowledges that her book is not a parent ed book, but rather a personal story or memoir.

2) The authoritarian, achievement focused parenting style Ms. Chua describes may also be associated with one particularly worrying outcome beyond grades and mastering the piano and violin.  For example, studies have shown that female Asian American adolescents  ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group.  In fact,  suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women in that age range, and this despite the fact that Asians overall have a lower than average suicide rate ( See Dept of Health and Human Services data; NIMH data ;  and for good study from a professor who lost a sister herself to suicide, see Noh, 1997 (full citation in General References section).  Again, the connection between parenting and this tragic outcome is not cut and dry, and we also know that temperamentally and genetically, certain individuals are predisposed to these dark turns.  However, it is also clear from the reports of Asian American adolescents who have attempted or considered suicide, that parenting pressures figured prominently in their depression and considerations to commit this final act of desperation.

Final Thoughts

It is also useful to step back and take the current attention everyone seems to be placing in all things Chinese due to the undeniable rise of this nation as a world power.  We are constantly bombarded with news stories filled with hand-wringing  that the Chinese have figured our the best way to educate their children and to instill the kind of discipline and respect that seems to be but a memory in American life.  And the results are that they are going to get the all the high-skill jobs, and that they are going to overtake us as an economic superpower.   Such panic is nothing new, of course. But remember the ebb and flow of history puts some cultures in the ascendency and some not, and in those moments the country or nation or empire on top always seems to be doing everything right, always seems to have figured out the magic formula of enduring success.  Students of history, of course, know that there is nothing absolute or enduring about it.   This current obsession with China and how so many of their practices lead to success, is due in no small part to the historical artifact that we happen to be concurrently witnessing the dramatic rise of China and its economy and educational achievements of its citizens.  Everything they do is scrutinized as a sign of best practice.  It wasn’t long ago when Japan was the economic boogeyman.  In the late 70s through the 80s, we were obsessed with Japan (we had a small army of American psychologists sitting in Japanese classrooms trying to figure them out!!!).  And before that, many economists believed that the Soviet Union would not only overtake us, but that their brand of communism would become the de facto economic system of the world.  Now, of course, there isn’t even a place called the Soviet Union.  Now, that Japan is in a rut and their own public intellectuals have declared a national existential crisis, we don’t bother obsessing over them, or the USSR, or Germany…or,  you get the picture.  And don’t forget, in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. educational system was the envy of the world and being exported left and right to other developing countries.  Our college and university system still is.  So, while being concerned about one’s place in the pecking order is natural, and I do believe we can definitely learn from cross-cultural comparisons, it is important to temper our panic and examine things from a grander perspective.  The lesson is always the same. There are many roads to success, but none stay paved forever.


From → Parenting

    • Thanks Kathy. One of the professors being interviewed in the first article, Ruth Chao, was my adviser and chair of my doctoral dissertation committee. We actually have an study together that should be published soon, fingers crossed.

  1. mthaslett permalink

    Very welcome article! One great positive from this book’s success is the conversations I’ve been having about it (still haven’t read it). I was surprised about the suicide statistics you list for young Chinese women, but not surprised about the tendency they seem to indicate. You know from our talks that I’m all for discipline 24/7– but some of the “Tiger Mom” anecdotes I’ve heard seem to lack a balance of compassion. I would have expected that to register as a dangerous recipe for some kids.

    Thanks, grecoamerican! I look forward to talking more about this with you.

    • Thanks friend. I think you nail it on the head. Kids can put up with a LOT of strict discipline as long as it comes along with strong love and warmth. In fact, researchers studying parenting practices of African American mothers found that some could not be easily categorized along the authoritative–authoritarian axis. They exhibited all of the very strict/ sometimes harsh parenting of authoritarians, but also a lot of love and warmth of the authoritative/permissive-indulgent. Out from this has sprung a new category called “Tough Love”, and some research shows that it is associated with positive outcomes for African American adolescents.

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