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Tiger Moms, Parents Who “Helicopter”, and the Effect on Their Kids

About 60% of upper school students here at Friends Academy say that their parents put immense pressure on them to be academically successful. It’s probable that most parents encourage their children to do well in some way (no matter how they measure success). However, parents can also create the opposite effect when they are constantly hounding and badgering their children through what they believe is the “best form of parenting.” A recent example of this, the “tiger mom” effect, is the latest phenomenon. Whether it is being critiqued, praised, or practiced, this “lifestyle” is being discussed by a wide variety of people. Similarly, “helicopter parenting”, its western counterpart, is another hot topic. What are at the core of these values? How do they really affect children? In what ways are they similar? Different?

To begin, 53-year-old self-titled “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua published a Wall Street Journal article in 2011 titled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior.”  Here, she discussed the strict rules and limitations she implemented while raising her two daughters, Lulu and Sophia. The girls, now respectively 20 and 22, were not allowed to attend a sleepover, have a play date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch television, play computer games, choose their own extracurriculars, get any grade less than an A, be less than number one in every subject besides gym and drama, or play an instrument other than the piano and violin. To most parents this seems obsessive- a perfect formula to ruin a childhood and create a miserable kid. For Chua though, this style was the “only way.”

So, where are her daughters today? Daughter Sophia received an undergraduate degree at Harvard University, and is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army while also working toward a graduate law degree at Yale University. Other daughter, Lulu is in her second year studying art history at Harvard. Although both daughters felt the pressure to succeed and practice music religiously, they told the Telegraph that they also felt supported by their parents. This article shows that both girls are seemingly happy and doing very well. Last summer, Lulu told The Harvard Magazine: “My mom is never the type of person who hovers over me to make sure I do my homework. The essence of tiger parenting, instead, is believing that a child can succeed, and pushing her to go all out. What makes the Tiger Mother truly happy is not that her child gets all As, but that the child is able to look back and say, “I couldn’t have worked any harder.” The daughters say they have found value in their mother’s ways. Lulu closed the interview by stating “I don’t think [I’ll raise my children] any other way.”

Studies conducted by Asian American researchers, Amy Hsin of Queen's College at the City University of New York and Yu Xie of the University of Michigan, also found that Asian-American students “were more likely to have more self-image problems and more conflicted relationships with their parents than their white counterparts. The pressure to perform seems to take a toll on those who fail to meet expectations as well as those who do – for the latter, the expectation to be successful makes the achievement less satisfactory and less fulfilling.” This seems to be contradictory to the testimonies of the Chua daughters. Does this specific case differ because of the red, hot spotlight it has been given? It is possible that the story can change for the public eye.

Then what is helicopter parenting? A helicopter parent (also called a “cosseting parent” or simply a “cosseter”) is defined as a parent who pays extremely close attention to a child's or children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions. These parents usually intervene to ensure that their children succeed, working diligently to protect them from disappointment, failure, and hardship. Former Stanford Dean Lythcott-Haims explains why helicopter parenting is ruining a generation of children in an article from the  Washington Post. She cites reams of statistics on the “rise of depression and other mental and emotional health problems among the nation’s young people.”  She has seen the effects up close: ­Lythcott-Haims lives in Palo Alto, California, a community that, following a string of suicides in the past year, has undertaken a period of soul-searching about what parents can do to stem the pressure that young people face.

Friends Academy is a very affluent school. Many of the students live fairly “cushy” lives, not having to live with the stress of worrying about what they’re going to eat tonight or where they will go to sleep. After reviewing a survey and talking to many of my peers, I have concluded that stress and pressure comes mostly in the form of immense academic achievement.  A testimony from one upper school student (who wished to keep their identity concealed) said, “Both my parents are the epitome of helicopter parents. They are constantly on me about what I am doing and how I am doing it. They are obsessed with my grades. Sometimes they know what I got on tests before I do. Everything I have that uses a password, whether it be for school or not (my phone, my ‘mygradebook’ login, all social media) they have to know. They think it is for the best.” Another, student told me that their helicopter parents are “for sure putting immense strain on [students’] relationships with their parents.” Rachel Rosen published an article in The Atlantic titled, “Why Affluent Parents Put so Much Pressure on Their Kids.” In it she states, “On the surface, rich kids seem to be thriving. They have cars, nice clothes, easy access to health care, and, on paper, excellent prospects. But many of them are not navigating adolescence successfully.” A study conducted by Arizona State Professor Suniya Luthar shows “higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, much higher rates than the national norm.” This study reports clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft. Luthar suggests a parallel between certain transgressions and struggles to having money, possibly something that factors in to life and culture at FA.  

During the time of my mother’s upbringing, her parents were what one might today consider the “anti-helicopter parent.” She grew up in a middle class home in East Northport, Long Island. She and her sister were off at the crack of dawn, riding their bikes (no helmets, I might add) to town, friends’ houses, all over their neighborhood and other nearby communities. My grandparents said nothing to their children about needing to know where they were going or the people they were with. They were told to be home by sundown. My mother was an honors student who received her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and then came back to New York University to study law. My mother speaks fondly of these times. Although technology has changed, and times are different this style of parenting seems to be extinct.


One Comment

  1. Rachel Hall April 12, 2016

    Thanks for raising awareness about the many negative, long-term effects of this type of parenting style.  Might be helpful for this to be excerpted in an "Among Friends" issue so that parents can see it as well.

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