Evaluating “Tiger Mom” Parenting: What’s The Take-Home Message From Research?

Last year, it was Tiger Mom parenting. This year, the French way. These books offer observations about different parenting styles and how we think they work. But what happens when we examine them scientifically and gauge how they actually affect children? To answer that question, I conducted an interview (via e-mail) with Dr. Desiree Qin, who is a professor at Michigan State University. Her program of research has been, in part, evaluating what we think of as “Tiger Mom” parenting behaviors, and as such, she brings an interesting – and empirically informed – perspective to the issue of being a “pushing” mom (or dad). Below you will find my questions (in bold) and her responses. 

1) Much has been made of the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon over the past year. Do you think there are parents who really parent that way? 

I think in some ways what was accounted in the book was a more extreme form of parenting characterized by high levels of expectations and  demands combined with high levels of parental investment and involvement. I have heard of or seen in my personal or research experiences parents who resemble aspects of what Professor Chua described in the book. For example, parents who never praise children in public, have very high and strict expectations, use certain forms of emotional threats or punishment as a reaction to child’s occasional failure, and discourage participating in extracurricular activities that are not conducive to admission into an Ivy League university. In Chinese websites, there are phrases like “pushing mom” or “pushing dad” to refer to parents who have very high expectations of children’s educational success and will do everything they can to drive their children toward success.

2) It sounds like your research focuses on some of the negatives of parenting like a “Tiger Mom.” Could you define for us what aspects of parenting you look at? How do they affect kids negatively? 

I started this line of research about 8 or 9 years ago, motivated by the lack of research and attention on Asian American children’s mental health behind the façade of the “model minority” stereotype and the lack of knowledge on the parts of their parents, teachers, counselors of any challenges they may experience in their psychosocial adjustment. So my work focuses on some of the traits one would associate with being a “Tiger Mom.”

Our findings suggest that when children receive more pressure and get pestered to achieve more than their peers, they report higher levels of conflicts, and less emotional warmth and closeness with their parents. Not surprisingly, they are less happy – indeed, they are more likely to be depressed, anxious and report lower self esteem. For the high-achieving Chinese American kids in our studies, family environment, parent-child relations and conflicts are the most important predictors of their mental health.

3) Are there implications from your research on how to promote achievement in kids without promoting stress, anxiety, and depression?

In one of my papers, I have examined two groups of high achieving children. One group was high achieving and distressed and the other group was high achieving but mentally healthy.  And the key factor that distinguishes these two groups was parenting. More specifically, my findings in that paper shows that when parents from immigrant families become more flexible after migration, integrating aspects of Western parenting – such as spending more quality time with their children, and giving children more freedom – their children have better mental health outcomes than their peers.  So I think again it’s not a problem for parents to have high expectations of children. When these expectations are communicated in a positive, support way, which does not damage or alienate parent-child relations, then children do not experience mental health problems.

4) Have you found any positives about “Tiger Mom” parenting?

If we define tiger parenting as authoritarian, super strict, and singularly focused on academics and achievements, our studies do not show much in the way of positive outcomes. That said, as a mother, I agree with Professor Chua that in many Western families, there is so much concern about children’s self esteem in that we constantly say “Great job!” and “Terrific!” to anything our children do.  My children are currently attending a Montessori school and one thing I really like about the school and the teachers is that they never say “Great job.” Instead they comment on actual content of the kid’s work or the effort they have put into it.

5) Is there a parenting style that you would describe as being optimal? If so, what are the specific characteristics? 

I think there may be an optimal middle point – we need to have high expectations and involvement, but it has to be well communicated in a loving and supportive family environment. And of course, each child is different and each family is different. We see very clearly in Professor Chua’s book that her two daughters are completely different, and while her approach worked well with one, it completely backfired with the other.

Image of tiger mom and cubs via Shutterstock.com

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  1. by Andrea

    On February 29, 2012 at 5:42 am

    Interesting! Confused, though, isn’t he a male? In question four, he answers, “That said, as a mother, I agree with Professor Chua….”

    Is that a typo or am I misreading?

  2. by Jessica

    On February 29, 2012 at 7:04 am

    @ Andrea- the interviewer is male, the professor answering is female.
    I personally think we could take a lesson from Chua. Her style may be more abrasive than my own, but I admire her drive to see her kids succeed, and her determination not to let them get pulled into the laid back western culture. American patenting has become so focused on raising supremely happy kids that the next generation is turning into lazy brats. We need more structure, more strict limits, and higher expectations! My kids (4 & 6) have responsibilities in the home, daily homework for an hour, and structured music lessons. One is at the top of his class and the other is testing in early, and neither is any less happy for it.

  3. by Andreas Planakis

    On October 5, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    The most important thing you MUST teach your children is to believe in themselves and never give up. I am Greek we as a country have given the world so much from so few. The Chinese have not they are in a sense robots that copy only , no original creative thought .

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