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Do Asian-American Parents Push Their Kids?

• January 18, 2011 • 2:28 PM

Does the Tiger Mother get it right? While some view Asian-Americans as pushy, stressing their children into exceptional achievement, research doesn’t bear out that stereotype.

Asian-American parenting might look pushy and pressuring to Western eyes. But that’s not so, say researchers, pointing to studies where Asian-American kids say their parents’ guidance is warm and loving.

Of course, these researchers didn’t look at the parenting of Amy Chua, author of the just-published Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua rightly thinks parents should hold high expectations and encourage kids to work hard and achieve competence. But she tells of doing so herself through harsh pressure, such as threatening to take away her daughter’s toys, holiday presents, and even lunch and dinner.

That portrayal of Chinese parents as domineering, overbearing and intrusive plays into the false and negative stereotype of Chinese mothers in particular, says Ruth Chao, a University of California, Riverside, psychologist and leading researcher of Asian-American parenting practices.

Asian-American parenting is distinctly different from the white middle-class style, Chao says. However, it doesn’t typically include demeaning and unloving coercion. While the Chinese describe their parental role as guan — which literally means “to govern,” or “control” — that word also denotes “to care for” and even “to love.” Chao illustrates the affectionate aura of guan by highlighting its role in romantic relationships. “One partner may say, ‘You’re not guan-ing me enough.’ That means, ‘You’re not paying me enough attention.’”

Studies have found that parental behavior that feels controlling to North American and German children feels warm and accepting to Japanese and Korean children.

The different reactions to parents’ control stem from differing cultural values. Western cultures value individuality and independence highly, so Western teenagers feel rejected when their parents exert a great deal of control, explains Gisela Tromssdorff of the Technical University in Aachen, Germany. On the other hand, she writes, “Japanese adolescents … feel rejected by their parents when they experience only little control.”

[class name="dont_print_this"]

College Reversal?

Studies find a decline in Asian-American students’ success once they move away from home and go to college. Read about it here.[/class]

What seems pushy to Western eyes may simply feel like everyday parental expectations to an Asian-American child. High expectations are “a given, like three meals a day,” says Brown University psychologist Jin Li. “And why are you going to question three meals a day?” When she lowers academic expectations, says Li, her son wonders what’s wrong.

Similarly, Asian-American children understand that their parents’ “firm governance” reflects their care and concern, Chao says. They realize their parents are helping them achieve and bring honor to the family. Rather than feeling externally pressured, children internalize their parents’ goals — especially of academic achievement — making them their own. So they tend to accept their parents’ rules rather than bristle at them, as illustrated by a conversation psychologist Wendy Grolnick had with one of her Clark University students, a Chinese-American whose parents refused to let her sleep over at friends’ houses or wear trendy fashions.

“You might not believe this,” she told Grolnick, “but we never fought about sleepovers or clothes. I knew they loved me and that the family came first for them.”

Westerners who don’t see Asian-American parents hugging and kissing their children or praise them in words may think them cold, says Chao, but as a child she felt strongly sure of her immigrant father’s love without such clues, because he showed his warmth through guan — devotion, sacrifice and thoughtfulness.

“That may be by anticipating a child’s needs or indulging the child through the special things that they love — like cooking a child their favorite meal,” says Chao. “That goes along with their involvement and investment in their children’s lives, especially around their schooling.”

Adds Soka University psychologist Esther Chang, “If you measure expressions of warmth, there are cultural differences; but if you measure feelings of warmth, that’s a cultural universal.”

Of course, parents who are restrictive or domineering, especially if they’re also hostile and rejecting, harm their children. When University of Western Ontario psychologist Xinyin Chen studied 304 second graders and their parents in Beijing, for example, he found that kids whose parents scolded, criticized and spanked them didn’t behave or achieve well in school, or have many friends. But children whose parents gave reasons for rules and encouraged their kids to explore, ask questions and express their opinions did better all around.

“In the long run, harsh pressure harms both achievement and psychological well-being,” says Grolnick. Research has shown that kids can achieve highly when, rather than forcing them, their parents encourage their interests, allow them choice in some activities and give reasons for taking on others. That’s the kind of parenting that results in kids “finding their passions, sticking with them and excelling,” she says. That harmonizes, she adds, both with parents imposing consistent guidelines and rules, and with the mountains of involvement that Amy Chua describes devoting to her kids.

What about stress? Stereotypes portray Asian kids — and Asian-American kids — as pressured, anxious and even suicidal. Researchers have found, however, that Asian-American schoolchildren are no more stressed out than other kids (although Asian-American college students do have the highest suicide rate of any ethnicity.)

Still, this stereotype persists in some quarters. For example, on her chinspiration.com website, cancer scientist Jane Chin writes about her history of depression and how she attributes its origin to her never-good-enough upbringing.

Statistically, the case is less universal. Northern Illinois University education professor Carol Huntsinger, for example followed 80 ethnically Chinese and ethnically white preschoolers and kindergartners over four years. The Chinese-American kids, whose parents taught them more formally at home and structured their time more, scored higher on math and vocabulary tests than the white kids. But these Chinese-American kids were no more anxious or withdrawn, nor did they have more stress-related physical complaints — headaches or stomachaches — than the other children. And they related to their teachers and friends just as well as the white students.

What about older kids? Chuansheng Chen, professor of psychology, social behavior and education at the University of California, Irvine, studied nearly 5,000 11th-grade math students in three countries, including 300 Asian-Americans and 2,000 white Americans. (The others were in Taiwan and Japan.) How often, asked Chen, did they feel depressed and stressed? Want to hit someone or destroy something? Did they feel nervous while taking tests? Suffer from headaches and stomachaches?

None of the 11th-graders reported high levels of depression, aggressive feelings or physical symptoms. But Asian-American and white Americans reported the same high level of stress. In addition, the Asian-Americans said they were slightly more anxious academically, but the researchers rated that anxiety only “moderate.”

“Many hours of studying and high parental standards didn’t seem to cause the Asian- American high school students any noteworthy psychological distress,” Chen concluded.

To be sure, some researchers have found that Asian-American college students, especially recent immigrants, have more emotional problems than white students, but no studies have found their parents’ pushing for academic success as the cause.

For example, a 1996 study of 133 Asian-American and 91 white college students by Stanley Sue, director of Center for Excellence in Diversity at Palo Alto University, found that the Asian-Americans felt more depressed and anxious than the white students. It didn’t however point to academic pressure from parents as the cause of these problems. Indeed, the authors speculated the depression and anxiety stemmed from the many difficulties in their lives as a minority group.

Although Sue does believe that there’s an “emotional cost” to Asian-American parents’ expectations for academic achievement, Li feels that a host of other factors may be responsible for any stress, depression or anxiety among Asian-American students. They have to straddle two cultures at once, she points out. ”Children absorb American culture much more deeply and faster than their parents,” she points out. “A lot of them lead double lives.” That can create both emotional distance and conflict at home.

But children who succeed academically gain an immediate psychological benefit, Li adds. They feel proud of their accomplishment. ”My son cares a lot about his academic achievement,” she says. “For him it’s a source of pride.”

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Kathy Seal
Kathy Seal is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Carnegie Reporter. Co-author of two books — Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Holt, 2001) and Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus, 2008 ) — she speaks frequently at schools on motivating children to learn. She is now at work on a memoir.

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