The Anti-Tiger Mother, Prof. Desiree Qin Of MSU, Talks To Asian Scientist Magazine

Prof. Desiree Qin of Michigan State University talks to Asian Scientist Magazine about her research on East-West styles of parenting and her thoughts on the ‘Tiger Mother’ controversy.

AsianScientist (Feb. 6, 2012) – When Amy Chua released her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother last year, detailing her hardline parenting techniques and suggesting that these are responsible for the academic success of Asian children in the West, it raised not only brouhaha, but also suspicions that such a parenting style might impinge on a child’s psychological well-being.

Now, such concerns have been validated by China-born Assistant Professor Desiree Baolian Qin of Michigan State University, whose research has found that high-achieving Chinese-American students were more depressed and anxious, had lower self-esteem, and experienced more conflict with their parents than their Caucasian peers.

These findings, resulting from hundreds of interviews with Chinese-American and European-American ninth-grade students, refute Chua’s belief that Western children were not any happier than Chinese ones who are constantly pushed by their parents to excel.

At first glance, the similarities between the two women are striking – both are high-achieving Chinese academics married to Caucasians with two offspring. But their parenting philosophies could not be more different. While Chua subscribes to the Eastern belief that children should be pushed to excel at all costs, Qin believes in finding that healthy middle ground between the parenting extremes of the East and West.

“Children need the ability to work well with other people, to relate,” Qin believes. “I feel strongly that I won’t raise my kids just toward success at the cost of other things. More than anything, I want them to be well-rounded, emotionally healthy kids.”

Asian Scientist Magazine speaks to Assistant Professor Qin about her research on East-West styles of parenting and her thoughts on Chua’s best-selling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Prof. Qin with daughters, 2-year-old Helena and 4-year-old Olivia. Qin refutes the 'tiger mother' philosophy that parents should drive their children to succeed at the expense of the kids' happiness (Photo: G.L. Kohuth/MSU).

Have you read Amy Chua’s bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? If yes, what was your initial reaction toward it?

Yes. I have read the book. My initial reaction was that it was an interesting, eye-opening account of parenting from one Chinese mother’s perspective. I was impressed by the level of involvement and investment she has put into her parenting. I agreed with some of the claims she has made about Western parenting being too soft and forgiving sometimes.

I was surprised by some of the extreme parenting she described in the book. I was also amused and surprised by the various claims she made about Chinese mothers and Chinese parenting, although she clarifies in the book that many parents from other ethnic backgrounds use this style of parenting.

Do you think the negative reaction toward her books is justified?

I do think that overall Professor Chua had a great publicist who helped her sell a lot of books (especially the provocative Wall Street Journal article that first came out).

I think the positive effect of all of this is that it gets us to talk about parenting practices. Oftentimes, it is such a private practice in the U.S. at least – parents never feel comfortable criticizing how others parent and there is also a lot of pressure and social censoring in public about how to be a parent.

I can see that some of the extreme forms of parenting, e.g., not letting children go to the bathroom, described in the book are so different from mainstream American middle class parenting that it immediately generated very strong reactions in the public.

I do think that the book and the publicity are both geared toward generating controversy, which ended up achieving the goals very well. And Prof. Chua’s older daughter Sophia was admitted into two Ivy League universities last year. Of course, being from a family with both of her parents being Yale professors and a lot of resources, Sophia may end up going to Harvard no matter what her parents did.

One of my concerns as a researcher is for some working-class parents to say to themselves, look how you can push your children to Ivy League universities, I can push my kids even harder, trying to replicate her parenting with the end goal of sending their children to Harvard while ignoring the tremendous resource and social capital differences.

And while I cannot comment on Prof. Chua’s parenting practice described in the book, which are purely anecdotal, our research does show that when parents try to push their children to succeed at all cost, through pestering children, constantly comparing them to their more successful peers, or reacting very negatively and emotionally to their occasionally failure, it can generate tremendous conflicts at home and decrease family cohesion and sever parent-child emotional bonds, which in turn can lead to higher levels of depression and anxiety in children.

Are there any themes that Western parents can learn from the book?

Yes, I agree with Professor Chua that children will develop strong self-esteem when they really master something. So that self-esteem should be grounded in their achievements, their ability, rather than empty praises from parents and teachers saying ‘great job’ for drawing a circle or ‘great job’ for just about anything.

In the U.S., we do see parents over-praise their children all the time and there are tremendous efforts to maintain children’s self-esteem, oftentimes at the cost of giving honest feedback to children. Self-esteem is really important, but equally important is for children to get honest feedback of their work and to know how they can improve and do better with increasing efforts.

In the U.S., children are also often praised for being “smart” and teachers and parents also categorize children as smart or not smart, as a way to explain various levels of achievement. In Eastern cultures, there is much more emphasis on effort rather than on intelligence.

A related issue is that corresponding to Western parents who are overly concerned about children’s self-esteem, oftentimes, in my research I see Eastern parents not paying enough attention to a child’s self-esteem.

Sometimes, parents may even think of self-esteem as a bad thing, because it is easily confused with self-pride. And self-pride, parents often believe, will lead a child to not try very hard in school work. So any time parents see signs of pride in children, they try to remind them not to be proud in order to do even better.

In practice, I do think it is important for Eastern parents to pay more attention to a child’s self-esteem. While we do not want them to have an oversize sense of self-esteem, we do want our children to feel good about what they have achieved and also we want them to feel that they are competent and can do things well. That is very important for children’s development.

Prof. Qin and husband Tom Buffett look at a children's book with Olivia and Helena. Qin believes children should be raised to be "well-rounded, emotionally healthy kids." (Photo: G.L. Kohuth/MSU).

What is your philosophy when it comes to raising your own kids?

My children are still young; they are two and four-years-old respectively. They are both in Montessori school here in Michigan. My husband Tom Buffett and I are both educators in some ways; we met when we were doing our doctoral degrees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

It is a bit hard to say what our parenting philosophy is right now. Parenting is definitely not an easy task, requiring a lot of work from parents. It is also something that requires a lot of changes over time. Children need different things from parents at different ages and life stages.

What we both believe in and try to create at home is a loving, warm environment where they have a lot of opportunities to learn about the world through reading, talking to others, traveling, exposing them to various cultures, and most importantly cultivating in them early on a sense of caring for other people, especially those from less advantaged circumstances. I do want my children to be successful and find a profession that they are interested in doing and good at, and equally important is the desire for them to grow up to be caring people who do their work to help others.

I myself grew up in a little village in Northern China under Siberia and have witnessed a lot of inequality and suffering of children and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have also met a lot of great mentors and teachers who helped me along the way. And I think for myself, my own upbringing definitely motivated me to achieve academically.

I sometimes worry that my children, who are growing up in a comfortable middle class environment, will lose that sense of motivation. What my husband and I try to do is not to spoil them, especially not to buy them a lot of things; we try to let them do the things they are capable of doing early on and Montessori is great for this. Our involvement in their education will also increase dramatically after they enter formal schooling.

Academic achievement is paramount to many Chinese parents. How did you come to believe that a child’s happiness should supersede this?

I do not believe that a child’s happiness should supersede academic achievement. A lot of my research was conducted way before Prof. Chua’s book came out.

Much of my research on Asian-American students was motivated by the perception of them as the “Model Minority” in the U.S. and the tremendous attention given by scholars, teachers and parents to their academic achievement, which oftentimes ignores their mental health.

Most of the time, parents and teachers or counsellors are not at all aware of the challenges Asian-American children face at home, at school or in their own development. Through my research I hope to increase the awareness and resources directed toward supporting Asian-American children and their immigrant families.

I started the research on high-achieving Asian-American students to better understand their mental health and indeed I found a lot of mental health concerns in this group of children.

And I did find that a lot of the stress at home for kids came from conflicts around education, school, major, how much time to spend studying, etc. So I believe that academic achievement is very important, but we should not try to drive our children to succeed at the cost of their mental health, which can have a long term negative impact on their life.

My past research does show that we can raise successful and happy and healthy children. In a paper published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, I compared the parent-child relations of two groups of kids, high achieving but stressed kids vs. high achieving but mentally healthy Chinese-American kids.

What I found was that parents of the high achieving and mentally healthy kids try to adjust their parenting approaches after migration, paying attention to both children’s educational achievement and their social and emotional development. More specifically, they remain highly involved in their kid’s education and had high expectations, but they also became more flexible after migration and gave their children more choices and independence and let go of some of the parental control.

Do you think the style of parenting amongst mainland Chinese has changed much over the last few decades?

I have heard of a lot of conversations to make education more “child-centred” and in some ways closer to the Western education (while in the U.S. with No Child Left Behind etc., they are trying to be more Eastern with stricter standards).

I have also heard of debates of the “wolf father” vs. the “cat father.” So there are definitely a lot of conversations on education and parenting.

From what I have heard and seen, parents in mainland China face a lot of challenges and mixed messages related to parenting and educating their children and feel very torn about this.

On the one hand, they try to not give too much pressure to their children and try to be their child’s friends; on the other hand, because of the one-child policy (one child will be responsible to take care of two parents and four grandparents, so this child better do well in school and can get a good job) and the same college admission system (still based solely on one exam), parents feel that they have no other way out but to try to do everything to push their children to succeed. And the pressure keeps going.

To the best of my knowledge, children today face even more pressure than twenty years ago from parents and teachers. Parents are also willing to put tremendous amount of resources into their children’s education.

Interestingly, I did a quick look at Chinese netizen’s reactions to the tiger mother debate and it seems that there are more voices of dissent against Prof. Chua’s approaches in China than in the U.S. (comparing Chinese speaking netizens who reside in China vs. those in the U.S.).

Have you noticed differences in the way Chinese parents around the world choose to raise their offspring? If so, how are they different?

I am only familiar with the Chinese and U.S. context and have commented above. I also think that there is tremendous diversity and variation in how Chinese parents raise their children in every community.

To read more from Prof. Qin:


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Michigan State University.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Rebecca Lim is a Singaporean-born medical doctor practising in Melbourne, Austraia. She earned her MBBS degree from Monash University, Australia.

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