"Tiger mom" and Yale professor Amy Chua caused an uproar last year with a Wall Street Journal article about the superiority of her strict, Chinese-style version of parenting. Now, research suggests that critics of the piece may have had a point: High-achieving Chinese-American children do, in fact, struggle more with depression, stress and low self-esteem than their equally high-achieving European-American counterparts, and the reason involves parenting style.
Chua's piece, excerpted from her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" (Penguin Press, 2011), extolled the virtues of strictness, blunt criticism and an unyielding insistence on academic perfection. In the essay, she tells the story of making her 7-year-old daughter sit at the piano without food or bathroom breaks until she mastered a difficult piece.
Strict parenting and stellar academic achievement are common in Chinese immigrant families, according to Desiree Baolian Qin, a professor in the department of human development and family studies at Michigan State University. But unfortunately, so are depression, stress and other so-called "internalizing" disorders.
"If you're doing well, you should be feeling good," Qin told LiveScience. "But what I've found persistently in my research is that that's not the case."
Family and mental health
In a new study to be published in the Journal of Adolescence, Qin compared 295 Chinese-American ninth graders with 192 European-American ninth-graders at the same highly competitive U.S. school. This high school, in a northeastern U.S. state, accepts only the top 5 percent of applicants by test scores. Thus, all the children in the study were academic all-stars.
Earlier research had turned up disturbing patterns of mental health struggles in Chinese-American high-achievers, Qin said. She wanted to understand why. So she and her colleagues had the two groups of ninth graders fill out questionnaires to measure their grades, levels of anxiety and depression and the amount of conflict in their families. The researchers also asked about how much warmth and support they felt from their parents, a measure called family cohesion.
"It wasn't completely surprising, but I was still a little shocked that in all these measures of family conflicts and cohesion and mental health, we see the Chinese kids were more disadvantaged," Qin said. "They reported higher levels of conflict, particularly around education, and they report much lower levels of cohesion." [7 Things That Will Make You Happy]
Not only that, but they were more stressed and depressed than the Euro-American counterparts, and they had lower self-esteem.
The culprit, Qin found, had everything to do with family. The more conflict and less cohesion in a teen's family, the more likely they were to have poor mental health. When the researchers removed conflict and cohesion from the statistical analysis, essentially erasing those differences between the white and Asian kids, the mental health difference also disappeared.
"Parent-child relations are the main factors that contribute to their lower levels of reported mental health," Qin said.
In a second study, Qin conducted in-depth interviews with18 of the Chinese students at the school. She found that academics are an enormous point of contention in Chinese-American families. The students complained that their parents talked constantly about academics and reacted emotionally to failure.
"They just take everything so literally, and exaggerate," one female student told Qin, "like if I get one bad grade, they think, 'Oh no, you're going to fail school, you're going to become one of those bad girls who do drugs.'"
Students also struggled with being compared to other children or family members, such as an older sibling who went to an Ivy League college. They even mentioned struggling with a cultural gulf between themselves and their parents. For example, one student said that she had a tough time in her relationship with her mother because American culture values standing up for oneself, while her Chinese-born mother feels that children should respect their parents and do as they're told.
While East Asian culture has a deeply ingrained focus on education, many of the issues that arise in these families are migration-related, Qin said. All the Chinese children in the larger sample had immigrant parents, she said, while almost none of the European-American kids did.
"My co-authors and I are not pathologizing Chinese kids and saying, 'Oh my God, Chinese kids are oppressed,'" Qin said. "The findings really point to immigration and the challenges created by migration in families."
"When children are caught in between their parents' old way of parenting and being and culture and the new in the U.S., then that can be very, very tough for children in a variety of ways."
Finding a middle ground
Not all Chinese parents take the "tiger" approach, of course. In fact, Qin's in-depth interviews, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, found that even strict "tiger parenting" is not black and white. The parents of the kids in the study worried about their children's health and happiness, and expressed sympathy when the children were overworked.
"They have a lot of internal conflict," Qin said of these parents. "They want them to be successful in the new land, and they want them to be healthy."
Fortunately, both are possible, Qin said. In a 2008 paper, Qin compared high-achieving Chinese-American students who were distressed with Chinese-American high-achievers who were mentally healthy. She found that the teens in families where parents take a strict "tiger mom" approach were the distressed ones. The high-achieving Chinese-American kids with more flexible parents did just as well in school, but were happy, too.
That's the important message for all parents, "tiger" or not, Qin said. It's not a problem to have high expectations for your child, she said. You just have to communicate those expectations with love and warmth.
"You can have a happy child with high achievement," Qin said. "A lot of families do have that."