Chinese parenting and psychology in the U.S.
With tradition as far-reaching and dominant as the roots of a fig tree – discipline, parenting sentiments and markers for success have sailed across the seas with determined Chinese immigrants and are still embedded today. But as Chinese-Americans intermarry with other ethnicities nationwide and mix into modern culture, one wonders whether the last of the dragon dads and tiger moms are counterintuitively planting seeds of psychological damage.
Are the transplanted methodologies of Chinese parenting merely penzai of the rigid rules of Ancient days? Do the American way and relative deprivation worm their way into Chinese parenting roots and bloom angst, over the apparent disparity between a Chinese-American child and their peers? Perhaps aggregate data will breach the levy upholding rigid parenting structures and let flood mental wellness in Chinese-American culture.
Relative deprivation is personal discord or distressing entitlement to something based on comparison to someone else’s experience or possessions. In a study of almost 6,000 Chinese students in China, researchers found Chinese young adults’ relative deprivation was strongly linked with suicidal ideation and depression, while negatively correlated to social support.
Sociologists suggested that “reduction of psychological strains might be an effective procedure to reduce college students’ psychopathology and increase their positive psychological feelings such as self-perceived social support.” As one Chinese-American commented, “Not likely, if you know the parents of a Chinese student.”
The tiger mom and conditional love
Second-generation Chinese-American Yale Law professor Amy Chua sparked a debate with her tell-all book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” She gives a vulnerable expose into parenting in modern culture while adhering to the traditional Chinese way. She speaks of unapologetic full-court pressure on her children, irreverent of their personal interests and emotions, and single-mindedly aimed toward achievement.
Chua illustrates a household that teaches punitive work results in excellence and therein satisfaction. She and her husband lean toward critique-based conditional love rather than indulging children’s whims. Other beliefs of the mom of two biracial Jewish and Chinese daughters:
- Nothing is fun until you’re good at it
- A- is a bad grade
- Household bans on Western “indulgences” like playdates, sleepovers and any extracurricular activities except practicing the violin or piano
It should be noted she uses the term “Chinese way” to encompass all authoritarian parenting styles and “Western way” as an umbrella for all relaxed, child-centered, empathetic parenting. To Chua, it’s less about rearing Chinese and more about a winner’s mindset.
To her credit, empathetic parenting is a new concept. Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., notes, “Child abuse laws, child psychology, and books about the experiences of children have only been around for less than 60 years. … Children were expected to be seen and not heard, and to grow up quickly so they could be useful to society.”
Smithstein adds, however, that tremendous research has been gained in the last half-century on innate temperament, personality and the impact of environment on the individual’s welfare as an adult. With knowledge comes power, Smithstein says. “There are many people who ‘survived’ the ‘Chinese parenting’ and vowed never to be that kind of parent for their own children – wanting something more nurturing, loving, and compassionate.”
Pressure of expectations
In the beginning of ”Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother” Chua touches on how the masses speculate how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids and whether they too could do it.
After heated debates on this style of parenting ensued, and studies tested the efficacy of the Chinese way here in the U.S., the question now becomes not could, but rather, would a parent go to such lengths: rear solely for the material prize, forgoing intrinsic qualities like character, joy and mental health.
Su Yeong Kim, Ph.D., associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas, was already surveying more than 300 Asian-American families for a decade when Chua’s book was released. Her findings set the discussion on its heels. Children of “tiger parents” surprisingly had:
- Lower academic achievement and attainment
- Greater psychological maladjustment
- Higher rates of depression
- Low self-esteem
- More frequent alienation from parents
Chinese-Americans raised in an authoritarian household report experiencing the double-edged sword of being bred for almost assured success while watching their peers play around, relax and experience leisure.
The relative deprivation among young Chinese students by unrelenting parental harping from birth through the teen years cultivated higher suicide ideation, when the youth internalized such disparities. Mental health disorder and relative deprivation are compounded when the passive-aggressive martyrdom, psychological control, shaming, conditional love and lack of warmth reported in tiger parenting is thrown a real-world curveball like:
- Stepchildren from other marriages
- Biracial or dual-faith households
- Second- or third-generation Chinese parents trying to break the mold of the Chinese way with strong extended family interference
- Preferential male first-born treatment, even among twins
Melvin W. Wong, Ph.D., reveals core psychological issues stemming from first-born preferential treatment. First-born males were historically preferred because they could carry the family name, but over time the role has morphed into a near-illogical pruning for superiority.
Writes Wong: “The Asian culture actually reinforces compulsivity because it is believed that there is a positive value in being a self-controlled perfectionist. However, contradictorily, compulsivity actually stifles creativity … There is also a social impact with this lack of internal control: people become codependent … Tragically, the true self is the final casualty of this unrelenting crave for approval and to be liked.”
He adds, among siblings, no matter how far apart in age, the inequity breeds, “gross experiences of splitting and divisiveness.”
Wong reveals the perfectionist housetraining manifests a narcissistic personality. He writes, “First-born daughters also grow up with feelings of anxiety and perfectionism, but with borderline features. It is noted that both of these manifestations of personality disorders are in the area of ego deficits where the self was underdeveloped.”
Getting help versus “family business”
It has been an uphill battle for the mental health community in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders within minority communities as a whole, let alone success and perfection-driven cultures that shun derisions. Often seen as an individual weakness, not a genetic disorder, minority families generally maintain a strong “family business” secrecy about mental health issues and discourage seeking help.
Dr. Justin Chen lists five myths that fuel the stigma on mental illness in the Chinese-American communities. A short film titled “Perfection,” starring actress Ming-Na speaks to the mounting mental pressure of the tiger mom parenting and the moment of liberation—which is ultimately the decision of the individual—for his or her personal peace of mind.
Best of both worlds
By now it may seem the authoritarian parenting of the Chinese way is counterintuitive; lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater, it’s important to note the opposite isn’t that great either. Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., writes that child-centered parenting equally fosters narcissism, relative deprivation and subsequent depression.
Kim delineates three major types of parenting: authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Perhaps the healthy medium is adapting the authoritative method, which combines high responsiveness with exercises of power in giving the child parent-issued choices to choose from and clearly articulates consequences/rewards of each.
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About the author
Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.