A Cultural Difference
Every culture has a certain way of doing things when it comes to parenting a child. It is neither right nor wrong. It is neither superior nor inferior. It is just different. As a Nepalese-American who has been living in the States for nearly 30 years and some stays abroad, a parent of two kids with special needs, and a licensed clinical professional counselor, I am inexplicably intrigued by the differences that exist across cultures. This is true especially when it comes to parenting. From my personal and professional experiences, the starkest difference I observe between the East and the West is how South Asian parents use social comparison as a parenting technique to motivate their child to “succeed.” Usually, success is very much achievement oriented whether it be in academics, careers, or extracurricular activities like playing the violin or piano.
This cultural difference could not be more obvious than in Amy Chua’s 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother when she constantly compares her younger daughter, Lulu, to her older daughter, Sophia, in her Chinese parenting as a motivational strategy. Sure, social comparison occurs in every culture, but from my experiences, it is most prevalent in South Asian (SA) households where academic achievement tends to be the driving force. Simply “doing your best” is not good enough. “Being the best” is the ultimate goal. This drive for competition does not come from a bad place.
I applaud parents who want their children to do well and have instilled great values in them. However, the problem with social comparison is that everyone cannot be number one! There will always be someone who is better off than you and someone who is worse off than you. It is a life lesson that parents need to teach their children in a thoughtful and gentle way. Otherwise, it will be a risky strategy. Besides, children will sooner or later learn this life lesson. South Asian parents need to teach this valuable lesson to their children or it may be a painful one later on. Collectively, South Asians tend to be very protective when it comes to their children so they are well-equipped to teach this important life lesson. However, it is still worthwhile to quickly review the process involved in social comparison.
Social Comparison Theory
According to Leon Festinger, who coined the term “social comparison” in 1954, stated that people naturally tend to evaluate themselves, including their opinions and desires, by comparing themselves to others. The process includes two types of social comparison: upward and downward. Upward social comparison occurs when someone compares themselves to another person who is “better off” (intellectually, financially, physically, etc.) in an effort to be part of the elite and have a more positive view of themselves.
In contrast, downward social comparison is when you compare yourself to someone who is “worse off” than you to make yourself feel happier. For example, a diabetic patient who only needs medication for treatment may see himself better off than another diabetic patient who has lost vision due to diabetes. The result of this downward social comparison makes one feel better. This process seems pretty natural and harmless right?
Tiger Mother and Social Comparison
Now consider this. In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Sophia is presented as a calm, collected and compliant elder daughter. She performs well academically, listens to her parents, and plays the piano exceptionally. Sophia is the perfect child that every South Asian parent dreams of. Lulu, on the other hand, is spunky, challenges authority figures, and is an independent thinker from the get-go. She is also a bright and talented person in her own rights as a violinist and later as a tennis player although her academic performance is unclear. What is clear throughout this story is Lulu’s rebellious nature.
One cannot forget the very first example of extreme parenting when tiger mom puts her three year old out in the freezing cold to teach her a lesson that you need to respect and listen to your parent. We learn that Lulu does not give in, even on the wintry cold day with only her house clothes on. Therefore, it is no wonder that Lulu puts up a fight every time Amy compares her to Sophia or whenever Amy tries to motivate her to play the piano or violin. The tiger mother’s use of social comparison in her parenting suggests three areas of human dynamics that are negatively impacted.
The Impact on Human Interaction
First, a South Asian parent who heavily relies on social comparison should consider the negative impact it will have on the relationship between siblings and/or peers. A psychologically-minded reader must wonder if Lulu has some kind of resentment towards her sister. Or, does Sophia have a sense of superiority since she is being presented as the “good kid.”
I can relate to this because growing up in a Nepali household and surrounded by other Nepalese, I was constantly compared with other Nepali friends and/or relatives and vice versa. With Nepali adults, whether it be our own parents or other kids’ parents, social comparison is a common practice. From what I gather, this is also true in other South Asian communities. Essentially, they are pitting us against each other. The competition was fierce. It still is.
All I knew then was that it did not feel good to be compared to others regardless of whether it favored me or not. Therefore, I have vowed not to socially compare my kids in that detrimental manner. From anecdotal experiences, my peers who are now adults or parents themselves, also feel the same way I do. This made me wonder: how many good relationships were lost or never formed due to parents socially comparing us? We will never know because you cannot turn back the clock.
Second, social comparison negatively impacts the parent-child relationship. Emotional connectedness between the parent and child is stifled. Remember the scene at GUM café in Russia when Lulu shouts painful words every parent wishes they never, ever hear from their child? “I HATE my life. I HATE you, and I HATE this family!” Amy tries to reconnect with Lulu by having special events like the garage sale, which both enjoy, but does not fix the emotional breakage between the tiger mother and her cub.
Lastly, social comparison is just not effective. It fosters rebellion, especially if you are parenting in the West. This is mainly so because self-identity is an important part of we are as individuals in the Western culture and when South Asian parents engage in social comparison, this challenges that belief system. The child feels threatened and rebels to assert their individualism. All of the time, effort, and money Amy put into training Lulu for the violin went to waste. Lulu essentially rejected the violin and chose tennis. One is left to wonder had the tiger mother not used such extreme social comparisons, would Lulu have continued with the violin and achieved even higher standings than Carnegie Hall? We will never know because she decided to pursue tennis instead.
In conclusion, South Asian parents who engage in social comparison as a way to motivate their children to do better are compromising a number of social-emotional issues that are critical to a child’s healthy development. As a South Asian parent of two and a licensed mental health professional who has worked with many children and families, I highly discourage social comparison as a parenting strategy. If you are not convinced, then please consider how it might feel if your child compares you to their friends’ parents in hopes that you become a better parent. The risks simply outweigh the benefits when it comes to your child’s well-being. There are far better parenting strategies than social comparison to motivate your child!
7 Tips to Resist the Urge to Make Social Comparison:
1. Gain awareness about your habit to socially compare your child to others. Awareness is the first step in solving any problem. Does it usually happen when talking about academics, extracurricular activities, personality traits, etc.? This will help the South Asian parent to acknowledge and change their negative behavior.
2. Ask your child how it feels when you engage in social comparison. This will open up communication pathways and facilitate a close parent-child relationship.
3. Adjust your expectations of your child according to his or her abilities and wishes. Many South Asian parents love and want what is best for their children, but this may not always be what your child feels is best for themselves. Compromise when appropriate.
4. Respect your child. In Eastern cultures, respect is a one-way street whereas in the West, it goes both ways. A bridge between the two cultures will be necessary if South Asian parents are raising children in the Western world otherwise it will be a long battle.
5. Communicate with words and actions that you unconditionally love your child. When children are socially compared to their peers, they tend to feel that parents do not love them for who they are, when in actuality this is not true. South Asian parents love their children unconditionally like any other parent, but emotional connectedness in a parent-child relationship tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
6. Praise your child. All children crave positive attention, especially from their parents. From my clinical observations, South Asian parents tend to refrain from praising their child in fear that their good performance or behavior will go down. Opposite is true. However, be genuine when praising.
7. Go easy on yourself. Often, when people are highly critical of others, they also tend to be highly critical of themselves. South Asian parents tend to put extreme burden on themselves to know all of the answers all of the times when it comes to their children. This extreme pressure is unhealthy and counterproductive. Everyone makes mistakes, even the best of parents!