Family Matters

Take This, Tiger Mom!

Armed with new data showing that pressured kids are prone to depression and anxiety, an anti-Tiger mom (she's an academic and Chinese as well) takes aim at Amy Chua's contention that pushing children is healthy.

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Michigan State University

Researcher Desiree Baolian Qin, with her daughters, says academic success shouldn't come at the expense of kids' happiness

It’s been a year since the “Tiger mom” roared onto the scene, sharing how she compelled her kids to practice the piano for hours sans potty breaks and denied them frivolous activities like playdates.

In her best-selling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale professor Amy Chua made the case that overly indulgent parents — you know who you are: maybe you let your kids play the occasional video game or allow them to spend the night at a friend’s house — can beget only spoiled and unmotivated children.

Now a fellow academic — and Chinese mother — is refuting that tough-as-nails approach, urging parents to let kids be kids. Girls, it turns out, just wanna have fun. And so do boys.

Happiness is actually pretty important for children, says Desiree Baolian Qin, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University.

In two upcoming papers accepted for publication, Qin and her co-authors have looked at the experiences of Chinese-American children and found that high-achieving Chinese students were more depressed and anxious than white children.

MORE: Chinese vs. Western Mothers: Q&A with Amy Chua

In research to appear in the journal New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, Qin found that Chinese-American students, when compared with European-American students at the same prestigious East Coast high school, “definitely perceive that their parents pester them to excel much more,” she wrote in an e-mail.

According to the study:

In more than half of the families, students talked about education being a “family matter,” causing frequent friction and tension at home. Another area of conflict around education reported by students was that their parents often had very strong emotional reactions to their “failures” in school, including getting angry and yelling.

Another common source of conflict was parents’ comparisons of their children with others who were academically superior to them, with students recognizing that their parents often used this kind of comparison to motivate them to perform better but admitting it often had the opposite effect.

Even more concerning, says Qin, is that for many children, such constant comparisons can lead to problems with self-esteem and even depression. Take the case of Ming, who reported that his parents’ constant comparison and pressure was unbearable and had a very negative influence on his mental health, “it’s just like you can’t feel like you can function and like yeah, usually after my parents lecture me, I feel like I, like usually, the least that affected me would be like low self-esteem, but the worst would be like, like real depression. Like the kind that you can’t function anymore.”

In a different paper to be published in the Journal of Adolescence, Qin and co-authors found that Chinese students reported higher levels of education-related conflicts with their parents than their American classmates. Potential flash points: how much time to devote to studying, the importance of academic achievement, which school to attend, which college major to choose.

MORE: The ‘Tiger Mother’ Debate: Are Chinese Moms Really So Different?

In this study of close to 500 academically driven students, Chinese students indicated they were more depressed and had lower self-esteem and greater anxiety than white students. Their troubles seemed to be linked, at least in part, to their conflicts with their parents over education.

Not that education isn’t important, of course. But Qin contends it’s not the only thing that matters when it comes to upbringing; emotional health and social skills play a major role too. So lighten up, mom and dad, and look to Qin for inspiration. She was raised by grandparents in China whom she calls “fairly lenient,” and she went on to attend Harvard. So there.