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)

13 comments on “Children of Overbearing, High Stress Parents Hit Singles and Doubles
  • The data pool on people who “hit home runs” is so small that it is impossible to draw any conclusions about how best to nurture it. If anything the most common trait amongst home run hitters is probably *capitalizing on* good fortune. But passion, creativity and intellect probably follow next IMHO and these are difficult traits to teach.

    I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that strict vs. loose parenting styles create “home run hitters” and any assumptions that we make are more likely to reflect our own personal biases than anything empirical or even observed.

  • I’m on the same page as Andrew here…

    Your post reminds me of the Hunter College study, where the students at a public school for the extremely gifted (in terms of IQ) were followed into adulthood. The researchers were disappointed that more of them didn’t become famous — no Nobel laureates or lauded authors. (This same study is often miscited by people to fit whatever particular indicator of success they want to discount; e.g., that it followed valedictorians, or kids who got straight A’s, etc.)

    Anyway, a criticism of this study is that famous people are way too rare. Maybe if you followed 100,000 high IQ people (instead of the few hundred in the study), you would find more famous people than if you had followed 100,000 average IQ people. Maybe you have to follow 1,000,000? Maybe not? Maybe IQ doesn’t matter. We just don’t know.

    But it is fun to conjecture. I’ve seen a lot of different “recipes” for stand out achievement. One that seems common among affluent, college-educated young people seems to be an early exposure to getting praise for doing something unusual, which leads to the pursuit of the exceptional or different as being part of your self image. Combine this with a tolerant peer group and a few good breaks, and you have yourself a stand out.

    But I have no way of verifying this. Just food for thought.

  • “What overbearing parenting ensures is that your kid probably won’t devolve into drug use or be a complete fuck-up.”

    I have my doubts on that assumption… I think putting pressure on kids have greater chances of sowing the seeds of defiance, inducing them to rebel against parents and their ways, though not all may turn into junkies.

    Brilliant kids are better communicators. They normally don’t let their parents cross the line. The streaks of genius in a kid manifest very early and parents are among the first ones to notice it. It’s when kids tend to drift, the reins get taut. No true genius can ever be influenced by the realm of parentage. It will break free of all bondage and present itself.

    To get a better perspective, try to see where the parents come from. Strict parenting does not always mean overbearance in the Asian context – especially if the parent works in the third world and sends his kid to college in the first world. It’s a mix of concerns that gets portrayed as `control’. The parent stakes his very existence and that of the rest of his family in the interest of just one kid, and is anxious. If that kid screws up, the whole family has to pay the price. The kid knows this better and if that straight A is any indication, it’s the kid’s way of reassuring his family back home that their investment is safe.

  • Ben,

    I somewhat agree with your assertion that strict parenting leads to a more moderate, but successful path nonetheless. On the other hand, how do you define success? Do you think “brilliant, creative, and relaxed world-changers” is interpreted the same by each member of society?

    The problem with your logic is the cause and effect–If this, then that. I don’t think it applies here because ultimately everyone’s view of success is relative to their own perspective.

    Anyone have any data on this topic?

  • Krishna said:

    No true genius can ever be influenced by the realm of parentage. It will break free of all bondage and present itself.

    I have to disagree here. That’s a romantic version of “genius,” which, in reality, is often more mundane.

    Take Mozart for example. The main source of his virtuosity is that his crazed father pushed him to practice more than double the hours of what was typical during that time period. He was a successful kid performer namely because no other kid performer had put in the same number of hours. His music, however, didn’t become original or interesting until much later (around his early twenties). The confidence derived from such a virtuosic start probably played a big role there.

    In music, this shows up again and again. The only factor that consistently depicts success or renown is practice hours.

    From what little I’ve read from the literature, it seems that there is no one answer to why some people are persistent until successful in a given field. It’s a multi-sourced phenotype. The only thing that is clear, however, is its complication. There is likely no such thing as just “natural genius,” and, more likely, those we might label as such sourced from some unique blend of different influences, exposures, and work habits traits.

  • Cal,


    Your take on Albert Einstein?

    Had to survive the holocaust and a world war! The times that were hardly conducive to research or had someone compelled him to wonder about space for hours. He had to take up a job in patents office as a clerk.

    Yet he delivered. Has that got to do with genetics or is that also phenotypical?

    My point is, genius can never be `suppressed’ by external influence. It can of course be propelled, as in the case of Mozart (or even some of the tennis stars like Steffi Graf, Williams sisters) by doughty parents as you rightly point out.

  • If my memory serves me correctly, Asian-Americans historically have been of the most successful of minority groups and even make more money on average than whites. When it comes to the probability of success and leading a middle class lifestyle, perhaps it pays to come from an Asian upbringing. As for becoming part of the top 1-10% however, the story may be different. It’s important to remember that multiple factors do play into a person’s net worth. I know that in The Millionaire Next Door, this question was touched upon in Stanley’s look at different ethnic groups in America, and how Irish-americans due to their frugality, as a percentage of their subgroup, were much more likely to become millionaires and likewise, Russian-Americans were ranked as the best due to their very business-savvy cultural background. I forget what he had listed for Asian backgrounds but the issue you bring up my play into this picture…but being too structured at home could definitely lead individuals into order-taking roles rather than the order-giving/order-creating roles that earn the big bucks and make people great, instead of just above-average.

  • Temperament and personality always play a major part. Despite all the discipline and curfews, if a person has the desire and ambition to change the world, I believe he/she will. Same with if they just want to do drugs. Of course, the asian parenting style makes either extreme that much more difficult to attain.

    On the other hand, I also see it building an escapism mentality in asian kids. The desire to rebel that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Even if world-changing success is achieved, it most likely isn’t relaxed. Its tension-filled and escapist.

    Bottom line is we need both, wherever they come from. The Jimmy Rollins who hit singles and doubles and the grand slam A-Rods.

  • For what it’s worth, I see this in my own life. My parents gave me a low-pressure childhood withs tons of freedom and praise. At 10 years old I was free to run around Phillipine markets and bargain to buy souvenirs. In adulthood, I find my best friends came from a similar background.

    While I haven’t acheived ‘greatness’ , I seem more risk-taking than others. And my similar friends have forked into achievers and drug addicts.

  • This is an interesting post. While trying to figure out what might cause greatness is pretty tricky, I think one could figure out a general outcome of strict parenting–there are many more strict parents than there are geniuses! If one were to gather a ton of “strict parent” data and mine it for outcomes, it wouldn’t be too wacky to extrapolate from that what the average outcome of strict parenting is–esp. if one controlled for parent IQ and parent income. One would probably have to define a couple measures to catch “greatness,” beyond a certain threshold of pay, however. Number of businesses started…risks taken…I dunno, that could end up being hard to capture in a quantitative format.

  • With regards to Einstein – his major papers were published in 1905. So WWI, WWII etc. had little effect on that.

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