By Clifton B. Parker
May 23, 2014
In 2011, Yale law Professor Amy Chua provoked a cultural clash with a Wall Street Journal article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” that advocated a strict approach described as “tiger parenting”—a style common in East Asia. The article suggested Western-style parenting was too permissive.
In a backlash to the article, critics accused Chua of over controlling her children in her quest to make them succeed.
A new study shows even if the Asian and Western styles differ radically, they represent two paths to the same destination.
“These findings underscore the importance of understanding cultural variation in how people construe themselves and their relationships to others,” writes Alyssa Fu, a doctoral student in psychology at Stanford University and lead author of the study that is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“While European American parents give their children wings to fly on their own, Asian American parents provide a constant wind beneath their children’s wings.”
Fu says she and Hazel Markus, professor of psychology, “were interested in finding out how interdependence could be a motivating factor. The idea was to compare the Asian-American cultural context to the European American one.”
‘Describe Your Mother’
In the Asian-American family model, children learn the value of being interdependent with one’s close others, especially one’s mother. In contrast, European-American families tend to emphasize that the person is and should be independent, even from one’s mother. The focus is on developing self-esteem and self-efficacy in the child.
In four separate studies involving 342 students from a Northern California high school, the researchers examined “underlying models of self” and sources of parental motivation and pressure. The students were asked for open-ended descriptions of their mothers—”describe your mother in a couple of sentences.” They also answered questions about how connected they felt with their moms as well as how much pressure they received.
For example, they asked students to directly rate how much pressure they experience from their mothers. Then, to assess whether students perceive this pressure by mothers as negative, the researchers asked participants to rate how much they feel supported by their mothers. And they examined the correlation between students’ perception of maternal pressure and feelings of maternal support.
In two of the experiments, they examined how Asian-American and European-American students thought about their moms after they experienced failure in a word puzzle task that required them to think about themselves and others who are close to them.
Seeing Mom Differently
The research findings suggest that Asian Americans and European Americans truly see moms differently.
For example, Asian-American high schoolers were more likely to talk about their relationships with their mothers than were European Americans. Asian Americans more often noted that their moms helped them with homework or pushed them to succeed.
On the other hand, European-American students were more apt to talk about their mothers as separate individuals—describing their appearance or their hobbies, for example.
Asian-American students experienced more interdependence with their mothers and pressure from them. But the pressure does not strain their relationships with their mothers as much as it does with European Americans, the study shows.
“Following failure, Asian-American students compared with European American ones are more motivated by their mothers, and are particularly motivated by pressure from their mothers when it conveys interdependence,” or the feeling that mom is on their side in challenging times,” the study reports.
On the other hand, Fu says, when European Americans experience failure, “It can cut you to the heart. Then, it’s up to you to pick yourself up by the bootstraps and move on.”
In Asian-American families, mothers are more often physically near their children, reminding them to do their homework—and children find energy in their mother’s pressure. Thus, at the point of failure, when they were prompted to think of their mothers, they bounced back quicker than European Americans.
Asian-American mothers and children alike see it as the mother’s duty to help their children to succeed, even if that means pushing them to do what they don’t want to do. “The interdependent relationship between mothers and their children is what allows pressure from mothers to be motivating,” Fu says.
One defining trait of “tiger moms” is that they do not simply give orders to their kids without getting involved, Fu says. “Tiger moms throw themselves into everything that their children are doing. And when Asian-American kids see themselves as really connected with their mothers, they can benefit from their mother’s pressure.”
How interdependent Asian Americans feel with their mothers—”how much they feel like their selves overlap,”—predicts their persistence, Fu says.
“In other words, they work harder the more interdependent they feel with their mothers, but only when they are reminded of their mothers’ interdependence with them.”
‘Calm the Clash’
When it comes to motivating a child who is struggling in school or outside of it, Fu and Markus say there is merit in both approaches.
“The results of these studies can calm the clash over the role of parental involvement in academic achievement. They show that Chua and her critics can both be right,” they say.
Fu says she wants to explore how interdependence can be stronger and more effective in the European American context. The two cultures can learn from each other.
“A sense of self as independent and a sense of self as interdependent can both be useful in motivating students and encouraging them to persist,” Fu says. “These are psychological tools that people can use to grow and achieve success.”