Beyond the Battle Hymn to Empirical Research on Tiger Parenting

Linda P. Juang, Desiree Baolin Qin, and Irene J. K. Park

“I vividly remember when I was in seventh grade at Horace Mann School that I had been very excited and happy to have received 3 A+ and 2 A grades on a trimester report card until my mom asked me why I had failed to receive 5 A+ grades. She reminded me how expensive Horace Mann was. My flippant response was that grades and tuition were not correlated because other parents also paid the same tuition and some of their kids received a total of zero A+ grades. She was not amused.”

--Peter Huang, law professor at the University of Colorado Law School, from his article “Tiger Cub Strikes Back: Memoirs of an Ex-Child Prodigy About Legal Education and Parenting” British Journal of Legal Studies (2012).

Amy Chua’s 2011 memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother describes in detail her endeavors to push her two daughters to succeed, and in the process, deny them a social life, sleepovers, and play dates. Chua’s depictions and the ensuing media attention thrust Asian American parents into the limelight, their parenting debated and contested throughout the media and on social network sites.  In the two years since Battle Hymn was published, there has been an outpouring of personal stories from former tiger cubs (adult children who were raised by tiger mothers), illustrated by the opening quote by Peter Huang. Commonalities across tiger cub stories are tales of extremely high parental demands for academic excellence, parents who use shaming for motivation, and parents who are never satisfied with anything less than perfection. From here, the stories diverge. Some tiger cubs view their tiger mothers as part of “the dark side”, as in Tiger Babies Strike Back, a new book byKim Wong Keltner. Others are deeply grateful for their tiger mom. Grace Liu, for instance, wrote an opinion piece this month on entitled “Why Tiger Moms are Great.” The critical question remains: Should we, as parents, emulate or reject tiger parenting? To answer this question, we, as researchers, have to gain a much better understanding of tiger parenting, especially the consequences of this type of parenting for children and adolescents. In this brief article, we highlight some recent research on tiger parenting inspired by Amy Chua’s book.

The Asian American Journal of Psychology recently published a Special Issue (March, 2013) entitled “Tiger parenting, Asian-heritage families, and Child/adolescent well-being”. The authors of six empirical articles presented studies focused on Chinese American, Korean American, Hmong American, and Mainland Chinese families. Collectively, the authors employ both qualitative and quantitative methods, present findings on Asian-heritage parenting (including tiger parenting) with a focus on within group differences, and examine how different types of parenting contribute to children’s educational outcomes and psychosocial well-being. In addition, several leading scholars provide commentaries based on their review of the six empirical articles and chart directions for future research.  The special issue contributes to the tiger mom debate by bringing together empirical studies collectively addressing the three questions below. Desiree, Irene, and I were the special issue guest co-editors and here we share some of our thoughts about these three questions.

What defines tiger parenting?

According to Amy Chua, tiger mothers are mothers of Chinese (or other ethnic) origin who are highly controlling and authoritarian and demand unquestioning obedience with little to no concern for the child’s needs, wishes, or emotional well-being to drive their children to high levels of success at any cost, unlike the softer and more forgiving Western parenting style. In the research literature, elements of tiger parenting (e.g., parental control, authoritarianism) have been widely studied, comparing European American and Asian American parents. Researchers have operationally defined tiger parenting in different ways, with some including what may be a uniquely Asian-heritage aspect of tiger parenting—the use of shaming as motivation for improvement. This shaming aspect was central to Chua’s notion of tiger parenting and is included as a central feature of tiger parenting in some, but not all, of the studies in the special issue.

How common is tiger parenting among Asian-heritage families?

Although tiger parenting exists among Asian-heritage families, it is not common or dominant (Kim et al., 2013, reported about 20% of parents in her study were classified as tiger parents).  Importantly, the studies in the special issue collectively show that there is much more variation in Asian-heritage parenting behaviors and practices beyond being strict, controlling, and demanding high academic achievement of their children. Using a range of samples and methodologies, the findings in the special issue suggest that Asian-heritage parents are also warm, supportive, and loving toward their adolescents, themes that have not been emphasized (and perhaps even de-emphasized) in the literature and media.  For instance, Lamborn et al.’s (2013) study shows that Hmong American adolescents view their parents in predominantly positive ways, describing their mothers as being loving, openly communicative, and openly showing affection. And Way et al.’s (2013) study shows that parenting goals in China include wanting their children to be happy, self-sufficient, and socially and emotionally well-adjusted. These findings offer a contrast to the stereotype that Asian-heritage parents as a group behave like tiger parents

What implications does tiger parenting have for child and adolescent development and well-being?

Tiger parenting is not linked to the best child outcomes—neither academically nor socioemotionally. Kim and colleagues (2013), for instance, found in their eight-year longitudinal study that adolescents of tiger parents were more likely than those with supportive or easygoing parents to feel more alienated from their parents, report greater depressive symptoms, and, in contrast to the stereotype of high achievement, report lower GPAs. So, while tiger parenting has received much attention, recent research suggests that the myth surrounding tiger parenting—that children of tiger parents are the highest achieving, resilient, and well-adjusted—is just that: a myth. 

Implications for Parenting Adolescents 

Amy Chua herself has acknowledged that her tiger parenting was no longer effective as her daughter Lulu became a teenager. Indeed, toward the end of her book, Amy Chua admits that in order to save her relationship with her now teenage daughter, she had to abandon her tiger mom ways. Her experience with Lulu is consistent with recent research showing that tiger parenting may not be optimal, especially during the teen years. Parenting that acknowledges changing adolescents’ needs for autonomy and decision-making, within a supportive context, is necessary. Importantly, this support can stem from other close, nonparental relationships. In Peter Huang’s memoir reflecting on his tiger cub experiences, he concludes that if his beloved waipo (grandma) was not there as a counterweight to his tiger mom growing up, he would have turned out very differently:

“I strongly believe that my life would have been different and for the worse had waipo not come to America in 1960 to essentially care for and raise me. She offered a welcome balance to and counterweight for my tiger mom’s parenting. She also provided a safe haven and space for me to question and push back against my tiger mom’s parenting. Finally, waipo became a life-long role model of how to live with grace under pressure and to find humor and joy every day.”

To conclude, emerging research suggests that tiger parenting does not typify Asian-heritage mothers or fathers and does not necessarily result in academic excellence or optimal social and emotional well-being. Rather, the current research suggests that Asian-heritage parents use a variety of parenting strategies, some of which are culturally consonant with their heritage culture and some of which are drawn from the mainstream society, in order to love and care for their growing adolescents in this rapidly changing world. Finally, as parents should we emulate or reject tiger parenting? Seen from the findings of our special issue, we say reject.

Author Bios:

Linda Juang is a Lecturer at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on issues of culture, immigration, and adolescent development and health among immigrant youth.  

Desiree Qin is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on mental health of high-achieving students and how migration impacts family dynamics.

Irene J. K. Park is an Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on culture, family processes, and mental health among Asian American and Latino adolescents and their families.

Below is the list of articles in the Special Issue of the Asian American Journal of Psychology, “Tiger parenting, Asian-heritage families, and child/adolescent well-being”:

Cheah, C. S. L., Leung, C. Y. Y., & Zhou, N. (2013). Understanding “tiger parenting” through the perceptions of Chinese immigrant mothers: Can Chinese and U.S. parenting coexist? Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 30-40.

Choi, Y., Kim, Y. S., Kim, S. Y., & Park, I. J. K. (2013). Is Asian American parenting controlling and harsh? Empirical testing of relationships between Korean American and Western parenting measures. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 19-29.

Deater-Deckard, K. (2013). “Tiger” parents, other parents. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 76-78.

Juang, L. P., Qin, D. B., & Park, I. J. K. (2013). Deconstructing the myth of the “tiger mother”: An introduction to the special issue on tiger parenting, asian-heritage families, and child/adolescent well-being. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 1-6.

Kim, S. Y., Wang, Y., Orozco-Lapray, D., Shen, Y., & Murtuza, M. (2013). Does “tiger parenting” exist? parenting profiles of chinese americans and adolescent developmental outcomes. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 7-18.

Lamborn, S. D., Nguyen, J., & Bocanegra, J. O. (2013). Hmong american adolescents' perceptions of mothers' parenting practices: Support, authority, and intergenerational agreement. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 50-60.

Lau, A. S., & Fung, J. (2013). On better footing to understand parenting and family process in Asian American families. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 71-75.

Supple, A. J., & Cavanaugh, A. M. (2013). Tiger mothering and hmong american parent–adolescent relationships. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 41-49.

Way, N., Okazaki, S., Zhao, J., Kim, J. J., Chen, X., Yoshikawa, H., Jia, Yueming, &  Deng, H. (2013). Social and emotional parenting: Mothering in a changing Chinese society. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4(1), 61-70.

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