The verdict on tiger-parenting? Studies point to poor mental health

Fierce tigers vs. cuddly pandas

Researchers said many parents use a combination of all three parenting styles depending on their mood and the situation at hand. However, there is some truth to the emotionally withholding tiger-mother stereotype, said Zhou, who studied at Beijing Normal University, then did her graduate work at Arizona State University before landing an assistant professorship at UC Berkeley. Rather than focus on her daughter’s achievements, Zhou’s mother keeps asking her when she’ll get tenure.

“Chinese parents have a habit of focusing on the negative, because it is their way of ‘pushing’ children to work harder,” Zhou said. “They don’t say ‘I love you,’ but they cook you food and prepare your clothes to show they care for you.”

While China by no means holds a monopoly on authoritarian parenting, the country proudly claims a centuries-long tradition of filial loyalty and academic rigor dating back to the imperial examination that selected the best candidates for high officialdom. Today, its competitive school and college entrance exams have millions of students burying their heads in books for long hours.

Intergenerational language barriers

For Chinese immigrant communities, a major predictor for stricter parenting is how well parents and children communicate in English and in Chinese, suggesting that the language barrier can lead to conflict, according to a study by Zhou and Chen soon to be published in the journal, Developmental Psychology.

“Some parents force their kids to speak Chinese at home, they tell them ‘if you don’t speak Chinese I will not speak to you,’ but that can backfire,” said Zhou, a native of Sichuan, China, and mother of two young children. “It’s important to keep the heritage language, but it shouldn’t trump emotional health.”

That said, newer generations of Chinese-Americans who call themselves “heritage families” are raising their children with some of the same cultural values they grew up with, only in a kinder, gentler fashion.

“I hated Chinese school growing up,” said Chen, who was born in the United States to Taiwanese parents and worked in Shanghai before entering graduate school at UC Berkeley. “Now I have my daughter in Chinese school not one day a week, but every day. We are coming to terms with our parents’ ways, and recognizing that perhaps there are some traditions we would like to continue.”

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