Applied Psychology OPUS

Parental Influence on Asian Americans’ Educational and Vocational Outcomes

Donna Poon

 In American culture and education, Asian Americans have been stereotyped as “the model minority” (Lee, 1994). The model minority stereotype presents Asian Americans as valuing hard work and education, despite studies which report that Asian Americans vary widely in their cultural values and levels of academic achievement (Suzuki, 1994; Wong, Lai, Nagasawa & Lin, 1998). Between the 1850s and the 1950s Asian American immigrants were denied the fundamental civil, marital and tenant rights enjoyed by the white majority, including joining unions, obtaining professional licenses, owning land, marrying American women, and living outside ethnic ghettos (Xie & Goyette, 2003). When the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted discriminatory immigration quotas, Asian Americans were finally allowed to become U.S. citizens (Ludden, 2006). Over time, Asian Americans managed to achieve above-average measures of socioeconomic status despite having suffered numerous years of severe discrimination and prejudice (Cheng & Bonacich, 1984; Hurh & Kim, 1989; Xie & Goyette, 2003). The influence of first-generation Asian American parents on their U.S.-born children’s educational and vocational decisions may reflect their harsh experiences as immigrants in the United States as well as Confucian values (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Such values include filial piety, which is the act of respecting one’s elders, and interdependence, otherwise known as family centrality (Chao & Tseng, 2002). This paper seeks to explore how first-generation Asian American parents influence their U.S.-born children’s educational and vocational outcomes through the Asian American historical and cultural context.  

Social and Historical Context of Asian Americans in the United States

The historical and social context of the Asian American community in the United States affects the demands and expectations that Asian American parents have for their children (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Many Asians immigrate to the United States motivated by financial need, in pursuit of the “American dream” of greater employment and education opportunities for themselves and their children (Bates, 1997). Throughout history, the number of Asian Americans who achieve equal—and sometimes greater—socioeconomic status in comparison to the white majority in terms of education, occupation and income are high (Barringer, Gardner, & Levin, 1993). Today, immigrants who come to the United States in pursuit of economic and domestic stability project their personal aspirations onto their children by ensuring their children’s academic success to the best of their ability (Yang, 2007).


In the context of U.S. society, some Asian Americans subject themselves to the self-fulfilling prophecy principle by internalizing to the model minority stereotype and adapting their behavior to what they believe is expected of them (Wilkins, 1976). In addition to societal pressure, Asian Americans also struggle to meet their parents’ high educational expectations. As a result, an insurmountable amount of pressure presented by both society and the family may pose as a psychological threat to Asian Americans who are expected to uphold high standards of educational, economic and social achievement and who fear being seen as flawed or inadequate (Singh, 2009).


Current research shows that the academic interests and occupations of Asian Americans are concentrated in the science and technology fields but underrepresented in the fields of humanities and social sciences (Leong & Serafica, 1995). According to the National Science Foundation (2012), in 2010, 49 percent of Asian American undergraduates in the United States reported that they intended to major in science and engineering; specifically, 18 percent had intended on majoring in biological science and engineering while 15 percent intended on majoring in agricultural science and engineering. The educational interests displayed by Asian American undergraduates are not completely reflective of their personal academic interests for due to cultural and parental influences.

Asian Cultural Influences on Parent-Child Relationships

Educational pressure from Asian American parents play a large role in their children’s vocational outcomes (Leong, 1985). Many parents expect their children to enter the highly demanding fields of engineering or medicine so that they will have increased chances of aquiring a well-paying job and higher socioeconomic status (Tang & Fouad, 1997). Asian American parents share common goals for their children because of their similar cultural background in Confucian ideology and values of filial piety and interdependence (Barringer et al., 1993; Chao & Tseng, 2002). Filial piety and interdependence are demonstrated through family cohesion in most Asian American households (Chao & Tseng, 2002). Because family often takes the utmost priority in Asian culture, Asian Americans view it as the central reference group for all social interactions associated with education, politics, money, and religion (Chao & Tseng, 2002; Ho, 1996). Therefore, Asian American students comply with the academic and vocational decisions made by their parents as an act of filial piety. Students take caution when making educational or vocational decisions because their actions are reflective of their parents’ abilities to cultivate and raise the child (Chen, 1996). In other words, Asian Americans feel the need to respect their family’s reputation by appeasing the demands and expectations that their parents have for them.


Aligning with Confucian ideals, Asian American children fulfill their duties of filial piety and interdependence by doing well in school and finding a steady job as compensation for their parents’ sacrifices and financial difficulties as first-generation immigrants (Fuligni & Pedersen, 2002). Sue and Okazaki (1990) introduce the concept of relative functionalism as the way Asian Americans seek occupations that give them greater opportunities to succeed because of their desire to evade blocked opportunities (Sue & Okazaki, 1990). Blocked opportunities, which arise from the model minority stereotype, are a result of racial bias toward Asian Americans that prevent them from seeking jobs that extend beyond their expected job placements. Understanding that it is more difficult for them to climb the social ladder as compared to their white counterparts, Asian Americans seek medical or business-related occupations such as that have great potential for economic success, rather than aspiring for occupations related to politics or entertainment that has comparatively more economic success barriers (Sue & Okazaki, 1990; Tang, 2002).


Past research indicates that Asian Americans are less likely to exhibit cultural behaviors and characteristics for each generation that is further removed from the immigrant generation (Makabe, 1979; Phinney, Horenczyk, Liebkind, & Vedder, 2001). Acculturation, defined as the dynamic psychological process of identifying with the values, behaviors and attitudes of a non-native cultural environment, may partially explain the generational differences in culture retention of Asian Americans in the United States (Phinney, Horenczyk, Liebkind, & Vedder, 2001). Research on the study of acculturation and parent involvement indicates that being under multicultural influence affects Asian American students’ vocational decisions (Atkinson, Whiteley, & Gim, 1990; Leong & Tata, 1990). Studies show that Asian American students are more likely to comply with their parents, whereas white Americans are more likely to make career choices independently (Tang, 2002). This supports the notion that Asian society is a collectivist society that encourages group work, whereas American society is an individualistic society that fosters independence (Moy, 1992). However, depending on the acculturation level of the individual, Asian Americans may be less likely to be influenced by their parents’ occupational expectations (Tang, 2002). Furthermore, acculturated Asian Americans may not be as willing to compromise with their parents because of intergenerational parent-child conflicts, such as cultural, marital, economic, and lifestyle disagreements that arise from generational and cultural differences (Lee, Choe, Kim, & Ngo, 2000).

Role of the Asian Parents in Children’s Educational and Vocational Outcomes

The parenting styles of Asian American parents in intergenerational families embody Confucian values (Chao, 1994). Asian American parents strongly value a good education and believe that parental effort is a crucial factor in the children’s academic achievements (Chao & Tseng, 2002). Asian American parents believe that education is a strong predictor of future success, implying that an ‘improper’ education leads to failure (Chao & Tseng, 2002). For example, in The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (2011), portrays all Chinese mothers as being “tiger mothers,” or authoritarian parents who force their children into endless hours of piano practice and rigorous tutoring in fear of their children’s future failure. Research shows, however, that Chinese parenting styles are both authoritative and authoritarian in nature (Buki, Strom & Strom, 2003; Chao, 1994; Cheah, Leung, Tahseen, & Schultz, 2009; Xu et al., 2005). Still, the term “tiger mother” may be grounded in some truth, for Asian American parents tend to cultivate their children’s education through strict parenting.


Asian American parents believe that their children’s education requires cultivation and effort on their behalf; they also consider their children’s educational success is an indicator of their overall effort as parents (Chao & Tseng, 2002). As a result, out of respect for their parents, Asian American children aim for occupations that are indicative of high socioeconomic status and their parents’ timeless effort. Some studies show that parental involvement does not consistently correlate to academic achievement for Asian American students, despite contrary cultural beliefs (Mau, 1997). The findings show that parental involvement may only be partially responsible for the academic success of Asian American students, while parental expectations actually play a more crucial role (Chao & Tseng, 2002). Hence, parental expectations are a great motivating factor for Asian Americans to meet their parents’ academic and vocational expectations by earning high grades and attaining a well-paying job (Chao & Tseng, 2002). It is important to note that complying with parental demands is not equivalent to actively practicing Confucian values. Rather, Confucian values are integrated into Asian culture, just as Christian beliefs of God have been integrated into the Pledge of Allegiance (1954). While not all Americans view monogamy as an active practice of Christianity, neither do all Asian Americans view filial piety as an active practice of Confucianism. However, Asian Americans who were exposed to both Asian and American cultures may find it easier to identify differences between them.

Conclusion and Future Implications

The racial stereotypes and labels that Asian Americans were faced with in the past have partially shaped their experiences in American society today. Seen as the model minority, Asian Americans work to fulfill the cultural demands of their families and societal expectations of American society by being diligent workers with high academic standards (Panelo, 2010). The demand for spectacular academic and vocational achievement comes from the Confucian value of filial piety, as Asian Americans work hard to fulfill their parents’ demands and lessen the burdens their parents carry as Asian American immigrants. In addition to past discrimination against Asian Americans, the model minority stereotype makes it difficult for Asian Americans to express themselves outside of their academic and social expectations. As a result, Asian Americans pursue “socially acceptable” occupations in the fields of science and technology in order to achieve upward social mobility, or socioeconomic success. In other words, Asian Americans choose professions that may not align with their personal interests because other occupations such as being a famous celebrity or U.S. politician are incredibly difficult for Asian Americans to attain and any failed attempts would only block them from achieving socioeconomic success (Sue & Okazaki, 1990).
Research on the study of heritage and cultural influence on the acculturated lives of Asian Americans in social and academic settings has been widely explored. Future research may seek to explore different levels of strictness in Asian American parents’ authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles and how it affects Asian Americans’ academic and vocational decisions. Furthermore, future research can potentially explore how strong family or collectivist values relate to the psychological well-being of Asian Americans raised in the model minority stereotype context.

 1Past research indicates that the model minority stereotype generally applies to East Asians, Southeast Asians, or those with ancestry from countries that are heavily influenced by Confucian ideology such as China, Japan or Korea (Cheng; 1997).
 
2For the purpose of this document, the term “Asian” is only generalizable to Asian Americans of East Asian descent because the topics of interest primarily revolve around the model minority stereotype, Confucianism and East Asian immigrant history in the United States.

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