Temperament: Tiger Moms and Chinese Children

The story of the Chinese Tiger Mom has received great attention–and deservedly so. At the center of it all is Amy Chua, a Yale law professor and mother of two daughters. She has had a best selling book, and widely read articles, both online and off. *  Time Magazine published a detailed review of her parenting model and her more recent thoughts about this and about the storm of praise, criticism and horror that followed her original publication.**

Tiger Moms, in Professor Chua’s model are strict and demanding beyond the wildest American dreams. Among the things that her daughters were “never allowed to do” were “attend a sleepover, be in a school play, complain (about it) watch TV or play computer games, get any grade less than an A…. ” She says “If a Chinese child gets a B–which would never happen–there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and then work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A.”

The prime example in all of this is the story of her younger daughter, Lulu and a piano piece called “The Little White Donkey” It requires that the two hands simultaneously play radically different rhythms, and is apparently really challenging. Chua says of this “Lulu couldn’t do it. We worked on it nonstop for a week, drilling each of her hands separately, over and over. But whenever we tried putting the hands together, one always morphed into the other, and everything fell apart.” Lulu threw an all-American style tantrum but her mother refused to back off. She says “I rolled up my sleeves and went back to Lulu. I used every weapon and tactic I could think of. We worked right through dinner into the night, and I wouldn’t let Lulu get up, not for water, not even to go to the bathroom. The house became a war zone, and I lost my voice yelling….Then out of the blue, Lulu did it. Her hands suddenly came together–her right and left hands each doing their own imperturbable thing–just like that.” The end of this tale is that Lulu was ecstatic and played the piece over and over in total delight.

The Little White Donkey episode is clearly over the top, but it illustrates, by sheer exaggeration, some remarkable differences in European and American parenting views and traditional Chinese views. The best known style set for American parenting was studied in great detail by developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind. She conceptualized the commonest approaches to parenting as falling on two axes, one with either high or low love and nurturance (responsiveness) and the other with high or low rules, regulations and behavioral expectations (demandingness). Combinations of these produced the four categories of authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and unengaged parenting Briefly these looked like the following:

Authoritative: High responsiveness and high demandingness. Their high responsiveness leads to strong demandingness that also makes room for the child’s feelings and nature, and some willingness to discuss reasons for rules etc. Children receive strong levels of caring and respect along with firm discipline.

Authoritarian Low responsiveness and high demandingness. Here demandingness is heightened by the lack of strong love and nurture. Obedience is the one and only real lesson to be taught, and discussion of parenting rules is generally not tolerated. Parents may see their main job as breaking the willfulness of the child.

Permissive: High responsiveness and low demandingness. Here the parent role is to love and accept the child in all circumstances, The parent believes that the inherent goodness of the child will carry the day with little or no disciplinary measures, as long as this child feels good about the child/parent relationship and is high in self regard and self esteem.

Unengaged: Low responsiveness and low demandingness. Very little to say here. This is the uninvolved parent who simply does not care.

Of the four styles, the Authoritative has been seen, in most studies, to produce the best outcomes for children.  They have been found to be more independent and friendly, more self-assertive, cooperative, and more strongly motivated and more academically successful.  By comparison,  girls raised in the Authoritarian style were found to be more dependent on their parents and likely to withdraw if frustrated, while as the authoritarian style increased, boys  were especially likely to become hostile and sometimes aggressive.  Academically they were competent on average, but less so than the authoritatively raised children. ***

The outcome of the Permissive style, somewhat surprisingly, was a little like the authoritarian style.  Children in this group are often found to be dependent, more moody and lacking in self-control and self-regulation. Finally the Unengaged style is really no style at all and there is little to say about it that is good.

When families from other cultures were studied, however findings were not so simple.  Asian parents, in particular were found to be highly authoritarian in the demands they made on their children, very much in the style of the Tiger Mom, while child outcomes included high academic achievement, little obvious rebellion, and development into successful and well mannered adults.

Looking deeper into this, a 1994 study found that the typical Chinese mother was every bit as controlling as the American authoritarian, and often much more so, as Amy Chua’s description suggests.**** However, the controls were focused around the idea that the mother is the child’s essential trainer in life.  While controlling, she is constantly teaching, modeling, and molding the child for the ability to persist in difficult tasks, to learn as much as can be crammed into each day, and to develop the respectful social behaviors that the culture requires.

All this sounds like something a Marine drill instructor might do, but after you absorb that you find that this is coupled with an an extraordinary amount of caring,  involvement and closeness.  The authors note that “In the child’s early years, the mother provides an extremely nurturing environment for the child by being physically available and by promptly attending to the child’s every need.  When children reach school age, the mother provides the support and drive for them to achieve in school and to ultimately meet the societal and familial expectations for success.  This training, then, takes place in the context of a supportive, highly involved, and physically close mother-child relationship.”  (Note that it is common for the child to sleep with the mother throughout early childhood.)

This simply does not fit any of the four Baumrind temperament categories.  It is as though you combined a very high level of authoritative demandingness, added much more constant effort at training than any American mother would want to do,  subtracted the idea of democratic discussion of rules and expectations (like the authoritarian parent, there is a flavor of “because I said so” in the parent attitude), and then dialed responsiveness up to a level that would make a Permissive parent proud.

It is important to realize that this approach appears to be very effective in producing highly motivated and academically remarkable children and adults.  Unlike the child of Permissive parents, these are not reported as moody, or lacking in self control.  Unlike the child of the authoritarian parent (especially boys), there are no findings of enhanced hostility.  And academically Asian-American children swamp the University of California system, and many fine universities across the world.

So what is the bottom line?  Should the whole world adopt this fascinating parenting style?  Imagining this style applied to the typical American child is likely to bring on a serious giggling fit, so my guess is “no”.  By reputation, Asian children (and adults) are quiet, respectful, sensitive about hurting or offending others, and probably massively introverted, though this is more observational than the result of extensive testing.

The usual argument would be that both the parenting styles and the socio-cultural behaviors would be culturally learned and culturally enforced.  If so, perhaps it would be a better world if we all followed Amy Chua.  However, a little remembered study, dating back to 1969, suggests that there may be other forces at play.*****

It is entitled “Behavioral Differences between Chinese-American and European-American newborns“. **** The newborns were exactly that–studied while still in the hospital nursery.  There were 24  babies in each of the two groups matched closely in mean age since birth, birthweight, hours of labor, Apgar scale (a measure of health at birth) and other relevant measures.  An infant behavior scale called the Brazelton was given along with other behavioral tests.  Overall statistical analysis indicated that “on the basis of total performance the two groups were decidedly different, and that the principal differences came from “the group of items measuring excitability/imperturbability”.  For example, although the total amount of crying was about the same, they note that “The Chinese infants were, however, often dramatically immediate in their cessation of crying when picked up and spoken to.”  They also stopped crying sooner even on their own and were thus considered higher in self-soothing.

The most interesting pair of measures in this group, however, were the following:

a.  the tester placed a loosely woven piece of cloth firmly on the baby’s face with the following result–  “While the typical European-American infant immediately struggled to remove the cloth by swiping with his hands and turning his face, the typical Chinese-American infant lay impassively, exhibiting few overt motor responses.

b.  When placed face and body down (prone)  “the Chinese infants frequently lay as placed, with the face flat against the bedding, whereas the Causcasian infants either turned the face to one side or lifted  the head.”  The authors comment “Inasmuch as there was no difference between the groups in the ability to hold the head steady, this maintenance of the face in the bedding is taken as a further example of relative imperturbability or ready accommodation to external changes.”

These infant test findings present fascinating images when coupled with  the differences described here for the best Chinese versus best American parenting styles.  There is no reasonable doubt that the prevailing cultural styles in any society tend to shape the behavior of their members.  But it is an interesting question (and seldom asked) as to how any cultural style came into existence.  My bet is that temperament comes first and culture develops as the choice of the prevailing or most dominant temperaments of that society.


*Chua, Amy (2011).  Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.  WSJ.com

**Paul, Annie M. (2011).  Tiger Moms:  Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?  www.time.com

***Feldman, Robert S. (2001).  Child Development.  Prentice Hall:  New Jersey

****Chao, Ruth (1994). Beyond Parental Control and Authoritarian Parenting Style:  Understanding Chinese Parenting through the Cultural Notion of Training.  Child Development 65, 1111-1119.

*****Freedman, D. G. & Freedman, N. C. (1969).  Behavioral Differences between Chinese-American and European-American Newborns.  Nature, 224, 1227

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