ADVERTISEMENT

Does Science Support the Punitive Parenting of "Tiger Mothering"?

A law professor's new memoir has stoked controversy because of its suggestion that a strict, authoritarian upbringing leads to academic success. But what does the scientific evidence say?
strict mother disciplining child



iStockphoto/stevenfoley

Are Chinese moms superior? That claim was suggested in a headline last week for a book excerpt in The Wall Street Journal by Yale University law professor and self-proclaimed "tiger mother" Amy Chua. It drew roars of anger from parenting experts and the Chinese-American community for its harsh parenting techniques, which included verbal denigrations and negative reinforcement, such as not permitting bathroom breaks or threats to destroy favorite toys until the child performed a musical composition flawlessly. The excerpt attracted numerous comments and responses such as "Parents like Amy Chua are the reason why Asian-Americans like me are in therapy."

Subsequent interviews with Chua suggest the excerpt from her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother might have distorted what she was trying to say. Still, might tiger mothers be good ones?

Weighing in is developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25, who has studied differences in parenting in the U.S. between whites, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans.

 
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
 

Are there any parenting lessons to be learned from tiger mother Amy Chua?

There are certainly elements in what she is espousing that have scientific evidence that they constitute good parenting. Kids need limits and structure, and it's good for parents to have high expectations for them—and if you want your kids to do well in school, you want to do things like getting involved in their schooling, having expectations of success and praising them when they do well. 

On the other hand, the downside to what she is advocating, if I understand her correctly, is that if parenting becomes too authoritarian—and by that I mean overly restrictive, overly punitive, squelching any attempt by the child at independence or autonomy—those parenting practices have been shown to be related to elevated anxiety, depression and psychosomatic problems. Kids raised in those circumstances are less self-assured and socially poised, and more compliant. 

Is there any scientific support for Chua's methods? She suggests that her intense parenting brought academic success to her two daughters.

Some of what is advocated in the tiger mothering book is consistent with good science, but some of it isn't. Also, it seems hardly a surprise to me that the children of two Yale law professors did well in school, and one might ask if that would have happened however they were raised. For her to claim that her children turned out the way they did because of the way they were raised seemed like a stretch. 

What do you think of the parenting techniques Chua described—for instance, not letting her kids watch TV?

I know of no evidence that TV is in and of itself harmful for children—it depends on what they watch and how much they watch. I can certainly understand placing limits, but I don't see any point banning television or any other kind of medium. 

Chua also said that she called one of her daughters "garbage" when she felt she was being disrespected.

There's no evidence that belittling or demeaning children in an insulting way is good for them. There are certainly ways to criticize and shape children's behavior that is not that harsh or punitive. 

What do you think is the strongest element in favor of tiger mothering?

A point she's trying to make where I would agree is not cultivating a false sense of self-esteem. I'm not aligned with parents who think that no matter what children do, it's wonderful. I think kids should be praised for genuine accomplishment. 

In your research, what did you find to be the differences in parenting in the U.S. among blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asian-Americans?

We studied more than 20,000 high school students from all ethnic backgrounds from nine different U.S. schools. Kids raised in authoritarian households got grades comparable to kids from what we called authoritative households, where you had strictness accompanied by warmth and encouragement of self-direction. Authoritative parents also had children who had friends, were more self-assured, and were psychologically healthy. That was pretty much the case across ethnic groups. 

What differences did you see in authoritarianism across parents?

We saw more rates of authoritarianism in non-white groups. I think the percentage of authoritarian households was highest in Asian-Americans. 

Research from psychologist Ruth Chao at the University of California, Riverside, has described challenges when it comes to comparing Asian parenting with that of other cultures. For instance, Chinese parenting might be based more on training children when compared with the more Western model of fostering growth.

I think Ruth would argue that the kind of measures we use might look more authoritarian to Western eyes than it really is. These distinctions are not black and white—"authoritative" and "authoritarian" are different points on a continuum rather than binary categories. 

Also, one can't talk about Chinese households as if there isn't variability there, or with white parents. You can look at averages as broad brushstrokes, but that can be misleading. 

For those who have grown up in Chinese-American households, the drive for excellence that Amy Chua describes could provoke strong ambivalence.

I think one has to ask, "Excellence in what?" Clearly what this author is describing will contribute to excellent grades. I don't think it's rocket science to expect that if you stress doing really well in school, don't allow children to do anything but schoolwork, and drill them for hours at a time. The question for parents to decide is whether that is the only thing that's important. 

Where I come down is that it's a myth that one has to sacrifice other qualities in a child to promote academic success. There's a lot of science that shows it's important to have kids play, to have unstructured playtime, and that every moment doesn't have to be spent in productive activity. 

I think virtually all parents want their children to do well in school. Still, as a parent and developmental psychologist, I want more than that. I want kids to be curious and joyful and compassionate and self-assured, and you don't have to sacrifice those goals to encourage academic success. 

What impact might tiger mothering have?

Parenting fads and fashions wax and wane in their popularity. There was a time when this kind of advice would have been very popular and not seen as controversial at all. Before World War II you had strict, regimented parenting recommended, and then there was a movement toward more indulgent parenting in the 1950s and '60s. The pendulum swings back and forth. 

This was controversial because of the ethnicity link and because there are people who believe that American parents have become too permissive, that one reason our kids do poorly academically is because we're not strict enough. I think it's always good when people are talking about being good parents—and if all this has generated more discussion of that, that's great.

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American MIND iPad

Give a Gift & Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $9.99

Subscribe Now >>

X

Email this Article

X