When Amy Chua released her controversial memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, parents around the country were outraged. The mother of two teenage daughters (now both Harvard graduates), Chua described her no-nonsense, super-strict approach to parenting. She expected straight A’s in every class besides gym or drama, made her kids practice piano and violin for hours a day, and prohibited TV, playdates, and sleepovers.
Hence the nickname Tiger Mom.
She received intense backlash—including death threats and calls of child abuse. But she defended herself in media interviews by saying that her “high expectations” of her children are what made them “strong, confident, happy girls.” Chua, born to Chinese immigrants, also linked her parenting approach to her cultural background.
“Western parents worry too much about their kids,” she said, while “the Chinese and other immigrants assume strict rather than fragility.”
She gave an example of a time when her then-10-year-old daughter stomped through the door with a poor math test, yelling that she hated math.
Chua didn’t sympathize.
At that point, “I think a lot of Western parents would say, ‘That’s okay, honey, you don’t have to be good at math, we can choose something else for you…While I said ‘no way.’ We made all these practice tests, I handwrote them for her, we drilled them for a week…the next test, she did very well on, after that, her friends started calling her ‘math whiz.’”
“It’s not good to assume your kids are so fragile…that they can’t take anything. What kind of signal is that, if even their own mom thinks they’re gonna break?”
Having high expectations for your children is generally a good thing. Starting from a young age, it’s good to believe in your children’s abilities. For example, if your child wants to buckle themselves into their stroller, even if you know it’s going to take five times as longer than if you do it, let them. If they want to try climbing the jungle-gym ladder, don’t stop them (as long it’s just a small risk, of course. Don’t deliberately put your kids in dangerous situations just to see if they can manage on their own.)
In general, research shows that the less you mollycoddle your kids, the more resilient they turn out. So, in a positive sense, setting high expectations of your child makes it more likely that they will achieve them. In a study of high school students and their parents, researchers found that the higher expectations parents had of their kids’ competence and performance in school, the better their kids actually did academically.
However, it’s important to realize that there’s a fine line between high expectations and too-high expectations. At a certain point, having unrealistically high expectations of your children can cause pressure and stress.
Don’t Aim Too High
One study titled “Don’t Aim Too High for Your Kids” found that parental over-aspiration was related to detrimental performance in academics (specifically, math). Over-aspiration means having expectations that don’t match your child’s ability and/or competence level.
Expectations need to match the developmental level and age of the child. One needs to also listen to their children– whether they’re crying stop, or you clearly see that it’s taking a toll on them mentally or physically.
In fact, over-aspiration is what seemed to have caused a crisis with Chua’s second daughter, Lulu.
As she describes in her book, Chua had to reign in her expectations after Lulu started rebelling at age 13. She refused to practice piano, she became “miserable and cold and angry.” During a family vacation, she smashed a glass in a café and yelled, “I hate you, I hate this family.”
“I felt like I was gonna lose her,” Chua admits.
That is when Chua pulled back her strict, disciplined approach then and became more lenient. Whereas before she was very strict with making her kids practice for hours a day, she stopped pressuring Lulu to practice and actually let her give up piano altogether.
Lulu’s rebellion makes sense, in context. Upon analysis of the memoir, some might argue that Chua’s approach to parenting is authoritarian in nature.
Authoritarian parenting is often described as overly strict, “my way or the high way” approach. These parents lay out rigid rules and consequences and enforce them rigidly.
Research shows that teens tend to rebel when parents present rules as if they’re set in stone. The authoritarian style of parenting causes problems, particularly with regards to drugs, alcohol, and problem behavior. Not only that, but research shows that children of authoritarian parents are more likely to have increased rates of depression and suicide. Parents who aren’t warm enough, and mothers who are over-controlling, tend to produce adolescents who are frustrated, depressed, and yes—suicidal.
Even if the authoritarian parenting style relates to one’s culture, as Chua frequently says it does, it still has negative effects.
Take it from the source. In a study of 120 Chinese adolescents based in Hong Kong, researchers found that teens with authoritarian parents were more likely to have symptoms of depression and suicide. Even though, the researchers note, Chinese culture lauds authoritarian parenting more than Western culture.
Chua’s emphasis on discipline, rigor, and responsibility are coming from a good place. There is value in teaching children to “look to yourself first, and not blame others, when something goes wrong,” which Chua says she’s instilled in her kids. It is also important to teach teens the value of impulse control and hard work.
However, studies favor a more balanced approach to childrearing. Research shows that authoritative parents—who create a gentle, warm, loving environment while still implementing firm rules and structure—have children who are generally more secure than those of authoritarian parents.
Even Chua says that she has regrets: she wishes that she didn’t “lose [her] temper so much.” She also says she could have “paid more attention to the individual personalities of my children.”
At the end of the day, there’s no one formula that will work for all parents or kids. Teens are also influenced by their environment, friends, school, and community. They also make their own choices in life. Authoritarian parents can buck the statistics and produce excellent kids, while even the most loving, laid-back and easygoing parents can watch their teens struggling with substance abuse.
For example, Chua’s daughters seem to be doing fine these days, according to media reports. Both teens say they are grateful to their mom for instilling in them confidence and a hard work ethic. The eldest daughter even says she would “raise her kids the same way.”
Read the research, study parenting strategies, and trust your gut. But at the end of the day, realize that you can’t control the way your kids turn out.
All you can do is try your best.