The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom: Lessons from Asian American Parenting

3 hours of piano lessons a day. Extra homework. Furious complaints that their son’s 600 SAT Reading score just wasn’t “good enough.”

As a teacher with her share of experience with the “battle hymn” of the tiger mom, I’ve always thought authoritarian parenting-the setting of rigid, exacting (and, some might argue, impossible) standards must be unhealthy for the child.

Yes, a perfectionist and hard-working Asian American myself, I value commitment to rigor and academic excellence, but these parents were too much. Doesn’t demanding so much from your children inevitably hurt them? Damage their self-worth?

Forever bound by the hyphen, I may be Asian but I’m also American; these Chinese-American parents’ insistence on perfection often seemed cruel: what if your child couldn’t meet your impossible expectations? He’d feel worthless, like a failure. Even if he was capable of getting straight-As, serving as president of the French club and winning the national tennis championships, wouldn’t the pursuit of such high standards wear him out? I remember watching so many of my students work themselves into a hysteria over an A-. Their parents’ unrealistic ambitions, I thought, were unfairly robbing them of a childhood. 

But after examining the statistics social psychologist Roy Baumeister and journalist John Tierney provide, I’m a little less confident in my original analysis. Yes, Chinese-Americans are tough but their authoritarian style gets results: by the age of 2, most Chinese-American children are expected to possess the self-control of American children twice their age; Chinese-American students consistently outperform their American counterparts in school and-though they only account for roughly 7% of the U.S. population-Chinese-Americans make up more than 25% of the nation’s most prestigious schools.

tiger mom

In their fascinating study of willpower Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Baumeister and Tierney make a compelling argument for stricter, Asian American-style parenting:

Delayed gratification has been a familiar theme in the homes of immigrants like Jae and Dae Kim, who were born in South Korea and raised 2 daughters in North Carolina. The sisters, Soo and Jane, became a surgeon and a lawyer, respectively, as well as coauthors of Top of the Class, a book about Asian parents’ techniques for fostering achievement. They tell how their parents started teaching them the alphabet before their second birthday, and how their mother was never one to reward a child whining for candy at the supermarket. When they reached the checkout counter, before the girls had a chance to beg, Mrs. Kim would preempt them by announcing that if they each read a book the following week, she would buy them a candy bar on the next shopping trip. Later, when Soo went off to college and asked her parents for a cheap used car to get around, they refused but offered to buy her a brand-new car if she was admitted to medical school. Thus, the parents did provide good things for their daughters-but each treat was meted out as a reward for some valued achievement.

The many Asian American success stories have forced developmental psychologists to revise their theories about proper parenting. They used to warn against the “authoritarian” style, in which parents set rigid goals and enforced strict rules without much overt concern for the child’s feelings. Parents were advised to adopt a different style, called “authoritative,” in which they set limits but gave more autonomy and paid more attention to the child’s desires. This warmer, more nurturing style was supposed to produce well-adjusted, self-confident children who would do better academically and socially than those from authoritarian homes. But then, as Ruth Chao and other psychologists studied Asian-American families, they noticed that many of the parents set strict rules and goals. These immigrants, and often their children, too, considered their style of parenting to be a form of devotion, not oppression. Chinese-American parents were determined to instill self-control by following the Confucian concepts of chiao shin, which means “to train,” and guan, which means both to govern and to love. These parents might have seemed cold and rigid by American standards, but their children were flourishing both in and out of school” (Baumeister 195-196).

Though the self-esteem movement has most Americans preaching the importance of positive reinforcement and constant praise, statistical comparisons of Chinese-American and American children show that our national resistance to more traditional forms of discipline may be counterproductive. By refusing to withhold rewards for exceptional work and instead applauding mediocrity, our “everyone-gets-a-trophy-culture” promises American children will lack the discipline, diligence and self-control to attain success at the rate of their Asian-American counterparts. In fact, our emphasis on building self-esteem rather than character has led to rampant narcissism among today’s youth; in study after study, American children are shown to feel better about performing worse. We may rank as one of the world’s worst countries in math, but our students leave that exam room convinced they did well, better, even, than students from China and South Korea.

chinese american students

Has our refusal to embed values like self-control led to an epidemic of narcissism and delusional thinking in our culture?

After reviewing the data, I think so.

A soft, nurturing type, discipline has never come easy to me. Like many Americans, I was raised with the belief that too stern a style would intimidate and damage my students. Little did I know that-by refusing to consistently enforce rules and demand that my students meet my high expectations for behavior-was I actually setting them up for failure.

We insist that every child get a trophy because we’re afraid the children who don’t earn a prize won’t feel good enough. We are a nation of coddlers. We fret more about hurting our children’s feelings than establishing real opportunities for boosting self-worth.

It is only when we delay gratification-like, say, the Kims, who required that Soo be admitted into medical school before she got a new car-that we teach our children the perseverance and hard work they’ll need to be successful. Awarding our children with trophies they didn’t earn it is like rewarding them for work they haven’t done: it sets the expectation that you will always be recognized even when you didn’t work hard enough.

Perhaps this is why Baby Boomers so often lament the laziness and narcissism of our generation. Little do they know that it is their laid-back, hands-off style parenting that is to blame for so much that is wrong with our culture.

Can their generation’s distaste for the conventional type of parenting they endured as children explain my generation’s apparent failures to be autonomous and grow-up?

Can growing numbers of “boomerang kids”-adult-aged children who move back in with their parents-be a result of “you’re always good enough” coddle-style parenting?

In many ways, my generation was spoon-fed the misleading and ultimately false belief that we mattered. When we graduated from college and still couldn’t get menial jobs, we were shocked: this wasn’t how our parents told us the world worked. We were supposed to graduate college and immediately have careers. A degree, in fact, was supposed to guarantee us a job. Like an invitation-only after party, our degree was the ticket to prosperity and instant success.

But, in reality, it wasn’t good enough.

We needed real experience in our fields to be competitive, not to mention higher GPAs. Maybe our parents did spoil us.

Because we were always rewarded no matter what, many of us held the mistaken assumption that we’d always get what we want. We expected the world to just give us things but, we soon realized, that’s not how the world worked.

By American standards, the Asian American insistence on excellence and achievement may seem severe, but-time and time again-it’s proven to get results. Perhaps it’s time we open our ears to the galvanizing battle hymn of the tiger mom.

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One thought on “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom: Lessons from Asian American Parenting

  1. Pingback: TAKE BACK CONTROL AS A PARENT - Reclaiming My Existance

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