Children of Overbearing, High Stress Parents Hit Singles and Doubles

Most of my Asian friends in school had parents who put an extraordinary amount of stress on them to achieve academically. As one of my Chinese-American friends put it, “My mom is your typical psycho Asian parent — tons of pressure, enormous expectations for straight A’s.”

The other day I was wondering how these Asian children — now in their teens — might turn out as adults. And how any child who has ultra strict parents will fare.

My sense is that children who must perform under the whip in their childhood go on to hit a lot of singles and doubles in life, to use baseball terminology, but rarely hit a home run. In other words, intense childhood pressure for achievement produces solid performers in life, but rarely greatness.

What overbearing parenting ensures is that your kid probably won’t devolve into drug use or be a complete fuck-up. They’ll follow rules, respond to basic rewards and punishments, go through the formal schooling system. Their 11pm curfew and “no dating” restriction might make them socially miserable in high school, but they’ll probably study more, go to a good college, and enter the real world with discipline and an ability to deliver under pressure, both mighty important skills. A lot of these kids probably go on to be really good lawyers, doctors, or teachers.

Then there are the parents who offer a longer leash. This is a minority of parents. These parents emphasize independence: they’re fine letting Johnny run around outside without supervision, or sit in his room by himself. They rarely exact severe punishments (grounded for three weeks!) or bubbly rewards ($500 if you get straight A’s!). Come adolescence, they tell their kids it’s time they made their own choices.

The kids I know who are products of the long leash usually fall into two camps: they’re the drug addicts (or whatever) or they’re the brilliant, creative, and relaxed world-changers.

To steal from our earlier discussion of hedgehogs vs. foxes in business, you might say that the “overbearing parenting style” has a high expected value but low variance, whereas the “hands-off independent style” has extreme outcomes on either end of the distribution curve.

So, I can’t say I blame the stereotypical Asian parenting style, or any parent who chooses to be a tyrant until their kid is age 21. On average, your kid will do better. But he probably won’t be a legendary figure in history. Do you agree?

(hat tip to Chris Yeh for helping brainstorm this idea)

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