Are 'Tiger Moms' Better Than Cool Moms?

A study says high-school students can be successful with or without a lot of parental pressure.

Social science has weighed in on the “tiger mom” debate, and it looks like everyone is right: Both overprotective and laid-back mothers can raise successful children.

Three years after Yale law professor Amy Chua’s controversial article, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” in the Wall Street Journal, Stanford researchers Alyssa Fu and Hazel Markus have published a study examining the effectiveness of the strict, high-pressure parenting Chua advocates and the more permissive style common in European-American culture.

They found both parenting styles can be effective; the key is in how the child views his or her relationship with the mother. In Asian-American culture, children are often expected to rely on their families, but European-American families tend to value and encourage independence. Parental pressure provokes different reactions in each culture: Asian-American students said they felt like parent involvement in their lives is a form of support, while European-American children resented the pressure to perform.

“These findings underscore the importance of understanding cultural variation in how people construe themselves and their relationships to others,” the researchers wrote. “[European-American] mothers who assume that achievement is an individual project may be right to believe that too much maternal involvement can quash motivation. Tiger Mothers who assume that achievement is a group project may be equally right to assert that parental involvement is beneficial for motivation.”

The researchers used four studies of roughly 100 high school students in California to evaluate parenting techniques. In one study, the researchers asked 117 high school students to perform an almost impossible puzzle and then asked them to describe themselves or their mothers. After giving a description, the students were asked to perform another almost impossible puzzle. The researchers counted the number of attempts at the second puzzle as a measure of motivation. When Asian-American students thought of their mother, they showed more motivation after failing at the initial puzzle. European-American students, however, showed less motivation after thinking about their mothers.

Across the studies, when Asian-American students described their moms, they were more likely to talk about their relationship than their mothers’ personal attributes. They also saw more overlap between themselves and their mothers and were more accepting of their mothers’ involvement in their lives. These students viewed pressure from their mothers positively and said it motivated them in times of failure.

European-American students, on the other hand, were more likely to describe their mothers’ personality, likes, and dislikes. They reported feeling more independent from their mothers and seeing pressure to succeed as a lack of support rather than a source of motivation.

Parents might take some comfort knowing that, despite Chua’s battle cries for stricter childrearing, it looks like parenting isn’t quite so clear-cut. And disaffected white kids can rejoice, too: They now have the social science to justify ignoring their mothers.