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Tiger Mom and Science

The Truth About Tiger Parenting: What Research Tells Us

Do "Tons of Studies" Support Tiger Mom?

Tiger Mom claims that her approach is how most Asian mothers parent. She goes on to say that children brought up using her approach will achieve more than others. Many parents have wondered if she's right.

Research exists on how different parenting styles affect kids. In parenting research, her style would be referred to as authoritarian: demanding of, controlling of, and unresponsive to children. In contrast, authoritative parenting sets standards but promotes independence in children. Permissive parenting gives lots of praise, but without making demands or setting limits.

We parents can look at research to judge the merits of Tiger Mom's approach. But, is there evidence, other than Tiger Mom's personal experience, that supports her assertion? Are Asian parents more authoritarian, and does authoritarian parenting produce better kids?

Are Asian Families Coercive and Americans Permissive? NO!

In Tiger Mom's Wall Street Journal article, she claims there are "tons of studies" showing that "Westerners" practice leniency more than Asians when parenting. But, in truth, studies of parenting do not support her claim. I've summarized two examples of such research.

A study published in 2000, looked at 166 boys and girls living in Beijing and Shanghai. The authors found that Chinese mothers used authoritative parenting much more so than authoritarian parenting. They wrote "The majority of maternal strategies were low power behaviors including information exchanges and suggestion and explanations."

Another study published in 2010 compared U.S. "European-American" families, U.S. "Asian-American" families, and Taiwanese families. In contrast to Tiger Mom's assertions, almost 49% of the European-American parents used authoritative parenting, as did about 46% of the Asian-American parents. Both groups revealed about the same number of parents using authoritarian (Tiger Mom-style) parenting (23% for European-Americans, and 26% for Asian-Americans).

The 2010 study also revealed that Taiwanese parents used authoritative parenting at about the same rate (43%) as Asian-American parents (46%). In other words, the number using authoritative parenting was virtually the same for both groups.

Tiger Mom implies, in her WSJ article, that most Asian mothers parent like her. But, Tiger parenting is not the way that most Asian moms raise their children. Clearly, Tiger Mom over-stated her case.

Do Coerced Children Achieve More? NO!

The 2010 study also found that U.S. Asian-American children did about as well in school if from authoritarian families or authoritative families. Of the Taiwanese children, the authors wrote "students with authoritarian parents had significantly lower test scores than students with authoritative parents." While Tiger Mom argues that her parenting approach of "coercion" produces "stereotypically successful kids," she is not right. In fact, the researchers from 2000 study concluded "authoritarian parenting should not be granted too much importance in its role in Asian educational achievement."

A Final Word from an Older Parent

We want to believe we do the right thing as parents. We sometimes try to avoid self-doubt and guilt by justifying our actions as moms and dads. Tiger Mom appears motivated to prove she is right, even if she isn't. Her WSJ article tells about her argument with "Jed," and how she used sarcasm in justifying to him her coercive parenting of their 4 year old, Lulu. Tiger Mom eventually gained compliance from her daughter after calling her "lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic." She ends her Lulu story with "Even Jed gave me credit for that one."

Seldom do families publicly reveal the intimate, and disturbing, details of how consumed one parent is with proving she is right. Her story is not evidence that aggressive parenting is good, Asian parenting. It simply shows how strongly she needs to be thought of as right.

Moms and dads want to parent well. My experience, and education, tells me: Good parenting is not Tiger parenting. Instead, Tiger parenting limits children socially, and uses coercion and fear to motivate compliance, not achievement.

My wife and I were discussing a talk she attended by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a well-known pediatrician. Dr. Ginsburg talked about letting children make decisions for themselves, so that they bounce back from stress and disappointment. For example, instead of yelling at children about running into the street, ask them what would happen if they did.

We tried the strategy with Connor. When we asked him about running into the street, he came to his own conclusion that he would be hurt. He kept himself safe and learned to make good decisions on his own--without being corrected by his parents. While Tiger parenting would belittle children, we taught Connor to think for himself. We gave him a life-long skill for success.

My advice is this: Set expectations high, communicate why things are important, and provoke independent thinking with questions. Try giving children feedback and sharing your rationale for your demands. Ask them to think about how good it feels to succeed. This approach takes more time. But, in the long run, children become less defiant, and more successful. Years from now, your children will prove just how much better authoritative parenting is. You'll be proud of them, and yourself, when they do.

Dr. Ginsburg's book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens, can be purchased from the American Academy of Pediatrics.