Study of Studies April 2013

The Queen Bee’s Guide to Parenting

What the animal kingdom can teach us about raising families
Don Mason/Corbis

In the popular imagination, the formidable “tiger mom” (as immortalized in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of her efforts to raise her daughters “the Chinese way”) pushes her children mercilessly, robbing them of their childhoods. These offspring, in turn, grow up to steal jobs from the unmotivated products of laissez-faire Western-style parenting.

The reality, as with most stereotypes, falls short of the legend. A new study in the Asian American Journal of Psychology found that tiger parenting is both uncommon in Chinese American families and downright ineffectual: children of tiger mothers have lower GPAs than kids raised by parents categorized as “supportive” [1].

But what about actual tiger moms, they of stripes and claws and deadly sharp incisors? Researchers, alas, haven’t gotten close enough to find out. Still, we can’t help but wonder: What parenting advice might be gleaned from other members of the animal kingdom?

Siblings Make Good Surrogates. When older sisters contribute to child care, providing extra huddling and licking, baby mandarin voles display less anxiety and aggression, and grow up to be more involved parents themselves. And the benefits are mutual: the babysitter siblings become more sociable as adults [2].

Younger Siblings Really Do Have It Better. Queen bees designate the daughters in their second brood as future queen bees, a cunning move that lets them use their first-born daughters for child-rearing help. The mothers encourage the future queens’ progress by providing them an average of 1.4 times more pollen and nectar than their older sisters. Researchers hypothesize that firstborns’ relative food deprivation helps push them into the “worker role” [3].

The Key to Co-Parenting Is Compatibility. Zebra-finch mother-father pairs that have relatively similar “personalities” make better foster parents than do those with more-divergent traits, perhaps because they have a more cooperative approach to child-rearing [4].

Single Mothers Raise Sexy Sons. Speaking of zebra finches, males of the species raised by single mothers grow up to be more sexually attractive (to other zebra finches) than those raised in two-parent nests [5].

It’s Okay to Be Your Kid’s Best Friend. If infant pigtail and bonnet macaques have amicable relationships with their mothers, they are better able to cope with later social challenges [6].

Physical Displays of Love Are Important … Rats born to extroverted parents but raised by negligent adoptive mothers have difficulty coping with stress. Deprived of licking and grooming, they grow up to be more fearful and less curious than their genes suggest they might otherwise have been [7].

… But Presents Will Do in a Pinch. When young orange-winged parrots were separated from their mothers, researchers found that a rotating assortment of toys and other distractions seemed to ease the blow of the separation [8].

The Studies:

1. Kim et al., “Does ‘Tiger Parenting’ Exist?” (Asian American Journal of Psychology, Nov. 2012)

2. Wu et al., “The Effect of Alloparental Experience and Care on Anxiety-Like, Social and Parental Behaviour in Adult Mandarin Voles” (Animal Behaviour, Jan. 2013)

3. Brand and Chapuisat, “Born to Be Bee, Fed to Be Worker?” (Frontiers in Zoology, Dec. 2012)

4. Schuett et al., “Pairs of Zebra Finches With Similar ‘Personalities’ Make Better Parents” (Animal Behaviour, March 2011)

5. Royle et al., “Sexual Conflict Reduces Offspring Fitness in Zebra Finches” (Nature, April 2002)

6. Weaver et al., “Response to Social Challenge in Young Bonnet and Pigtail Macaques Is Related to Early Maternal Experiences” (American Journal of Primatology, April 2004)

7. Francis et al., “Nongenomic Transmission Across Generations of Maternal Behavior and Stress Responses in the Rat” (Science, Nov. 1999)

8. Fox and Millam, “The Effect of Early Environment on Neophobia in Orange-Winged Amazon Parrots” (Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Nov. 2004)

Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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