Do you set enormously high and unreasonable expectations for your kids? You may be exhibiting symptoms of “tiger-parenting.” In case you’ve never read Amy Chua’s "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" or Kim Wong Keltner’s "Tiger Babies Strike Back," allow me to give you a little background. “Tiger parenting” is a term lovingly used to refer to Chinese-American parents who take an iron-fist, authoritarian approach to child rearing. Theirs are the kids who don’t stay out late, do the extra credit even though they’ve scored 100 on every test, and rarely hear the words “congratulations” or “well-done”…according to the stereotype, at least. Of course, many of these moms and dads base their parenting methods on the authoritarian traditions under which they were raised, whereby it seems normal not to praise children for something they are supposed to do. And while there is certainly a cultural bias, it’s not just among Asian parents that one can observe these “tough love” parenting strategies.
According to a plethora of studies, “Children raised by authoritarian [as opposed to permissive] parents are showing maladaptive outcomes, such as depression, anxiety and poor social skills,” attests Qing Zhou, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and head of the campus’ Culture and Family Laboratory. In one such experiment, Zhou and her team studied over 250 Chinese-American immigrant families with kids in the first and second grades over the course of two years. Their conclusion? Based on interviews, parent-child interaction activities, and cognitive and academic assessments of the children, "We found that children whose parents use more authoritarian-type parenting strategies tend to develop more aggression, and have more social problems,” stated Zhou.
Of course, nothing is ever totally black or white. Parents—even “tiger parents”— oscillate between authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative styles of parenting depending on the situation, their mood, and a myriad of other factors. I myself can attest to this one. I was raised in a household that was East-meets-West-meets-Caribbean (which is a whole other beast in and of itself).
Overall, I suppose you could label my Jamaican-Chinese, second-generation immigrant father somewhat of a “tiger parent.” There was that year before kindergarten when every time my sister or I proclaimed we were bored we were forced to recite the times table up to twelve…and write out the whole thing if we missed a beat. We weren’t allowed to socialize during the week at all, always had our homework checked against our assignment pad, were made to redo assignments if they weren’t neat enough, and often wound up turning in papers that went well beyond what the teacher had actually outlined, since our parents couldn’t believe they would have asked for anything less.
Did my sister and I suffer from lasting psychological damage? No more than our friends whose parents weren’t so demanding. Plus, I can’t attribute my compulsion to overachieve completely on my authoritarian-raised dad. My Jewish-American mother, born and raised in New York, is a professor, and while she coddled us when it came to junk food and TV, was just as demanding when it came time to write our research papers (or what she thought should be a research paper, but was actually meant to be a one-page essay). Then there’s the fact that my dad himself is a creative, not a doctor or lawyer, so there was never an emphasis on sticking to the beaten, money-making path and not exploring our artistic side. And while he wasn’t what you’d call a listener, my mother acted as a go-between. She impelled him to let go of some of his fondness for “tough love” parenting, or at least try to understand our side of the situation.
All in all, I’m not your textbook example of a “tiger baby,” although you could definitely detect the telltale signs if you were to catch me in a classroom. Have my sister and I been to therapy to discuss childhood issues? Who hasn’t? But hey, she graduated from Stanford with honors, and I from Williams, so maybe, when it comes to academics, a little authoritarianism is just what the doctor ordered. And once you’re out in the real world, there’s plenty of opportunity to work on those pesky social skills.
Reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Street. Want more?
A Mother Learns the Art of Being Patient