When Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in 2011, it sparked controversy among many people but especially psychologists and experts in child development. The book, they felt, had lodged in the culture certain stereotypes about an Asian parenting style that was not well-studied or well-understood and certainly not ready to be held up as some kind of model.
Chua’s book was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek memoir of her experiences raising her two daughters with her (non-Asian) husband, which involved hours of forced music practice every day, severe restrictions on extracurriculars, outright bans on social activities like sleepovers, and punishment and shaming on the rare occasions her children failed to attain their mother’s high expectations. Chua eased off as her kids grew older, and she admitted that she might have been wrong in some instances. (Mainstream media coverage portrayals were somewhat less nuanced). Nonetheless, the story of a Yale-professor mother who had pushed her child until she landed at Carnegie Hall seemed to confirm that Asian-American parents are tough, demanding—and they consistently produce whizzes.
When Chua’s book first hit the transom, Su Yeong Kim thought, “Oh my God! I actually have data for this!” An associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, Kim had been following more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade when the book came out. In March, she published her results; they will no doubt surprise Chua and her admirers. Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement and attainment—and greater psychological maladjustment—and family alienation, than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or "easygoing.”
For Kim’s study, parents and children answered questions during the children’s adolescence about their parenting styles. The vast majority of parents were foreign-born in Hong Kong or southern China, with relatively low educational attainment and a median income of between $30,001 and $45,000 in each of the study’s three phases, spaced out equally over eight years. Three-quarters of their kids were American-born. The study controlled for socioeconomic status and other potentially confounding factors.*
Kim wanted to look at a particular paradox that had emerged in the academic literature regarding Asian-American parents. When she began, of course, the term “tiger parent” didn’t exist, but scholars had the same impression as average Americans, that “Asian-American parents are more controlling, yet their children are also doing very well academically,” Kim recounts. This was somewhat of a mystery because it contradicted the experience of European-American children; overly strict and unresponsive white parents typically produce messed-up losers.
Since the 1960s, academics have separated parenting styles into three categories, or “profiles”: permissive, authoritative, and authoritarian. Authoritative parenting—a combination of high responsiveness with the exercise of power that’s open to negotiation—has been found (in white families) to produce higher-achieving children with fewer symptoms of depression. Authoritarian parenting combines coercion with less responsiveness, and leads to higher depressive symptoms and lower self-esteem. Permissive parenting is characterized by high warmth and low control and demandingness. (Negligent parenting, added in the 1980s, is both cold and undemanding.)
Kim did not feel that any of these descriptions quite matched what she had experienced growing up. “Whenever scholars compare European-American and Asian-American families,” she said, parents among the latter “almost always score higher on controlling and lower on warmth, which means they’re more likely to be classified as authoritarian.” Yet, their kids were outperforming whites in school. This gave rise to the “achievement/adjustment paradox”: kids doing well by external measures while feeling torn apart inside.
Kim decided that for her study, she would both parse further the different dimensions of the Eurocentric profiles and create new ones that better fit the styles of the East Asian families. The responsiveness that’s considered an aspect of “authoritative” parenting, for example, was broadened to include both positive and negative attributes: warmth and hostility. Control, she would write, has “multiple facets … positive control is measured by parental monitoring and democratic parenting; negative control is measured by psychological control and punitive parenting.” Kim also added inductive reasoning, which is a measure of effective communication, and shaming, which had been established in the literature as a significant aspect in the rearing of Chinese-origin kids.