Monday, January 10, 2011

Asian vs Western parenting styles and academic success

By Beat A Schwendimann

The latest PISA study found that Chinese students outperform students in all other tested countries in reading, math, and science (Read blog entry on PISA 2010 here). Other top performing countries are South Korea and Singapore. The only non-Asian country at the top is Finnland.

The question arises how Asian education differs from Western education (See blog entry on education in China vs USA here).

A major factor in the academic top performance of Asian students could be their parents. Yale professor Amy Chua discusses differences between Asian and Western parenting styles in her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", based on her personal experiences. Chua uses the constructs "Asian" and "Western" parents loosely to describe certain parenting styles that are not necessarily only found in certain geographical areas. The constructs allow making distinctions in parents' views of parenting. ("Asian Parents" as a stereotype has become a meme.)

For example, "Western" parents start with the premisse that their children's self-esteem is fragile and therefore constantly try to reassure their children about how good they are notwithstanding a mediocre performance on a test. "Western" parents try not to put too much pressure for academic performance on their children and insist that learning should be fun. They are afraid that setting high expectations might lead to failure and lower their children's self-esteem. 

"Asian" parents start with the premisse that their children's self-esteem will build up with improving performance. "Asian" parents believe that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work hard, and as children on their own often do not want to work, they override their preferences. "Asian" parents see the academic success of their children as the result of successful parenting, and failure in school is therefore not the child's (or the school's) fault but the parent's. "Asian" parents can order their kids to get top grades. "Western" parents can only ask their kids to try their best. 
(The paragraph above is based on an excerpt from Amy Chua's book:  Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior -

Asian students spend less time than Western students on athletics, music, dating, and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects: See documentary: Two million minutes.

A dark side to the pressure of Asian parenting is discussed in this CNN article on suicide rates among Asian-American women.

Read the response to Amy Chua's claims by Christine Carter: Chinese Mother Controversy: Why Amy Chua is wrong (Huffington Post)

Another aspect that influences Asian parenting styles are Confucian beliefs, say researchers including University of California, Riverside, psychologist Ruth Chao and Brown University psychologist Jin Li. Confucius taught that human beings should strive their whole lifetime to improve or perfect themselves. Confucian “self-perfection” means achieving the virtues of diligence, perseverance and concentration. Confucian ideas influence most East Asian cultures, particularly Korea, Japan, Vietnam in addition to Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Chao also found that Western parents tend to support their children's learning by attending PTA meetings, volunteer in the classroom, and watch their children's extracurricular activities. Asian parents tend tend to spend more time creating a learning environment at home by providing their children with a place to study, books, and computers, giving them extra homework, and taking them to learning related activities like Saturday language school and music lessons. 
For further discussion on Asian parenting, see the article by Kathy Seal: Asian-American Parenting and Academic Success.

See this youtube video by the UK comedy show "Goodness Gracious Me" about "Typical Asian Parents":

Chua's distinction between "Asian" and "Western" parenting styles connects to the work of Carol Dweck, a psychology researcher (More info on Carol Dweck's theories here).

Dweck found that people can hold two different theories of intelligence and ability: Fixed and growth mindsets.
  • The fixed intelligence group views intelligence/ability as an overall fixed or stable trait that is unevenly distributed among individuals (You either are talented/intelligent, or not). Since intelligence/ability is seen as fixed, low performance is seen as "proof" for a lack of intelligence/ability. Students adopt patterns of helplessness and try to avoid opportunities for failure. Students try to preserve their self-esteem after failure by not trying anymore, which allows them to the belief that they could do well, if they tried. On the other hand, Dweck found that students with a long history of success may be the most vulnerable for developing learned helplessness because they may buy into the entity view of intelligence more readily than those with less frequent success (Dweck, 1999).
  • The growth mindset group views intelligence/ability as a maleable repertoire of skills that can be increased through effort. Students holding this belief don't try to look smart, but to be smart (mastery-oriented). Intelligence/ability is not seen as one entity but as task specific (You are good in some areas but less good in others), combined with the belief that you can improve through focused effort. Failure is not seen as proof of lack of intelligence/ability, but is a sign to work harder and practice more.
Parents can have a great influence over their children's academic success, for example by setting expectations and being role-models for different views of intelligence/ability. A research question for further investigation is if and how a person's view of intelligence/ability can be changed.

[Update] Reader J.R. Atwood posted: Dweck has found that simply explaining the mechanics of the human brain is enough to push people from the fixed mindset category into the growth mindset category. When people learn about the plasticity of their brain, for example, they also intuit the idea that intelligence is developmental. See, for example, Blackwell, Trzrsniewski, and Dweck (2007):;

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