Study: “Tiger Mom” and her critics are both right about parenting

Stanford researchers find that it's relationships -- not parenting philosophy -- that matter most to kids' success

Topics: Parenting, parents, kids, Tiger Mom, ,

Study: "Tiger Mom" and her critics are both right about parenting

Yale Law professor and world-famous mean mommy Amy Chua made waves in 2011 with a Wall Street Journal article on her hyper-strict parenting style. The backlash to Chua’s “Tiger Mom” manifesto was explosive, with critics accusing her of borderline abuse and hurting her daughters in her quest to make them succeed.

And so began the media battle between Chua and her critics, a debate that often broke down along “Eastern” versus “Western” parenting styles.

But a new study suggests a cease-fire could be on the way. Researchers at Stanford University found that it isn’t the parenting philosophy that matters most to kid’s success — it’s the family culture and strength of the parent-child relationship that really helps kids thrive.

As reported by LiveScience:

The researchers asked 83 high-school students to describe their mothers in a couple of sentences. They found that Asian-American high schoolers were more likely to talk about their mothers’ relationships to themselves than were European-Americans. Asian-Americans tended to mention things such as how their moms helped them with homework or pushed them to succeed, for example.

The European-Americans, on the other hand, were more likely to talk about their mothers as individuals — describing mom’s looks or hobbies, for example. The schism suggests that Asian-Americans and European-Americans really do see moms differently, Fu said.

“For Asian-Americans, they are seeing themselves as connected in some way to their mothers,” lead researcher Alyysa Fu told LiveScience. “Not even just connected, but their mother is part of who they are.”

Next, to assess what the perceived cultural differences meant for parent-child relationships, the researchers asked 61 high-school students to rate how much pressure they felt from their moms, also asking them to rate how closely they depended on their mothers for help and support:

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For European-Americans, such pressure was seen as negative. Kids who felt pressured by mom said she was less supportive and they felt less interdependent with her. But the same was not true for Asian-Americans. For these kids, pressure and support weren’t related; mom could be high-pressure and still be seen as supportive as a low-key mother. The same was true of interdependence and pressure for Asian-American teens. [10 Surprising Facts About the Teen Brain]

“Asian-Americans feel supported by their mothers just as much as the European-Americans do, even though they are experiencing more pressure from their mothers,” Fu said.

The conclusion? Both high-intensity “tiger moms” and the supposedly low-key “Western” moms may have the right idea, as both groups of kids experienced positive academic outcomes associated with support from their parents.

The study reveals the fault lines of the debate aren’t quite as deep as initially assumed. But then again, these things rarely are.

As Chua herself said in a follow-up interview with the Wall Street Journal, she’s gotten softer since her controversial memoir caused such a stir. Her “tiger mom” tactics have been declawed and now she’s just hoping to help her daughters thrive:

I don’t believe that grades or achievement is ultimately what Chinese parenting (at least as I practice it) is really about. I think it’s about helping your children be the best they can be… It’s about believing in your child more than anyone else — even more than they believe in themselves.

 

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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