Applied Psychology OPUS

The “Tiger Mom”: Stereotypes of Chinese Parenting in the United States

Scarlett Wang

In the media, there is a discrepancy between American perceptions of Chinese parenting and the reality of Chinese parenting. The “tiger mom” is the prevailing stereotype of Chinese parenting in America (Chua, 2011). Americans perceive tiger moms to be highly controlling, strict, and severe almost to the point of abuse (Chua, 2011). The most well known tiger mom, Amy Chua, became famous for her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. As a mother and a professor at Yale Law School, Chua tells the story of how she raises her two half-Chinese, half-Jewish girls in the same way that her Chinese immigrant parents raised her and her siblings. To most of the American public, Chua is simply forcing her children toward parentally-defined success, which most believe is unlikely to lead to true happiness in children. Ironically, Chua’s two daughters are both successful and happy in school, in music and in sports (Chua, 2011). In the American media, the tiger mom’s strict and harsh style has spurred a controversial conversation surrounding parenting. At the center of this controversy lies the question of whether happiness and the pursuit of the child’s own dreams and interests are more important than the pursuit of success as defined by the parent.

What the American public defines as Chinese parenting greatly differs from Chinese parents’ definitions of their own parenting. Most modern Chinese parents do not subscribe to the tiger mom parenting style, nor do they believe that this model fosters the most successful children (He, 2011). In reality, Chinese parenting styles cover a wide range of strategies, beliefs and tactics (Buki, Strom, & Strom, 2003; Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah, Leung, Tahseen, & Schultz, 2009; Chen, Chen, & Zheng, 2012; Chen, Zhou, Eisenberg, Valiente, & Wang, 2011). The concept of the tiger mom as Americans perceive it represents an attempt to use American cultural beliefs of parenting as a baseline from which to make sense of Chinese parenting. The “Tiger mom” has become the go-to phrase for Americans when referring to traditional Chinese parenting styles. This attempt to categorize cultural differences into discrete boxes fails to capture the complex nature of Chinese parenting. Considering the lack of both research and media attention to the wide range of Chinese parenting beliefs and practices, this review seeks to explore the nature of these practices and the social process by which the tiger mom has become the most salient representation of Chinese parenting in America. In particular, it will examine the pillar theory of parenting authority as it relates to Chinese parenting, the actual range of Chinese parenting beliefs, and parenting practices of Chinese immigrants to America.  

The Pillar Theory of Parenting Authority and Chinese Parenting

Diana Baumrind (1966, 1971) has conducted some of the most influential studies examining the effects of parenting styles on children’s behavior. Since its development in the 1960s, researchers have been using her pillar theory (Baumrind 1966, 1971) as the basic model of parenting in American culture. The pillar theory lays out three general patterns of parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian and permissive. These parenting styles differ on two dimensions: strict and demanding discipline, and warm emotional support. The pillar theory posits that authoritative parents are strict and demanding in discipline, though they also provide rich and warm emotional support to their children. Although the authoritarian style also focuses on strict and demanding discipline, authoritarian parents provide their children with little emotional support. In contrast to both authoritative and authoritarian parents, permissive parents lack both strict/demanding discipline and warm emotional support (Baumrind, 1971).

Each of these parenting styles has unique effects on a child’s behavior (Baumrind 1966, 1971). Children of authoritative parents show the most stable and positive behavior, and are also self-controlled and explorative. Children of authoritarian parents are also self-controlled, but are more discontent and withdrawn. Finally, children of permissive parents are often low in both self-reliance and self-control (Baumrind 1966, 1971). Fifty years after its inception, the pillar theory is still one of the most influential models of parenting.

Although the pillar theory was based on studies of mainstream American samples, researchers have since adopted Baumrind’s model to examine Chinese parenting and the effects of Chinese parenting styles on children’s behavior (Cheah, et al., 2009; Fung & Lau, 2010; Su & Hynie, 2011; Tan, Camras, Deng, Zhang, & Lu, 2012; Xu et al., 2005). Some of these studies have concluded that Chinese parenting is mostly authoritative (Buki et al., 2003). There are great implications for these results, as studies show that authoritative Chinese parenting is associated with positive behavior patterns and school outcomes in Chinese children (Buki et al., 2003; Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah et al., 2009; Chen et al., 2012; Chen et al., 2011). However, there are also a number of studies that view Chinese parenting as inherently authoritarian. The results of these studies parallel those that report Chinese parenting to be authoritative, in revealing authoritarian styles of Chinese parents to relate to the negative behavior patterns of Chinese children (Cheah et al., 2009; Fung & Lau, 2010; Su & Hynie, 2011; Tan et al., 2012; Xu et al., 2005). Thus, according to recent literature, Chinese parenting as a whole appears to be primarily authoritative and authoritarian, though these styles have drastically different effects on children’s behavior.

Although it seems organic for scholars to study Chinese parenting styles based on the most classic theory of parenting, the pillar theory was derived from White middle class samples and is thus not necessarily applicable to parents of other cultures and socioeconomic statuses. Research suggests that there are differences in cultural beliefs that drive parents to adopt certain styles and practices in raising their children (Baumrind, 1966, 1971). The pillar theory scale might not accurately capture these differences in cultural beliefs. Therefore, as a stepping-stone to understanding Chinese parenting, it is important to consider cultural beliefs that both academia and popular media leave out of their understanding of Chinese parenting styles.

Beyond the Pillar Theory: Chinese Parenting Beliefs

Although the majority of studies examining Chinese parenting styles have adopted the culturally-biased pillar theory, some others have chosen to examine Chinese parenting styles and practices through the lens of cultural notions and beliefs (Chao, 1994, 2001). Studies that focus on exploring Chinese parenting beliefs often focus on the cultural notion of training, Chiaoshun, which is rooted in the teachings of Confucius (Chao, 1994, 2001). The most important emphasis in Confucius’s school of thought is respect for the social order, including relationships between individuals as well as relationships between an individual and society (Bond & Hwang, 1986). Based on this idea of consideration for social order, the notion of “training” in Chinese culture encourages parents to teach their children the quality of respect in all of their relationships. As a result, Chinese parents subscribing to this practice reinforce harsh and strict discipline, and hope that their children will learn from their instruction. Thus, parenting practices that appear harsh and strict to others are often simply a culturally-based attempt to train children to act in a socially acceptable manner (Chan et al., 2009). Moreover, when adopting harsh language and strict discipline, Chinese parents assume the children will understand the connotation behind the harsh language. Rather than ruthless punishment, the harsh language and discipline indicates parental trust and high expectations of children’s performances (Chan, Bowes, & Wyver, 2009; Chao, 1994, 2001; Chen & Luster, 2002; Cheung & McBride-Chang, 2008).

Although Chiaoshun, authoritative parenting, and authoritarian parenting all include harsh and strict discipline, the notion of training is a distinct concept from Baumrind’s parenting styles (Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah et al., 2009; Julian, McKenry, & McKelvey, 1994; Lim & Lim, 2004). More than simple harshness and strictness, Chiaoshun includes a dedication to instilling certain Confucian qualities in children (Bond & Hwang, 1986; Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah et al., 2009; Julian et al., 1994; Lim & Lim, 2004). For these parents, the most important priority is that their child should become “a good person,” with academic achievement as a close second (Chan, et al., 2009; Chao, 1994, 2001). American society is unfamiliar with this base of Chinese parenting. When the media isolates Chinese parenting beliefs (i.e., Chiaoshun) from practices (i.e., strictness) and focus only on the practices, the American public comes to understand Chinese parenting as unwavering and harsh. Chinese immigrant parents, however, must often find a parenting style that lies on the bridge connecting the dichotomy between traditional Chinese and mainstream American parenting ideas.

Acculturation and Parenting

As this review has determined, there are salient differences among typical American parenting (Baumrind’s three parenting styles), Chinese parenting (driven by Confucius’s notion of training) and American perceptions of Chinese parenting (the tiger mom). Chinese immigrant parents are unique in that they experience parenting at the crossroads of all three philosophies. Having been exposed to both cultures, Chinese immigrant families must navigate the waters of both Chinese and American values to form a cohesive parenting style. Immigrant Chinese parents also face challenges such as acculturative stress and low socio-economic status, and cultural gaps with their more acculturated children, which can all influence their particular parenting practices.

A great deal of research has looked at the effects of cross-cultural parenting on first and second-generation children (Chao, 1994, 2001). Results have shown that first-generation Chinese children perform better with their “authoritarian” Chinese parents than most second-generation Chinese children. First-generation Chinese children seem to have more positive school outcomes and better interpersonal skills than second-generation Chinese children, even after controlling for parenting style (Chao, 1994, 2001; Shek, 1999, 2001; Su & Hynie, 2011). These findings suggest that the strict parenting style of Chinese parents has more negative influence on second-generation Chinese children than it does on first-generation children. The negative reactions of second-generation Chinese children may be due to the fact that second-generation children have been immersed in American culture since birth, whereas first-generation children are more apt to hold certain cultural beliefs that will help them interpret the harshness and strictness in a more positive way. Therefore, one might suggest that some of the important cultural ideologies that help children to correctly interpret the stricter components of Chinese parenting have been lost in the transition to American culture (Chao, 1994, 2001; Shek, 1999, 2001; Su & Hynie, 2011).

  In addition to the differences in reaction across generation, many studies have also examined the relation between variables such as socio-economic status (SES), maternal acculturation stress, family stress, and parenting practices across the two cultures. Studies have identified SES as a factor in navigating the challenges of cross-cultural parenting, in that lower income immigrant families have faced more challenges than higher-income families (Shek, 1999, 2001). Challenges also exist in families where mothers experience high acculturation stress. Chinese children whose mothers experience higher acculturation stress tend to have a relatively lower score on school outcomes than Chinese children whose mothers experience relatively low acculturation stress (Cheah et al., 2009; Fung & Lau, 2010). Additionally, parenting hassles and family stress can also add to the negative experience of cross-cultural parenting of both parents and children (Su & Hynie, 2011; Tan et al., 2012; Xu et al., 2005). Thus, because of the unique environment in which they live, Chinese immigrant parents must develop their own, hybridized parenting style that includes aspects of both mainstream American and traditional Chinese cultures.

Conclusion

Chinese parenting interacts with mainstream American culture in an interesting way.  Each culture supports a parenting style with different ideas and notions. In America, Baumrind’s model indicates that parents should combine a degree of strictness and emotional support. In China, Confucius argued that parents should aim to raise a child who knows how to respect social relationships. In sum, research studies that have examined general differences in children’s reactions to Chinese parenting and different factors that might influence the quality of parenting in immigrant families highlight the danger in applying mainstream American concepts of parenting to measure and understand Chinese parenting.       

Many researchers and scholars have tried to examine cultural variations of parenting practices and styles in America (Buki et al., 2003; Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah et al., 2009). Since its development in the 1960s, Baumrind’s pillar theory has become the standard conceptualization of parenting styles. When researchers and scholars try to examine Chinese parenting in American culture, it seems intuitive to adopt the classic pillar theory. Although this theory is valuable and valid, the fact that it has been based on White middle class samples directly challenges its generalizability to Chinese parents. Becoming more and more aware of the differences between Chinese parenting and American parenting, many researchers and scholars have begun to include cultural components in their studies that the pillar theory cannot completely capture, such as acculturation and traditional Chinese parenting beliefs (Buki et al., 2003; Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah et al., 2009; Chen et al., 2012; Chen et al., 2011). Among the studies that challenge the application of the pillar theory to Chinese parents, many have identified cultural notions and beliefs that are important in Chinese culture but absent in American culture (Bond & Hwang, 1986; Chao, 1994, 2001; Cheah et al., 2009; Julian et al., 1994; Lim & Lim, 2004). 

In the American cultural context, however, the general public and the media tend to make sense of Chinese parenting by directly comparing it with the American standard of parenting. As a result of the difference in cultural beliefs supporting Chinese parenting and American parenting, Americans interpret harsh and strict Chinese parents as “tiger moms.” Consequently, without the understanding of the cultural notion of training, the parenting style of the “tiger moms” appears controversial in the eye of the American public. However, when looking at Chinese parenting with the understanding of appropriate cultural values and beliefs, one can find the rationale behind the so-called “tiger mom” is actually to prepare the children to thrive in the environment of social order and respect that characterizes Chinese society.

 

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