The Science Behind the Tiger Mother

by Lara on January 21, 2011

I know, I know, another blogger kvetching about the Tiger Mother.

Bear with me, though, because this is a different take than I’ve seen. I’m not here to vilify Amy Chua. Neither am I here to praise her. I’m here to remind you that – you know what I’m going to say, right? – science has weighed in on this issue pretty heavily–and continues to provide insight.

Parenting isn’t exactly neglected by developmental psychologists, as you might imagine. One of the most dominant approaches to classifying parenting takes into account two dimensions of parenting: warmth and responsiveness (affection, emotional availability) and demandingness (expectations for mature behavior). Parents who are both responsive and demanding are authoritative—they have high expectations but are warm and loving. Parents who are demanding but not responsive are authoritarian—they have high expectations but aren’t particularly warm and fuzzy. Indulgent parents are warm and fuzzy and make few demands on their children. Neglectful or uninvolved (as they’re sometimes called) parents are neither emotionally available or demanding of mature behavior—they’re generally pretty detached.

Thanks to some very intensive research, we know quite a bit about how the children of these parents turn out, too. Authoritative parents typically have children who experience positive outcomes (academic achievement, good peer relations, strong relationships with parents). Permissive parents raise underachievers who lack direction. Uninvolved parents  raise children low in self-esteem who often face a number of social and behavioral challenges. And Authoritarian parents (who are often strict disciplinarians) have obedient children, but those kids are sometimes very unhappy, angry, and have low self-esteem as well.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the research on parenting styles is the role of cultural context. Research has shown that for both African-American and Asian-American families, the authoritarian style of parenting has somewhat better outcomes for children than it does in European-American families. Basically what the studies show is that authoritarian parenting generally leads to success for Asian-American children, particularly in the academic domain.

So where does this leave Amy Chua—and her girls? Based on her own account, Chua is the classic authoritarian mother. But given the cultural context of her parenting, the expectations for her children are more promising than we’d normally assume given her parenting style. Ruth Chao, a prominent researcher in this area, suggests that Asian-American children view their parents’ strict approach more positively than European-American children of authoritarian parents do. Perhaps Chinese-American parents like Chua are better able to effectively blend strict control, high expectations, and emotional connection within the context of a close relationship with their children—a task the average European-American parent has yet to master.

I appreciate my friends Nicole Campione-Barr and Leah Esker for the online discussion that inspired this post.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandrea Logan March 30, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Reading this blog I felt that I had an advantage given that we just talked about this exact issue of parenting styles in class Tuesday. A month ago I read about the Tiger mother but paid no real attention to her. After learning about the parenting styles and the effect they have on different children of different cultures I can see how she fits the authoritarian parent. I find it interesting that the culture and ethnicity make a difference on how the child develops with this parenting style. Her children are obviously successful and talented and her style of parenting is what accomplished this. However I still beleive that showing more affection would not hurt the child’s accomplishments and maybe her children will grow up and tweak the authoritarian style for their kids’.


Martha Baird (Bair7330) April 13, 2011 at 4:15 pm

When it comes to parenting I believe a mix of tough love, rules, warmth, and guidance are important elements to master. That being said, I strongly lean towards the authoritative style of parenting. I believe children not only need guidance and structure but they need a warm, loving and understanding parent. A stronger relationship between the child and parent blooms from the authoritative style. However, when considering how the authoritarian style produces better outcomes in certain cultures versus others I wonder if tradition plays a role. If a parenting style has existed in a culture over many generations could we assume that because the child has grown up submersed in this culture that they are comfortable with the “norm” and any other style would be foreign to them? Thus the child flourishes and performs better under the normal parenting style and falters under an uncommon style. It could be the same to say that a child in America would not flourish under authoritarian parenting because the norm in America is not authoritarian. Whether tradition plays an integral role or not it would be interesting to explain why certain parenting styles work better in different cultures.


J. Stowers April 26, 2011 at 11:57 am

I know American parents that will not accept anything less than an A+ from their children, and quite frankly the rest of society finds those people unrealistic. Of course it is a good thing to get a 110%! But does this fact also suggest that parents should not love their children the same in case of an 80%? NO! Unless their child is a hippie! Oh, wait, we tried that once in America and everyone revolted and went to Woodstock… I think we’ve just come a little further than totalitarian control of our children in America. In schools today, you strive to get the best grade you can. For if you do not, only you are responsible for dealing with the outcome.


pend4784 May 6, 2011 at 3:17 pm

Parenting styles are important because they help decide what type of person the child will be. I believe that parenting styles go in circles. For example if an indulgent parent raises a child that child is going to grow up to be an indulgent parent as well. I’m sure there are some exceptions to this but the best place to learn how to parent is your parents. Maybe not the best place but sometimes the only place.


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