By now we know better than to accept what is called social science research. Since most of these studies impact politics and policies their conclusions must be taken skeptically.
I was skeptical when I first read University of Texas psychology professor Su Yeong Kim’s study purporting to show that children brought up by Tiger Moms were not only miserable, but performed poorly in school.
You remember the now illustrious Tiger Mom. Amy Chua provoked a major brouhaha when she wrote a book about how she had raised her daughters.
Chua required her girls to work hard at school and at their music lessons. She did not even allow them to go on sleepovers. She taught her children the habits of discipline and perseverance, the better to ensure their future success and achievements.
But, she was willing to modify her approach when she discovered, in the case of her younger daughter, that it was not working. She was not mindlessly rigid.
When her book appeared, American mothers got in touch with their righteous anger and expressed their outrage. To their minds Tiger Moms were instruments of repression. They were horrified to see children being made to work so hard that there was no time for real fun.
American childrearing methods want children to be coddled and nurtured as though they were plants. Children subjected to such a regimen will grow up to flourish. Apparently, this implied that they would be well-rounded individuals who thought the world of themselves and fulfilled all of their human potential.
Besides, all of this Tiger Mom stuff felt strangely alien, even un-American. Yikes.
Defenders of the American style of parenting have been heartened to read Su Yeong Kim’s report, because it supposedly proves their point.
Writing in Slate, Paul Tullis announced the good news:
Children of parents whom Kim classified as “tiger” had lower academic achievement and attainment—and greater psychological maladjustment—and family alienation, than the kids of parents characterized as “supportive” or "easygoing.”
With Kim, Tullis is defending a permissive style of parenting.
Unfortunately, Kim’s study had a very limited scope. She only observed uneducated, lower middle class Chinese immigrants in the San Francisco Bay area:
The vast majority of parents were foreign-born in Hong Kong or southern China, with relatively low educational attainment and a median income of between $30,001 and $45,000 in each of the study’s three phases, spaced out equally over eight years.
Obviously, it matters. A Tiger Mom is actively involved with all of her child’s schoolwork. Uneducated parents cannot do the same.
Tao Jones has explained in The Wall Street Journal on how these factors impacted the way his own tiger parents brought him up:
Class and education clearly play a role in the effectiveness of “Tiger”-style parenting — at least as far as academic achievement. My parents were strict, and had high expectations for my achievement, but they also did much more than just encourage and enforce: They spent hours working with me, answering questions, teaching workarounds, patiently (and sometimes impatiently) putting as much effort into my education as I did. Would that be true of parents who don’t speak English, or didn’t graduate from high school, or who work 80-hour weeks at a restaurant and come home exhausted? You could make a case that for parents whose backgrounds and cultural context don’t allow them to roll up their sleeves and help, being Supportive could certainly produce better results than being Harsh or Tiger.
If a parent spends hours helping a child to do homework or to practice piano, is that overly harsh or is that, dare we say, supportive? Surely, she is more active, involved and engaged than would be a more permissive parent.
Jones interviewed Amy Chua for his article, and she has the last word:
I think ‘traditional’ Asian parenting often is too harsh and oppressive in a nonproductive way, and it’s important to highlight the costs. But then again, if it’s true that Chinese parents are just like Western ones — and if tiger parenting leads to lower grades — then why are Chinese Americans so wildly over-represented at Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and in the best U.S. conservatories and in the Ivy Leagues? I don’t believe that Asians are ‘naturally smarter,’ or that they’re inherently more self-motivated.
Chua does accept that sometimes Asian parents are too oppressive. She might have added that American parents are often too permissive.
But she highlights the inescapable fact that, by all standards of academic excellence, Asian children are largely outperforming their American counterparts.
Chua might have mentioned that in the most competitive public high school in New York, Stuyvesant, next year’s entering class will be over 70% Asian. And it has been widely reported that Asian students are so good that they face quotas at top Ivy League colleges.
Whatever the research says, reality is telling a different story.
Important cultural issues are at play here.
First, American schoolchildren are underperforming in relation to their counterparts in places like Shanghai and Singapore.
Second, many Americans believe that Asian nations are outperforming and outcompeting us economically.
Third, we have refused to do what normal cultures do when they are being outcompeted: that is, to emulate the habits that are succeeding in the other places.
Fourth, it’s about values. Does happiness consist in high achievement or does it come from being well-rounded, from being a dilettante who knows how to have a good time.
In fact, time will tell. The truth will not emerge from a social science study that defies common sense, but from the arena of international economic competition.