By Courtney Rivette

What are your favorite memories about being a kid? Attending sleepovers, having play dates, being in a school play, chilling out with TV or computer games? Yale professor Amy Chua’s children were allowed to do none of these things. A self-proclaimed “Tiger Mom,” Chua has written a memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, that has brought extreme parenting styles into the public eye.

Chua has received much criticism for her extreme Chinese parenting approach where she pushed her children to be the best. Her children couldn’t choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an “A,” not be the number one student in every subject except gym and drama or play any instrument other than the piano or violin. Despite the long list of banned activities, Chua’s children grew up to be successful – one of her daughters was recently admitted to Harvard.

As the book continues to fuel controversy throughout the nation, an MSU professor is researching the effects of strict parenting styles on mental health.

Photo Credit: Jenna Chabot

Desiree Boalian Qin, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, has been researching the effects of different parenting styles on Chinese-American students as compared to their white counterparts, and has found that Chinese-American students often suffer from mental health problems.

Qin’s Research

Qin’s research was conducted in a variety of high achieving and prestigious high schools located on the East Coast using a mixed-method study of surveys and in-depth interviews. The study included both Asian-American and European-American students.

“They all do very well educationally, but we do find that when parents pester their kids a lot and when they have a lot of conflicts at home about education, then children feel more alienated from their parents,” Qin said. “That in turn will lead to higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem and more anxiety reported by the Chinese students.”

Qin said she was surprised to learn that education created conflicts between some of the students and parents in the schools she studied.

“They already beat 90 percent of their peers to get into the school, they were already the best students, high achieving, doing great, and I was surprised that education was such a big conflict and issue at home,” Qin said. “In general, students in these schools sleep four or five hours a night and each time they get their GPA they calculate it to the tenth decimal point. There is so much competition in the school and so much stress. It is such a pressure cooker environment – they get pressure from their parents and from their teachers.”

Qin’s work was modeled on the idea of the “model minority”, a term that refers to a minority – ethnic, racial, or religious – whose members achieve a higher degree of success than the population average. Success is typically measured in income, education, and related factors such as low crime rate and high family stability. In the United States, the model minority is often associated with the Asian culture and its high educational achievement.

“A lot of these kids, Chinese American and other Asian American kids, their mental health is ignored because we focus so much on their achievement,” Qin said. “There is this façade that everything is going well; they are performing so well educationally, therefore, everything at home and their mental health must be great too. It is assumed that if you are doing well academically then you must be feeling good, and in my own research I find that is not always the case.”

Qin & Chua’s Ideas on Parenting

Despite connections drawn by the media between Chua’s book and Qin’s research, Qin said that they really don’t relate.

“My research has nothing to do with professor Chua’s book,” Qin said. “I’m sure she is a brilliant law professor, but the book is purely anecdotal about one mother raising two children. It is not research or based on anything scientific, therefore, it is very difficult to challenge.”

Qin was born in a small village in northern China and and came to the United States when she was 24 years old. She did her doctorate studies at Harvard Graduate School of Education and did two years of post-doctoral work at New York University and Columbia. She began working at MSU in 2006.

Qin received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English from Heilongjiang University in China. She often tutored students on the side and noticed students struggling with a wide spectrum of negative emotions, including sadness, anxiety, anger, depression and guilt.

“I felt at the time there was a psychological struggle, although there wasn’t a lot of research or counselors and psychologists working with youth in China during that time,” Qin said. “I think that really led me to my interest in working with youth and families and working with mental health.”

Western vs. Chinese Parenting

Chua’s book has sparked debate about the positive and negative effects of both “Chinese” and “Western” parenting.  Loosely defined, Western parents are said to be more lenient and relaxed in their parenting methods whereas Chinese parents are said to be more strict and demanding of academic success.  Chua and Qin, both Chinese mothers, have differing views on the subject.

“In a lot of ways it is impossible to categorize ‘Western parenting’ and ‘Chinese parenting’ because parenting varies so much and depends on a variety of factors,” Qin said. “I’m a mother of two girls, and parenting is one of the hardest things I have ever done – you have to be consistent, and it takes a lot of work. I think all parents are in the same boat in that we all want the same things for our children, and I do think that the debate or controversy generated by Amy Chua’s book at least got us to talk about parenting.”

According to a Time magazine interview, Chua said that Western parents are often more concerned with their children’s “psyches and self-esteem” whereas Chinese immigrant parents “assume strength rather than fragility” in their children.

“It’s much less deferring to the child’s wishes,” Chua said in the interview. “The westerners want to respect their child’s individuality and to pursue their passion and to provide positive reinforcement. The Chinese are much more comfortable overriding their children’s preferences.”

Qin agrees the Chinese parents usually do have higher expectations for their children.

“I think that if you look at research, Chinese parents generally have higher expectations than other parents,” Qin said. “But, I know plenty of Chinese parents who are very lenient and very democratic, and I have also known many American parents who are very strict, very involved, and really expecting a lot from their kids.”

Qin worries that some people will look to the book as a parenting guide when they see that Chua’s oldest daughter was accepted to Harvard. She said she hope that it doesn’t encourage parents to push their children to be successful regardless of the costs.

“I think some of the findings from our research projects do send a cautionary note against this whole idea that you can push your child to succeed academically at all costs, and encouraging parents to do that,” Qin said. “I think that can be misleading and very damaging for children and their mental health.”

Nan Ma, a first-year business graduate student from China has seen the negative effects that Qin describes – she has a friend in China who suffered from mental health problems which Ma believes are a result of strict parenting.

“She is a very outstanding student, very successful academically and she got the number one position in the national entrance examination,” Ma said.

The entrance exam is an extremely difficult and competitive test that all Chinese students planning to enroll in college must take. Ma said that many students spend all of their time studying for the test, and then find themselves lost when they get to the university level because learning is structured in a different way.

“She enrolled in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which is a very hard school for mainland students to get into,” Ma said. “She suffered from mental health problems during her first year in the university and dropped out. This included a suicide attempt.”

Ma said she has an idea of what led to the all of the stress.

“I know her father is a university teacher and he is very smart, but didn’t achieve all of the accomplishments he wanted,” Ma said. “I think he put all of his expectations on her. Her father is very strict and he prevented her from having contact with friends or having social events. She really didn’t have many friends.”

Although Qin’s research is based only on Chinese-American immigrant parents, Ma said that tiger parents are common in China.

“The style of the tiger mom is very common in China, but it is just an extreme example and not all parents behave like that,” Ma said. “It is true that parents usually have very high expectations of their children. Normally parents live a very hard life themselves and they give everything to their children; they want their children to pay them back with their academic success.”

Chinese students spend more time in school than American students, Ma said. She described her school day starting at 5:30 a.m. and ending around 9:30 p.m. with short breaks for lunch and dinner throughout the day. She said the atmosphere was much different when she went to college in China and when she came to America.

Ma grew up in East China, between Beijing and Shanghai. She said she grew up in a “relatively loose environment.”

“My parents are also university professors and they have very high expectations for me, but they never pushed me,” she said.

When it came time to choose a college major, Ma said her parents let her decide what she wanted.

“My mom is an accounting professor and she wanted me to choose economics or accounting as my major,” Ma explained. “She thought it was a better major to find a job or future career and also said she could help me. But, I liked journalism at that time and they didn’t push me. I still chose journalism.

“Some parents won’t let their children make their own choices,” she added.

Qin had similar things to say regarding students from Chinese families entering college.

“They get to college, they are doing something their parents want them to do, they are in a major their parents chose for them and they may not be that interested or passionate about it,” Qin said.

The Future

The results of Qin’s research suggest that both Chinese and Western parents have room to improve in the area of mental health. Qin said she wants to make parents, teachers, counselors and other school staff members aware of challenges kids face, particularly those with immigrant backgrounds.

“Instead of just saying ‘Okay, they are really great, we don’t need to do anything to help them,’ I think my work is trying to say ‘No, even though these kids are high achieving they still need support,’” Qin said. “There are things the school can do to support the kids better and there are things that parents can do better to really pay more attention to their mental health.”

The results of Qin’s research will be published later this year and she already has ideas for what she wants to do next.

“I look forward to doing this type of study in Asia, in China, and in other places looking at high achieving kids, their mental health, and parenting,” she said.

Ma also has ideas for her future parenting methods.

“I definitely won’t be a tiger mom,” Ma said. “I think my personality is quite easy-going and I think if I have kids they should be very independent. I would tell them what are relatively good study methods for them to get better scores, but I won’t push them.”

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