Tame Your Inner Tiger

Controlling parents tend to have children who are academically above average but depressed

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

All parents struggle to find the right balance between encouragement and discipline when it comes to raising their kids. This past winter Yale University law professor Amy Chua drew roars of protest when she asserted in her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, that successful parenting entails controlling most aspects of a child’s life, from prohibiting playdates and sleepovers to screaming at children for getting grades lower than an A. What does research say about this style of child-rearing?

“There’s no evidence that intrusiveness is appropriate in any culture we’ve been to before, including China,” says psychologist Brian K. Barber of the University of Tennessee Knoxville. To learn more about how psychological control might vary across the world, Barber and his colleagues interviewed 120 adolescents from five different cultures, including Costa Rica, Thailand and South Africa, and then surveyed another 2,100. Their findings, which they recently submitted to the Journal of Adolescence, suggest that some of the behavior described in Chua’s book, such as insulting kids (she once called her daughter “garbage”), invalidating their feelings and violating their privacy, correlated with children’s depression and antisocial behavior, a finding that matches past research.

Barber distinguishes “authoritarian” households—those that are overly coercive—from “authoritative” households, where strictness is accompanied by warmth and encouragement of self-direction. In a prior study of more than 20,000 U.S. high schoolers, Laurence Steinberg of Temple University and his colleagues found that children raised in authoritative households were typically psychologically healthy, whereas those raised in authoritarian ones had elevated anxiety and depression. Notably kids from both households got comparably good grades, suggesting tiger mothering isn’t necessary for excellence after all.

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