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Flinching from the Tiger Mom

Calling kids garbage isn't good. Can Tiger Mom teach us something anyway?

This post is in response to
How to Raise Smart Kids Chinese-Style

I have studied parenting in the US, Japan, the Philippines, Chile, Italy, and Uganda. I have studied differences in parenting in the US, comparing Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. I am comfortable thinking about cultural differences.

But the excerpts I've read from Tiger Moms still make me flinch.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Moms is a new book written by Amy Chua, a Chinese-American law professor from Yale, talking about her parenting and why Chinese kids - or any kid whose mom act like Chinese moms - excel.

In her Wall Street Journal description of her parenting, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, Chua talks about not letting her daughters watch TV, forcing them to play the piano and/or violin, not letting them be in school plays, and refusing to let them have play dates or go on sleepovers.

She also describes screaming at her 7 year old daughter that she is garbage, and (a) threatening to give away her favorite toys (b) threatening to withhold birthday parties and all gifts for years to come (c) refusing to let her get up to eat, or (e) go to the bathroom if she didn't learn a particularly difficult piece of music by the next day for a piano lesson (not recital or performance, but LESSON).

You have to have a lot of conviction in your methods - and a whole lot of self-confidence - to have that as the teaser you hope will make people pick up your parenting book.

Moving beyond flinching

I could write a lot about what makes me cringe when I read Chua's self-description. Let me talk instead about what truths we can take from what she writes.

Psychologist Ruth Chao has done some excellent work over the last 30 years describing how Asian parents - and Chinese parents in particular - have a model of parenting based on the notion of training children, rather than the more Western model of fostering growth. Traditional Asian cultures see mothers as coaches, demanding high performance and obedience to external standards. And like coaches, coddling isn't a part of it - what matters is the child's excellent performance, which reflects both upon the child but also the whole family - the mother in particular. Failure shames the child, but also the parents. (You can see some of this in the Disney film Mulan, where the whole family prepares for the daughter's performance and the daughter's inability to conform causes profound disappointment and brings shame to the family.)

Chao argues that in this tradition, love is expressed through pushing the child to excel . Chinese mothers don't express their love through hugs, praise, and affection. Their primary means of expressing it is through discipline.

Amy Chua's description of herself seems consistent with this. Other things that she says that research supports:

High standards go a long way towards explaining cultural differences in academic performance

One of the things Chua writes about is high standards. She says that a Chinese mother would be disappointed and chastise her child for bringing home an A-. Our data says it's true. In an analysis of 9 schools in California and Wisconsin involving over 23,000 high school students, the lowest grade the average Asian-American kid said they could get without their Mom giving them trouble was, indeed, an A-. Whites said B-. African-American's usually lower. This is not a matter of valuing education. African-American kids reported the highest importance on education, followed by Asian-Americans, then Latinos, with Whites dragging down the bottom.

Steinberg, Dornbusch and Brown, analysing these data, found that within each group, the higher parent expectations, the higher grades kids brought home. Group differences in normative expectations also helped explain why some groups did better than others.

Good parenting takes a lot of time.

One excellent point Chua raises is that good parenting takes a lot of time. It does. My son plays violin. When I began his lessons in first grade - after he had begged me to start for two years - I never realized the commitment it would require FROM ME. Practicing with him an hour a day, six days a week, lessons, orchestra, regional orchestra . . . Yes, he works hard. So do I. Had I known how hard, I'm not sure I would have said yes (I like to think so, but some days . . . . )

I am writing this from Chile, and my youngest is home with the rest of the family. We chat every day over Skype. I've listened to his violin. Monday we spent over an hour going through some long, long, long division with decimal problems that he'd worked on for hours before we started on them together. Tuesday he practiced his Language Arts presentation for me and we Skyped while he glued together his poster. Wednesday it was science and more math review. Yesterday a fast quiz with me revealed that he knew almost NONE of the vocabulary he needed for a Spanish test today (45 minutes of drill with mom, solo studying this morning, and he got a 120 on it this afternoon. Practice works.).

Parents do this all the time. I used to make grumpy noises when some districts in California banned homework because it gave kids with more involved parents an unfair advantage over the already disadvantaged kids whose parents didn't or couldn't help.

I see the point. But kids learn a lot outside of school. And much of that comes with parental help. Most of the math my son knows was learned doing homework with me. That's not a reflection on the quality of his teachers or his schools. It's a matter of the time and individual attention required to master a subject that doesn't come easily to him.

Working with an adult can keep kids motivated when the going gets tough

In a recent post on play, I talked about Vygotskian theory and the idea that children develop by internalizing shared activities. Parents are particularly effective helpers because they can provide good scaffolding - just enough help to stave off frustration, but not enough to stifle struggle, creativity, and satisfaction.

Chua makes the argument that kids are naturally lazy, that nothing is fun until you're good at it, and that it's a mothers' job to force kids to get good enough at things that they should do (schoolwork, music) that they enjoy it.

I have a whole other post about Carol Dwecks' work discussing how different kids respond differently to the frustration of failure. I'm not even going to begin a discussion of whether kids are naturally lazy.

But I do know that kids are more likely to persevere at boring, hard tasks when they're doing them with someone else. And a lot of academic work is hard. And a lot of the drill required to master things like multiplication tables or algebra can be boring. I also feel - following Vygotsky - that when kids work with adults, they work better, focus more, and are less likely to practice their mistakes..

Take my son's violin. The first year he played he was at the easy part of the learning curve. Every day brought big improvements, classes were fun, and he just flew through the material. The second year is tough for both budding violinists and piano students. Both instruments are very hard. The second year is when you know the basics and refine and refine and refine and refine. You keep practicing and the payoff is small. It's frustrating. It's when most kids quit.

And most kids DO quit their instrument. I have lots of friends and family who have kids who began an instrument on their own when young but gave up after a year or so. These friends tell me that my youngest must be really motivated. That's not it.

He's still playing because I practice with him almost every day. I play recorder (learning the violin with him, as recommended in Suzuki training, did not work well for us because it got too competitive) and work him through correction after correction for intonation, counting, rhythm, tempo . . . For my son, it's like having a lesson with a teacher every day.

Like most kids, he got really frustrated his second year when the novelty wore off and the hard work began. He started muttering - then yelling - about quitting. I told him he needed to stick with it until he was in the fourth grade - about a year away at the time (I had faith that if he was still playing then, he'd love it and beginning with school and regional orchestra would add a social pull). He grumbled. We squabbled.

It seemed clear to me that part of the problem is that he wanted more autonomy over his practice time.

So we compromised - I'd work with him the first day after a lesson to make sure he knew what he was doing and again the day before his lesson to make sure he was ready. I gave him more choice about what we did together. For the other four days he needed to put in the time and I was around to answer questions, but he was on his own. In other words, he practiced like most kids learning an instrument practice. He was thrilled for a week. He was bored after two. He begged me to practice with him after a month.

Now he practices violin with me - even when I'm away - and grumbles on those days I'm too busy to give him my full attention when he plays. He's in his sixth year now and loves it (maybe not the practice every day, but the violin). Despite his initial interest and motivation, I don't think he would have done it alone.

Kids know their parents love them because of what they DO, not what they FEEL

Chua says that Chinese moms think they love their kids more than American moms because they are willing to sacrifice everything to make their kids excel. I (and Chua) don't buy it. But one part of that statement is true: kids feel loved because of what you DO not because of what you FEEL or SAY.

Some parents - many in Chile right now, and it's not unusual in the US either - are worried that discipline and strictness will drive their kids away and make them feel unloved,

IT'S NOT TRUE. Kids all over the world see parental rulesetting as the fundamental way in which parents show that they CARE ABOUT and CARE FOR them. It's a parent's job to set rules. (It's a kid's job to complain about them and obey anyway.)

I did an interview study of 120 adolescents in central Pennsylvania. I asked one of them when his curfew was on Friday night. He said Sunday.

Sunday? Well, the car had to be in Friday night, but he didn't have to be home until Sunday.

What did his parents think about him drinking all weekend?

He said they didn't care. And that's what he meant: they didn't CARE.

In our study of the US, Philippines, and Chile, the United States was the only country in which the average adolescent reported - individual issue after individual issue - that their parents set FEWER rules than they thought they had a reasonable right to. (Filipino parents set the most, and Filipino kids were more or less okay with that. Chilean parents set more than the US and Chilean kids just ignored them.)

Protecting and socializing their kids is a parent's job. Kids know that. Kids see caregiving as an act of love. Hugs and kisses are love. Time is love. And so are rules.

Even when kids don't like them.

There is nothing good about threatening or verbally harassing a child.

Ninety years of systematic research all over the world has clearly documented that the single most important protective factor in the lives of children is someone's unconditional love.

I said that kids knew they were loved when their parents are strict. Psychologists call strictness 'behavioral control' when it focuses on influencing what kids DO and does not try to control them through emotional manipulation or assaults on who they ARE. Brian Barber calls that kind of control through manipulation intrusive control or emotional control.

Parents who use emotional control try to change children's behavior by making them feel guilty if they don't conform, by withdrawing love if they don't conform, and by assaulting the child's core sense of self and the integrity of the relationship.

Behavioral control is associated with good performance and high child well-being (partly because, as Chua points out, kids feel great about themselves when they perform well - that's what real self-esteem is).

Intrusive or emotional control is associated with depression, low self-esteem, and anger.

Two of the most cringeworthy episodes Chua writes about are when she talks about her father screaming at her that she was 'garbage'. She describes screaming the same thing at her daughter.

There is nothing positive about that kind of coercive, intrusive parenting. Chua speculates about why Chinese parents can get away with it and still have their kids thrive. I don't think she captures it, but I think it's there in her essay anyway.

She says that she knew - even as he was screaming at her - that her father didn't think she was garbage. She knew he loved her, because he put so much time and effort into caring for her and helping her and pushing her to be her best. She felt guilty and ashamed because she had let him down - which is why he called her 'garbage'.

Thus DESPITE (not because of) his insults, she felt loved. And because she had disappointed someone she loved, she felt motivated to redouble her efforts.

I said before that kids judged their parents' love by actions, not words or feelings. Perhaps this nasty episode shows that children's focus on parental actions can overwhelm even the most negative words.

Parents often think that strict parenting leads to adolescent rebellion. They're wrong.

Decades of research in the US and elsewhere has shown:

  • Stict, authoritarian parents have kids who excel in school, don't get in trouble, and are depressed
  • Permissive parents have kids who feel good about their bad grades, will smoke a joint but probably won't use heroin. In other words, they have moderate self-esteem, lots of friends, poor performance, get in trouble, but not too much.
  • Authoritative parents who are strict, but communicate love, have kids who tend to do well, have good friends, stay out of trouble, and feel good about themselves
  • Abusive, coercive, and intrusive parenting is terrible for kids.

That's true all over the world - even in China.

Different cultures express both love and discipline differently. Both my gut and my research suggests that the best Chinese parents look an awful lot like the best of American parents. Tigers or not.

© 2011 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


Photo credit and caption: From Ms. Chua's album: 'Mean me with Lulu in hotel room... with score taped to TV!' Published in the Wall Street Journal.


Three final thoughts:

The 'one child' policy in China appears to have caused a radical shift in parenting behaviors, as all the attention of the extended family is focused on indulging that one child. Research has yet to emerge about the outcomes of that change.

Research in the US has been somewhat mixed about ethnic variation in which parenting style is 'best' and I want to make sure I mention that before an alert reader does. My reading of this very well-developed but complex literature is that for psychosocial outcomes - how kids feel about themselves, friendships, problem behavior - authoritative parenting is consistently best. In terms of academic outcomes, authoritative parenting has relatively fewer benefits for African-Americans and authoritarian parenting relatively fewer problems for Asian-Americans. One reason for that was already mentioned - differences in parental standards. Another part of it is selection of peer groups. When kids go to schools with segregated peer groups, peers can undermine the influence of parents - for better or for worse. Thus if all your friends have strict parents, you'll probably do well even if your parents are permissive. The converse is true as well. Third, if you live in a dangerous neighborhood, strictness is particularly beneficial, offsetting some of the problems associated with authoritarian parenting in less threatening contexts. Finally, there's measurement. If you measure parental support in terms of a typcially Western expression of love (e.g., 'they tell me they love me', 'they like to spend time just talking to me', 'we do fun things together'), Asian-American parents may not look very warm. However, if you ask kids directly whether they feel loved, Asian-American parents look just fine.

Finally, Urie Bronfenbrenner did a wonderful, but rarely read, analysis on historical variability in the benefits of different parenting styles (unfortunately, published only in a relatively obscure German journal), Looking at the parenting literature historically, he found that, yes, authoriative (or 'democratic' parenting as it used to be known) was always best. However, the advantages of permissive and authoritarian parenting differed by historical period. In historical periods like the 50's, when society emphasized conformity, children whose parents were warm and permissive did quite well. In periods like the 60's when society emphasized self-expression, strictness in the family was a real boon. Thus the relative importance of strictness and warmth partly depends upon social context. He found (in a much earlier study in the 1960's) similar gender differences. He would summarize this work by saying that boys tended to be 'undertamed' and girls 'overtamed'. In other words, boys were encouraged to be independent and assertive and benefited from parenting that was relatively strict to offset their greater tendency towards non-conformity and problem behavior. Girls tended to be encouraged to conform, be 'nice' at the expense of their own ideas and needs, and be very attentive to cues telling them what they should be doing. They benefited particularly from parenting that encouraged self-expression as well as parenting that encouraged excellence rather than conformity. In all cases, it was the balance of support for meeting the needs of the child with the need for the child to learn to meet the needs of othes across all context (family and larger society) that optimized child well-being.


More thoughts from this blog on the Tiger Mom:

Questions from China About the US's obsession with the Tiger Mom

Parenting Effectively: Why Threats Don't Work

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