Sorry, the relationship with your mother still matters for your achievement in life

Parents in societies around the world have big ambitions for their children. At the same time, those societies have become more competitive. In order to become a successful lawyer, you need a degree from an ‘excellent’ university. To get into that excellent university, you need to have outperformed your classmates in high school. In order to excel in high school, you need to have been acquainted with the hard work and motivation that is necessary to get top grades in your class in middle school, etc. etc. One of the parenting styles with which parents have tried to achieve such success is the so-called ‘tiger mother’ approach. In this blog, I will discuss why it is likely that this approach may not lead to the intended outcomes for everyone alike.

Back in 2011, Amy Chua made headlines in the US and around the world, when she released a book that advocated her Chinese-influenced parenting style and labeled herself as a ‘Tiger Mother’. What this meant for the daily life of her two daughters is that they were not allowed to watch TV or play computer games, have sleepovers or play dates with friends, or get any grade less than the top ‘A’ in school. What it also entailed is that when her 7-year-old daughter Lulu struggled to master a difficult piano piece, Chua worked and sat with her for hours until she played it flawlessly. Chua claimed that these strict policies are the reason why her children have been successful in school and music studies and argued that this type of parenting is common in Asian families.

Any parent that struggles to keep their child motivated on a task that they are not initially succeeding on has two choices: make the child persist with force (for example, by threatening negative consequences – “no TV before you finish your homework!”) or stimulate the child to want to succeed  by encouraging intrinsic motivation. Chua advocated the forceful approach and was met with a load of criticism, despite the remarkable academic and musical successes that both of her daughters had achieved in the meantime. The critics argued that her approach would produce resentment from the children in the long run, hurt their social and emotional development and stifle their individual drive. Who is right? What is the better parenting choice?

The answer is that the success of tiger parenting depends on the relationship between a child and a parent. This relationship, in turn, is determined by the way in which people view themselves. And depending on the way in which we see ourselves, parental pressure can take on different meanings. For people with Asian (including Asian American) cultural backgrounds, the person is commonly seen as inherently interconnected with his or her close others, especially one’s mother (e.g., Wang, 2006). Children are raised to pay attention to and adjust their behavior to others in order to maintain and show respect for their relationships. The view of self that is more prevalent in European American families however tends to emphasize that the person is and should be an independent individual, even from one's mother. For children, the focus is on developing self-esteem, self-reliance and self-efficacy. In this context, motivation stems from personal preferences and goals, and children are raised to become successful adults by having the ability to confront challenges and motivate one’s self independently.

In four studies, Fu and Markus examined how these two different ways in which we can view ourselves affect high school students’ perception of their parent’s parenting styles.

To investigate this, they first had the students write open-ended descriptions of their mothers –"describe your mother in a couple of sentences." Students also answered questions about how connected they felt with their moms as well as how much pressure they received from them.

The findings revealed that Asian Americans and European Americans truly see their moms differently. First, Asian American high schoolers were more likely to talk about their relationships with their mothers than were European Americans. Asian Americans also noted more often that their moms helped them with homework or pushed them to succeed. European American students on the other hand talked about their mothers as separate individuals – describing their appearance or their hobbies, for example.

Asian American students indeed experienced more interdependence with their mothers and pressure from them. But the pressure didn’t seem to strain their relationships with their mothers as much as it did with European Americans, according to the study.

To test this effect, students were presented with a challenging academic task (solving anagrams) in the third and fourth studies. After completing this task, they were informed that they had scored well below average and had thus failed on the task. To test the effect that the relationship with their mother had on their persistence on a next task, students were then asked to ‘describe your mom in a couple of sentences’ or to ‘describe yourself in a couple of sentences’. They were then presented with more anagrams to solve.

Remarkably, thinking about their mothers motivated Asian American children more to complete the second set of anagrams than European American children. European American children were more motivated after having been prompted to think about themselves.

Together, these studies reveal fundamental differences in what effective parenting can look like, depending on the way in which we define ourselves (and our mothers). However, despite Chua’s claims that the prevalence of her parenting style is the secret behind the academic success of Asian American children, studies that compare the long-term effect of the tiger parent approach with other parenting styles actually find that children with tiger parents do not outperform children with supportive parents academically (Kim, Wang, Orozco-Lapray, Shen, & Murtuza, 2013), even in Chinese American families. Fact remains that despite nearly a hundred years of psychological research since the times of Freud, regardless of our cultural background, we still find that the relationship with our mothers plays a significant role in what (and how) we achieve in life.


Fu, A. S. & Markus, H. R. (2014).  My mother and me: Why tiger mothers motivate Asian Americans but not European Americans. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 739-749.

Kim, S., Wang, Y., Orozco-Lapray, D., Shen, Y., & Murtuza, M. (2013). Does “tiger parenting” exist? Parenting profiles of Chinese Americans and adolescent developmental outcomes. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 4, 7-18.

Wang, Q. (2006). Relations of maternal style and child self-concept to autobiographical memories in Chinese, Chinese immigrant, and European American 3-year-olds. Child Development, 77, 1794-1809.