Anxious kids: Why the ‘tiger’ mom tactic fails

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — High-achieving Chinese-American students are more depressed and anxious than their white peers, according to a new study that challenges the “tiger mother” view of parenting.

As defined by the author Amy Chua in her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the Eastern view of parenting holds that children should be pushed to excel at all costs and that parents need not worry about their children’s happiness—only their success.

“I strongly believe that happiness matters tremendously for children to develop well, so they don’t just have success now and then later on experience maladjustment,” says study author Desiree Baolian Qin, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University. “It’s really important for parents to pay attention to this.”

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Chua, a professor of law at Yale University, created a firestorm of controversy with the book that preached hardline parenting and described how she demanded straight As from her two daughters and drilled them for hours every day on the piano and violin. The girls were not allowed to watch TV, be in a school play, or have play dates with friends.

Qin—who like Chua, is a Chinese mother of two daughters—calls such restrictions “ridiculous.” She and her husband, Tom Buffett, would never keep their daughters—Olivia, 4, and Helena, 2—from having play dates or other activities that build social and emotional skills, Qin says.

“Children need the ability to work well with other people, to relate,” Qin says. “I feel strongly that I won’t raise my kids just toward success at the cost of other things. More than anything, I want them to be well-rounded, emotionally healthy kids.”

In a recent talk at the Asian American Psychological Association Convention in Washington, DC, Qin compared Chua’s hard-driving parenting style with the often soft and forgiving Western approach. Many parents in the United States are so worried about injuring their children’s self-esteem, she says, they overpraise.

“I agree with Amy Chua that a child will develop strong self-esteem when they really master something. So that self-esteem should be grounded in their achievements, their ability, rather than empty praises from parents and teachers saying ‘great job’ for drawing a circle or for just about anything.”

There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations for your children, Qin says. The problem often comes in the way those expectations are communicated.

Many Chinese immigrant parents constantly pester their children to excel—a longstanding practice in China that includes comparing the child to siblings—as in, “Your sister got straight As and went to Harvard, why can’t you?”

As reported in the Journal of Adolescence, Chinese-American adolescents show significantly lower levels of psychological adjustment and significantly less family cohesion and more conflict than their European American peers. The findings are based on survey data from nearly 500 high-achieving students at a prestigious East Coast high school.

The majority of Asian-American children come from immigrant families where parents face additional challenges in raising their kids. While the children attend US schools and tend to learn English faster, parents often work with fellow immigrants in Chinese-run businesses and thus are far less influenced by American culture, Qin says.

This issue, which researchers call the acculturation gap, can lead to alienation and conflict within families, and could become more widespread as the immigrant population grows. Currently, about 20 percent of children in the United States have at least one immigrant parent—a number that’s predicted to jump to 33 percent by the year 2040.

“There is a healthy middle ground between the parenting extremes of the East and West,” Qin says. “What is most beneficial to children, regardless of the culture, is clear and high expectations in a warm and loving family environment.”

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