Tiger Mothers: Is overly controlling parenting superior?

A tiger-like approach to parenting: The key to raising successful children?

Date: April 03, 2012

The idea of the “Tiger Mom,” illustrated in Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has catapulted the issue of parenting styles across cultures into public consciousness. Overwhelming attention surrounding the book has left many parents thinking Chua’s tiger-like approach to parenting is the best way to produce successful children.  A developmental and educational scientist at Texas A&M University challenges the notion, however, stating that strict and overly controlling parenting can have a variety of negative outcomes on the child.

Jeffrey Liew, an associate professor of learning sciences in the Department of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M, says it is important to refer to the large body of research on child and human development that indicates harsh and psychologically controlling parenting is consistently associated with a host of negative developmental consequences.

In the book, Chua details her journey as a mother raising two daughters “the Chinese way,” as she says. Her stories of not allowing sleepovers or school plays, never accepting a grade lower than an A, insisting on practicing piano and violin for hours on end and even referring to her oldest daughter as “garbage,” has created a media buzz around the controversial book.

“In the Chinese culture, the tiger is the living symbol of strength and power that elicits both fear and respect,” said Liew. “Accordingly, such a tiger-like approach to parenting is sometimes believed to be the optimal way to raise successful children.”

Liew, however, believes that a parenting style like that of the “Tiger Mom,” may be one way to develop high achieving children, but that success comes at a significant cost, including the social-emotional well being and mental health of the child.

The message the public is taking away from the book sparked interest in Liew’s latest research endeavor.

Liew and his research team studied 100 Chinese American families in the Houston metropolitan area about the role of parenting practices and adolescents’ developmental and academic outcomes. They found that parenting styles among Chinese Americans that promote adolescents’ autonomy and self-regulation predicts not only positive mental health and adjustment outcomes, but also academic achievement. Of note, this success comes without risking the social-emotional well being of the child.

“There are decades of research that show overly controlling and intrusive parenting negatively impacts children in a variety of ways,” said Liew. “The problem is that there has been extremely limited research on Asian Americans and ethnic minority children and youth. Our research is part of an effort to fill that gap and contribute to the existing research literature on parenting practices and child outcomes for families with diverse cultural backgrounds.”

Rather than using psychological control such as fear, intimidation and punishment to discipline children, Liew believes parents should endorse clear standards and limits with high expectations, while also being responsive and supportive of their children’s needs. This includes parenting that allows children to make their own choices, rather than forcing or pressuring.

“To nurture children to become healthy, well adjusted and high achieving, parents need to balance being strict with being responsive to children’s developmental needs, which includes allowing them opportunities for choice and autonomy,” said Liew.

The team’s research is funded by a grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.