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The Globe and Mail

Do Asian parents expect more of their children?

Marina Adshade is an economist at Dalhousie University. She writes regularly on the economics of sex and love on her blog Dollars and Sex

When his first daughter was born, a good friend of mine and the son of first-generation Canadians of Korean descent took her in his arms and whispered into her ear, "you are going to Harvard".

I was reminded of this story last month when Tiger Mom Amy Chua set so-called Asian parenting up for a national debate when she made the bold claim that Chinese parents have high-achieving kids because they expect nothing less. Recent research in the U.S. and Canada on educational expectations and achievements of Asian children in those countries supports Dr. Chua perspective – but only sort of.

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The real story here is not that Asian parents have higher educational aspirations for their children; the story is that immigrant Asian parents expect more. Ethnically Asian parents who are born in North America appear to have expectations of their children's achievements that are very similar all other native born parents, if not in fact lower.

Using data from the U.S. in which parents of kindergarten children were asked the question "Do you expect your child to complete an undergraduate college degree", researchers found 73 per cent of white native-born parents responded "yes". When asked the same question, though, 95 per cent of Asian immigrant parents responded that they expected their children to finish an undergraduate degree. Native born Asian parents, though, had much lower aspirations for their children, lower even than white native-born parents. Only 68 per cent of those parents expected their children to complete a university degree.

Compared to native-born Asian parents, immigrant Asian parents are nine times more likely have aspirations that their child will complete a university degree.

These results hold when the authors control for factors like the education level of the mothers, family income, gender of the child, family size and whether or not English was spoken in the home.

It isn't just Asian immigrant parents who have high expectations for their children; white, Hispanic and black immigrant parents shared the Asian parent's optimism that their children would complete post-secondary education. In fact, their positive response rates for these groups fall only slightly short of those of Asian parents.

So, to say that there are millions of North American children being parented by 'Tiger Moms' is probably a gross exaggeration. Here in Canada though, children whose parents immigrated from China, and in fact India, appear to have experienced a much higher level of academic achievement than the native born population.

Statistics Canada research that uses the Ethnic Diversity Study (EDS 2002) finds that only 27.5 per cent of 25-34 year olds in the sample born to native-born parents had completed a university degree compared to 69.5 per cent of those born to Chinese immigrants, and 65 per cent of those born to Indian immigrant parents. Very little of these differences can be explained by measureable demographic variables, such as parental education, suggesting that cultural factors are driving the higher rates of achievement.

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Just in case you are wondering, my friend's daughter didn't go to Harvard. She did go to Cornell University, though, where I have no doubt she is making her parents enormously proud. I am looking forward to seeing how she parents her own children.

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