Annabel Chang ’08 grew up in a household that defied stereotypes.
Though her parents emigrated from Taiwan to Texas only a few years before she was born, Chang said they never pressured her or her older siblings to conform to the ideas of success often associated with Asian or Asian-American families.
“My parents were really unorthodox,” Chang said. “They wouldn’t push us too hard, just telling us to do our best.”
Chang said her upbringing differed from that described by the authors of “Top of the Class: How Asian Parents Raise High Achievers — and How You Can Too,” set to be published today. In their controversial book, Dr. Soo Kim Abboud and Jane Kim praise a strict upbringing emphasizing academic achievement, nightly hours of extra work, minimized free time and a sense of collective achievement and failure.
But critics charge that the Kim sisters oversimplified the issue. While some students and experts said there is no single way to interpret the origins and effects of parental pressure in the household, the book says that certain stereotypes might contain some truth rooted in Asian culture.
Insung Hwang ’08, the political chair of Korean American Students at Yale, said he thinks there is a difference between the pressure Asian parents put on their children to succeed and the pressure imposed by parents of other ethnicities.
“As you already know, Korean parents are very passionate about their children’s education and demand a lot of their children,” Hwang said in an e-mail.
But some Asian students said their upbringing did not meet the stereotypical image of parents pressuring their children to work harder.
“My parents have been pretty strict on almost everything but academics,” KASY Social Chair Carol Yu ’08 said. “They trusted me completely.”
Still, Yu said she thinks Asian and Asian-American parents often push their children to apply to Ivy League schools and to take part in activities they think will make their children more attractive to admissions committees.
The pressure does not always end with an acceptance letter, Yu said, since Asian or Asian-American parents often push their children to major in certain subjects. Yu said her parents did not pressure her regarding majors.
But Sarah Hecht ’08, who grew up in a predominantly Asian-American community, said she saw parents pushing their children to conform to an “impossible ideal.” She said parents in her community often compared their children’s SAT scores and grades in church.
At Yale, Hecht said she sees Asians as a more isolated community, perhaps contributing to the image of their distinct work ethics that was outlined in the book.
“More than other cultures, I feel like Asians stick together at Yale,” she said.
Hwang said that for Chinese and Korean Americans, the root of this image may lie in Confucianism — the philosophy that demands respect for parents and family life as well as teachers and education — which still resonates among those of Asian descent.
Alice Shyy ’08 said in her experience at the Taipei American School in Taiwan, she saw parents use this ancient set of beliefs to make attending a top college a priority for their children.
“It would get to the point that it was transparent that the goal was to get into a prestigious Ivy League school,” she said.
In their book, the Kim sisters emphasized the importance their parents placed on extracurricular activities as a means of enhancing their college applications. Consequently, they allow for little unstructured time. The Kims said they were limited to one hour of television per week and only 15 minutes on the telephone per day.
The average Yale student is no stranger to structured activities. Thailand native Chanatip Metheetrairut ’08 said her parents, both doctors, make her volunteer at hospitals when she is at home.
But Ashley Roberts ’07 said such pressures are not unique to Asians and Asian-Americans — they are common to many families of Yale students, she said.
“Of all the Asians I know, all their families do have that pressure, but I just think there’s a lot more familial pressure here,” Roberts said.
Dr. Robert King, a professor of psychiatry at the Child Study Center, said there is not necessarily an inherent problem with structured activities.
“There’s a lot of things you have to put in an investment, whether it’s music or sports,” he said. “Some of what parents have to do is help kids stick with some skills that take practice until the child is old enough to come to a reasoned judgment if they like it.”
King cited the large number of hours the average U.S. child watches television per week and rising child obesity levels as examples of the American system’s disadvantages. The distinction between beneficial and harmful activities lies in the child’s motivation for participating, he said.
“It involves a discussion of who is the kid doing it for,” King said. “If the kid doesn’t like playing the piano or violin, then it’s a problem.”
Chang said her family did not place as much of an emphasis on structured activities as other Asian or Asian-American families. Although she said she enjoyed being able to come home after school and do whatever she wanted, Chang said she wishes her parents had pushed her more to develop particular talents.
“I was lucky in that I wasn’t overpressured, but sometimes when I look at other Asians who had more orthodox parents I miss the opportunity,” she said. “Right now I admire those kids who had the orthodox parents and put the same pressures on themselves — they’re more skilled at activities they did consistently. I didn’t have that consistency.”
But sociology professor Deborah Davis said extracurricular activities are only one piece of some Asian or Asian-Americans parents’ bigger vision of success. The wave of Asians who came to the United States between 1965 and 2000 tended to pursue medical and law degrees because of the stability these professions offer, Davis said.
“Doctors and lawyers are the two professions that people from all over the world can understand,” she said. “It is about being a super-student, and it’s pretty clear-cut. Most immigrants, unless they’re political refugees, want something to give them security.”
Looking back, some Asian and Asian-American students who were brought up in a strict household said they see at least some value in their parents’ techniques.
“I’d like to bring my children up sort of in between,” Chang said. “I admire the orthodox Asian way and I think there are some advantages, but it’s not perfect.”
But Chang said she could not implement such an orthodox technique as easily as her parents could have.
“I can’t disregard the fact that I’m American,” she said.