The Drawbacks of Being a Tiger Parent, Now Proven by Science

It's good to push your kids, but only if you're willing to listen to them complain about it.

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Twice a month, a panel of dads discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, they discuss new research on the Tiger Mom phenomenon. Part one of the discussion is below; part two is here.

The world, or perhaps only the Internet, derives great pleasure from ganging up on Tiger Mom Amy Chua. The latest cudgel blow to the famed author of the Chinese-American maternal guide to crushing the spirit of one's offspring in the pursuit of Ivy League early-acceptance: Science!

Such is the upshot of a recent article in Slate,"Poor Little Tiger Cub," in which Paul Tullis reports that "the first major study of tiger moms is out. The kids have worse grades, and they are more depressed and more alienated from their parents."

The research, conducted by Su Yeong Kim of the University of Texas, finds that mercilessly driving one's children to achieve is effective—Harvard or bust, baby!—so long as the parent in question, Asian or no, Mom or Dad, listens to the shrieking plaints of the destined-to-be-high-powered little one. This is what Kim likes to call "authoritative" parenting, or "a combination of high responsiveness with the exercise of power that's open to negotiation." Spare not the rod, then, in the development of one's high-flying whelp—but do so with an open mind.

What works less well is shaming said youngsters, no matter how desperately one's parental self-image (and retirement) hinges on his or her future employment with Goldman Sachs:

Kim also measured the outcomes for each of her categories. Supportive parents had the best developmental outcomes, as measured by academic achievement, educational attainment, family obligation (considered positive outcomes), academic pressure, depressive symptoms, and parent-child alienation (considered negative).... Children of easygoing parents were second in outcomes, while tiger moms produced kids who felt more alienated from their parents and experienced higher instances of depressive symptoms. They also had lower GPAs, despite feeling more academic pressure.

All to the good, and none too surprising—not that it should be. Research is not about novelty, but understanding the world in which we live. But I don't think these findings shed much light on why the prescriptions of Good Mom Chua rankle so many people. Amy Chua's work upsets people because it is based on the belief that conventional, middle-class, (white) American culture is lazy, stupid, entitled, easily exploited, and best resisted.

Perhaps the least unexpected, and most satisfying, of Kim's discoveries was that fewer Chua's exist than her book would suggest. As Tullis notes, "Fewer 'tiger' parents emerged from Kim's analysis than did 'supportive' parents. 'Easygoing' were similar in number as 'tigers,' and the fewest parents were deemed 'harsh.'"


When I read the Slate headline and realized that the Tiger Mom Theory had been, as my esteemed colleague Theodore puts it, cudgeled into obsolescence, I was overjoyed. I am a lazy, indulgent parent, incapable of disciplining my brood, let alone instilling them with the levels of shame (and corresponding self-discipline) necessary to get them into Harvard. No, the way I parent, my daughters were probably going to Brown or—yeesh—Johns Hopkins. Now, it turns out, this doesn't matter, and my kids will fail to get into Harvard simply because they're not good enough, not because I wasn't harsh enough.

My first instinct on learning this news was to gloat, and I immediately forwarded the article to my wife, Jean, who was raised in Taipei, Taiwan, by a pair of doctors, and who, although she is nearly as lackadaisical as me, occasionally decides she must change. "I'm going to go Tiger Mom on her!" she'll say of our four-year-old daughter, Sasha.

Lately, though, "going Tiger Mom" has mostly meant feeling guilty about not having applied for Sasha to get into any New York City public school other than the one we're zoned for. In fact, this wave of parental regret produced only one email begging one school administrator to allow Sasha into his nonzoned school. He responded with a quick no. What Would Amy Chua Do? Not what Jean and I did—which was to accept that no for our final answer.

And so that's where we're at: Sasha and our younger daughter, Sandy, will do fine, despite/because of us, her parents. We don't need to badger and shame them into performing well. They just probably will, because we happen to care (and because we're upper-middle-class white-Asians—we have that ridiculous advantage).

But at the same time, I'm fixating on that word shame. I mean, I like it. I like the concept of shame, and of its opposite, honor, and I like the notion that members of a family should act a certain way in order not to earn the scorn of Society. This is, of course, a fast-vanishing notion. We no longer live in a world where one's bad behavior, or public failures, really has any significant impact on one's future. Sure, a drunk-and-naked party pic on Facebook might hurt one's chances making partner at Skadden Arps, but that damage can be contained; shame's ability to ruin the future is over and done with.

Of course, I'm a fine one to talk. My new book is a fairly shameless retelling of my many adventures, not all of them salubrious, over the past few decades. But then again I'm a lazy, permissive hypocrite.

But that doesn't mean I still don't think, and worry, constantly about how my behavior, my actions, and my images reflect on those around me, including my friends and family. And while shame is something I do not want to bring upon them, I want them, including my daughters, to be aware of its existence, of the way it hovers somewhere above us, like a hawk waiting to snatch up a field mouse.

Except now I can't do this. Shame is out. Apparently, it doesn't do what I thought it did. What's next, humility? Oh right, not really an American value either. Modesty? Patience? Damn, I am not doing well here.

Well, at least there's one thing I can count on: When the kids are old enough, they will be deeply embarrassed—maybe even ashamed—by their father.