Yale law professor Amy Chua created a controversy with her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, advocating a parenting style that made strong demands on children. New research suggests that different cultural assumptions about interdependence and identity might help explain the differences of opinion about the book.
In fact, behavior by mothers that can feel overly critical and demanding to European-American children can feel supportive and affirming to Asian-Americans, according to the research by CIFAR Associate Hazel Markus (Stanford University) of the program in Successful Societies, and PhD student Alyssa Fu.
“There are multiple ways to effectively parent,” Markus says. “We need to recognize that with growing cultural diversity there is going to be more than one right way to do things.”
Previous research has suggested that Asian-Americans often stress interdependence with others, while European-American are more likely to stress independence. To see how this played out in perceptions about parenting, Fu and Markus worked with students at a local high school with both Asian-American and European-American students.
Overall, both European-American and Asian-American students feel loved and supported by their mothers, according to the research. But they have different perceptions about what counts as support.
When the child has failed or is failing at a task, these perceptions are especially different. For a European-American student, pressure from the mother after failure is seen as overly critical and unsupportive. But for Asian-American students, whether they felt pressure from their mothers had no bearing on how supportive they thought she was. In fact, they can draw on pressure from their mothers as an additional resource to help them succeed.
In one part of the study, students were given a difficult word puzzle, then told they had performed well below average. They were then asked to write a few sentences either about themselves, or about their mothers. Asian-American students who thought about their mothers were more motivated than European-American students to work harder on the next word puzzle. In contrast, European-Americans were less motivated after thinking about their mothers.
Fu says that differing ideas about the sense of self are at work in these results. Since Asian-Americans are likely to see themselves as interdependent with their mothers, , pressure from their mothers can reinforce their interdependence and motivate them. European-American identity, in contrast, stresses the importance of individuality, so pressure from the mother feels more like criticism and serves to undermine their sense of independence.