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Chinese, Western parenting methods compared in new study

By Xuyang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2013-6-5 18:58:01

A kid plays the piano in front of an audience of adults in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Photo: CFP
A kid plays the piano in front of an audience of adults in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Photo: CFP

When speaking of "Chinese parents," words like controlling, strict, and authoritarian usually come to mind, thanks in part to Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, who wrote about how she educated her two daughters as a "Tiger Mother" almost two years ago.

But why are Chinese parents, and perhaps parents in East Asian countries as well, so controlling? Scientists are trying to unravel the cultural and psychological reasons behind it.

A study by psychologists proposes that the reason why Chinese parents are more controlling probably lies in the fact that they are more likely to associate their children's performance, in school and in life, with their own worth. But social pressure, tradition of obedience may also play a part.

The research paper, entitled "Why Are Chinese Mothers More Controlling Than American Mothers?" surveyed 215 mothers and children in China and the US six years ago and the results were published in the recent issue of Child Development Journal.

Parents and children were surveyed twice over a year to indicate the extent to which the parents used psychological controlling practices, which usually involved emotional punishment, such as inducing guilt. For instance, if a child does something the parents don't like, parents may act less friendly toward it or tell the child that they should feel guilty.

Child-based worth

Some examples of psychological manipulation can be found in Chua's story. In her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua, a Chinese-American, wrote about her constant battles with her two daughters as she pushed them to excel in school, piano and violin. She wrote that any grade less than an A was unacceptable and sleepovers or play dates were not allowed. When her daughter refused to practice the piano, she called her "lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic."

Parents were also asked to indicate the extent to which they felt their self-worth was based on their children's achievements.

For instance, parents were asked to rate to what extent they feel bad about themselves when their child fails, or whether their child's failure makes them feel ashamed.

The study found that Chinese mothers based their worth on children's performance more than European and African American mothers, and that this contributed to the difference in parental control among Chinese and American mothers.

This research doesn't just look at the differences between Chinese and US parents, but it established a correlation between parents' child-based worth and their use of psychological control. It means that mothers with greater child-based worth are more controlling, said Florrie Fei-Yin Ng, a professor of psychology at Chinese University of Hong Kong, and lead author of the paper.

"The more the parents feel that their worth hinges on their children's performance, the more pressure they have to do whatever they can to push their kids," said Ng.

In Chinese communities, parents often compare their children's performances either in public or in private. Parents often say to their children, "We're doing this for your own good" or "Everything I did, I did for you."

Although many young parents in their 20s or 30s say they don't want to put too much pressure on their children as their parents did, they still admit that if their children don't do well in school, they would feel embarrassed or feel that they had "lost face."

Lying to make you better

Perhaps another example of parental manipulation is lying. According to a study that compares the use of lies by US and Chinese parents, while the vast majority of parents in both countries have lied to their children to influence their behaviors, Chinese parents lie more and approve of it to a greater degree than their US counterparts.

Scientists in the US, China and Canada showed 114 parents in the US and 85 in China a list of lies that parents might use with their children. Parents were told to identify whether they'd used such statements and rate to what extent these lies are acceptable.

Some of the lies sound like common parenting tricks: "Finish all your food or you'll grow up to be short," "If you don't come with me now, I'll leave you here by yourself" or "If you don't behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish."

The study, published last November in the International Journal of Psychology, found that 84 percent of US parents and 98 percent of Chinese parents reported telling at least one lie similar to those on the list. It suggests that instrumental lying may be more common among Chinese parents who expressed greater acceptance of parental lying, even though parents in both countries view lying as a negative attribute in children.

But when it comes to lying in order to protest their children's feelings, Chinese parents lie in fewer instances than US parents, according to the study.

The results are consistent with differences between Asian Americans and Americans of European descent, the paper writes. Researchers suggest that cross-cultural differences may reflect "greater concern with social cohesiveness and a greater emphasis on respect and obedience in Asian cultures that encourages parents to be more willing to lie to achieve these ends."

To elaborate on the approach, the paper quoted a Chinese parent as saying, "When teaching children, it is okay to use well-intentioned lies. It can promote positive development and prevent your child from going astray."

Adverse effects

Numerous studies have found that too much parental control undermines children's psychological development, afflicting them with depression and low self-esteem among other negative effects.

Wang Qian, a professor of psychology at Chinese University and Hong Kong, and Eva Pomerantz, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have both spent years studying the effect of different parenting techniques on children's development and comparing the differences of Chinese and Western parents.

It is usually believed that parental control may have a greater impact on children in Western culture which places more emphasis on independence than in East Asian cultures. But in 2009, Wang and Pomerantz published a study that showed similarly negative effects of parental control on children's psychological functioning in the US and in China.

Many parents, especially Chinese parents, have a tendency to center their whole life around their children. It's an unhealthy relationship, said Ng. "There should be proper boundaries between parents and children," she added.

Over the years there have been sporadic reports of such parent-child tension exploding in more extreme ways such as suicide, patricide or matricide. Many young people are also now voicing their anger and frustration at their parents. A group called "Parents are hazards" exists on Douban, a social media network in China. Founded in 2008, the group now has close to 64,000 members. Teenagers and young adults tell stories about how their parents pressured, controlled and oppressed them seemingly without regard to their personal interests and emotional well-being.

However, involvement of parents in their children's life isn't always a bad thing. There have been studies that show a marked degree of parental involvement in education improves children's performances in school.

Cultural factors

Drawing on other studies, Ng and her co-authors listed a number of cultural factors that may contribute to more controlling parents. Chinese culture is more interdependent and is often considered a "face" culture. Therefore "parents may incorporate children's accomplishments into their view of themselves," they wrote.

Zou Hong, a professor of developmental psychology at Beijing Normal University, agrees that the traditional belief that parents are responsible for children's education and accomplishments is an important factor in parents' heightened involvement in children's lives. However, she doesn't think it necessarily means parents' sense of worth is based on their children. 

"Failing to educate the child is the fault of the father," as an old saying goes. "We've always emphasized education and see it as the responsibility of the parents to educate their children and to build their character," said Zou.

Chinese culture also emphasizes parental authority, as well as respect and obedience on the part of the children. 

The fact that most Chinese parents would depend on their children to support them in their old age may be another reason why parents are set on ensuring a bright future for their children. "Since we can't depend on the government or society, I've only got my boy to depend on. So the better off he turns out in the future, the more secure my life would be later on," said a mother in Fujian Province surnamed Lin, who has a 4-year-old boy.

Zou also admits that the common definition of success in China may be too limited in terms of social status, as a good job and steady income are often the most important thing, while in the West the primary goal may be to develop an independent-thinking individual. Many parents like Lin still hope their children will at least have a college education.

Social mobility may be at play here, as Alan Paul points out. An American author and musician, Paul calls himself "Panda Dad" in contrast to Chua's "Tiger Mom." In response to the Tiger Mom controversy, he wrote in an article for the Wall Street Journal, saying that "it's easy to understand a traditional Chinese drive for perfection in children: it is a huge nation with a long history of people thriving at the top and scraping by at the bottom without much in between."

Chinese parents have much to learn. "Most parents' intentions are good; it's just the way they educate and interact with their children may be problematic," said Zou. "Many only want obedience and don't know how to communicate with the children as an independent person."

Experts disagree whether things will become better or worse for the children. Ng believes that competition in society is getting more fierce and not only in the academic sense. "Parents are likely to be under more pressure and therefore become more demanding on their children, pushing them to excel not only in school, but in all the other aspects," she said.

Zou, on the other hand, sees hope in the younger generation who are becoming parents. They may become less authoritarian than their parents' and grandparents' generation.  "Young people today are more willing to learn about parenting and have more access to information such as psychology; and they would also reflect on how they were brought up as a kid, and perhaps change things," she said.

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