US law professor Amy Chua attracted controversy in 2011 when she published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. The traditional Chinese parenting style that Chua described was strict and authoritarian – an approach now referred to popularly as Tiger Parenting, thanks to Chua’s later book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.
Past research supports the idea that parents of Chinese descent, whether in the US or China, tend to be more controlling and authoritarian in their parenting style than parents of European descent. Now a study has made the first direct attempt to examine why this might be. It’s a controversial topic because Chua and others claimed Tiger parenting cultivates successful children, while other research suggests children raised in this way experience more psychological and emotional problems.
Florrie Fei-Yin Ng at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and her colleagues twice, one year apart, surveyed 215 mothers and their 13-year-old sons and daughters. Seventy-one of the mothers were Chinese and living on the east coast of mainland China. One hundred and forty-four of the mothers were American, living in the Mid-West: 84 of European descent, 60 African American.
Consistent with past research, Chinese mothers agreed more often than the American mothers with statements of psychological control like “If my daughter does something I do not like, I sometimes act less friendly to her so that she knows I am disappointed.” The children’s testimony on their parents’ control showed the European American mothers were less controlling than the Chinese, but that the African American mothers were not. Perhaps children in the last group rated their parents as more controlling because they were comparing against the parents of their White peers (and in fact African American mothers did admit to exerting more psychological control than their European American counterparts, but still less than the Chinese mothers).
The novel finding is that Chinese mothers more often than the Americans said their self-worth was tied to the success of their children, agreeing with statements like “When my daughter fails, I feel badly about myself”. Basing their self-worth on their children’s success accounted for 25 per cent of the between-country variance in mothers’ psychological control of their children. The researchers speculated other relevant factors could be: the Chinese notion of guan – according to which parents must dedicate themselves to their offspring, with their children’s success in the eyes of society taken as a sign of good parenting; and the Chinese focus on a “face” culture – the idea that one’s sense of worth is measured by the respect gained from others.
The study doesn’t prove that basing their own self worth in their children’s success causes Chinese mothers to exert greater psychological control over their children. It’s possible the causal direction runs the other way, or both ways. The study is also limited in only focusing on psychological control while neglecting behavioural control. Nonetheless, Ng and her colleagues said their study “provides the first evidence as to one reason why Chinese parents are more controlling with children than are American parents.”
Ng, F., Pomerantz, E., and Deng, C. (2013). Why Are Chinese Mothers More Controlling Than American Mothers? “My Child Is My Report Card”. Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12102