Upfront

Strict and emotionally unsupportive "tiger parenting" isn't common among Chinese-American parents and isn't the formula for high-achieving child prodigies, finds research published in a special issue of APA's Asian American Journal of Psychology on "Tiger Parenting, Asian-Heritage Families, and Child/Adolescent Well-Being."

Researchers say tiger parenting — a term used by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua to describe her parenting style in her 2011 memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" — can be harmful to children's well-being and academic success. Evidence also suggests that Chinese-American and Chinese parents tend to favor a supportive approach to child-rearing over a strict tiger parenting style. In the book, Chua described how she emphasized her daughters' academic and musical achievement over their happiness and self-esteem, giving them little independence and using shame to motivate and discipline them.

"Parenting in the Asian-heritage context is far more complex and nuanced than the stereotypical caricature of the tiger parent," says Michigan State University associate professor Desiree Baolian Qin, EdD, who guest edited the special issue with Linda P. Juang, PhD, of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Irene J.K. Park, PhD, of the University of Notre Dame.

In one study, University of Texas at Austin associate professor Su Yeong Kim, PhD, tracked how the parenting practices of 444 Chinese-American families in northern California affected their children's adjustment over eight years. Comparing child and parent reports, she found parents fit four parenting styles: supportive (45 percent), tiger (28 percent), easygoing (20 percent) or harsh (7 percent).

Kim used four positive and four negative parenting attributes to sort parents by style: Supportive parents, for example, scored high on all positive attributes (such as being warm and explaining why rules are in place) and low on negative ones (such as using shaming to shape behavior). Tiger parents scored high on all eight traits, while easygoing parents scored low on all eight and harsh parents scored high on negative traits and low on positive ones. Supportive parenting was the most common style and linked to the best developmental outcomes and highest grade point averages for the children. Children of tiger parents reported higher rates of depressive symptoms than children with easygoing or supportive parents, as well as high levels of academic pressure and feelings of alienation from parents. "Tiger parenting isn't as effective as [Amy Chua] claims it is," says Kim.

Today's Chinese parents may have already figured that out, suggests a study in the issue led by New York University psychologist Niobe Way, PhD, who interviewed 24 Chinese mothers of middle school students in Nanjing, China. She found that most mothers encouraged their children to be independent and well-socialized as much as they encouraged them to do well in school. These mothers viewed their shift away from some traditional Chinese parenting practices that Chua, a second-generation Chinese immigrant, described in her book as a response to the country's rapidly changing culture and society.

"China is changing and our idea of what is Chinese parenting has changed," says Juang. "There is an emphasis on academic achievement, but that's not all of what they are about." Today's Chinese mothers are equally interested in fostering the traits they believe their children will need to thrive in a market economy, such as self-reliance and confidence, says Juang.

While Chua's notion of Chinese parenting may be outdated, adds Juang, her book expanded the conversation on parenting and culture and triggered tremendous interest in the topic. Kim's research has been covered by the Atlantic, Slate, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio. That interest is a move in the right direction for all types of parenting research, says Park.

"Instead of conducting research in the ivory tower, we can speak directly to the lives of people who are in a dilemma about what form of parenting to take," says Park. "That brings a practical edge to the science."

— Jamie Chamberlin