Tiger Parents or Sheep Parents?: Struggles of Parental Involvement in Working-Class Chinese Immigrant Families

by Desirée Baolian Qin & Eun-Jin Han - 2014

Background/Context: Research on Chinese immigrant parents tends to focus on their high levels of educational involvement and its positive impact on their children’s exceptional educational performances. Relatively little research has been conducted to understand the challenges Chinese immigrant parents face in helping their children with school and the resulting influence on parent-child relations and children’s adaptation.

Focus of Study: In this paper, we examined how immigration reshapes parental involvement in these Chinese immigrant families and its subsequent influence on parent-child relations.

Setting: The research was conducted in the metropolitan area of a northeastern city in the United States.

Participants: Our participants were 72 Chinese immigrant children and their parents.

Research Design: Our study utilizes longitudinal interview data with open-ended questions. Open, axial, and selective coding procedures were used in qualitative data analysis.

Findings/Results: Our findings suggest that when parents face multiple challenges in their adaptation after migration, they often experience a feeling of powerlessness especially in dealing with their children’s schooling. This then forces the children to be precociously independent. This dynamic puts strain on parent-child relations and has a negative impact on children’s adaptation.

Conclusions/Recommendations: It is important for schools and other social institutions working with Chinese immigrant families to reach out to parents by providing them with more information and resources to be more involved in their children’s education. Immigrant and local communities can also help by offering parent and youth programs to help improve parental involvement and parent-child relations in Chinese and other immigrant families.

On January 8, 2011, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of Yale Law School professor Amy Chuas new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother with a provocative title, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. In the book, Chua describes in detail her efforts to push her two daughters toward academic success at all costs. Chuas depictions and the ensuing media attention thrust Chinese American parents into the limelight, their parenting debated and contested throughout the media and on social network sites. In research literature, most of the attention has also been on the highly involved Chinese parents, though not as extreme as Chua, and the positive impact of this on childrens exceptional educational achievement (e.g., Chang, 2000; Chao, 1995; Jose, Huntsinger, Huntsinger, & Liaw, 2000; Louie, 2001). The role of Chinese parents has been underscored as part of the cultural explanation for the exceptional educational achievement of Chinese American children (Sue & Okazaki, 1990). Although limited in school-based involvement like attending PTA meetings due to language barriers, Chinese parents make significant contribution to their childrens education through other means (Chao, 2000) such as investing in outside classes, setting high expectations, creating favorable home environments, and imbuing the value of education at an early age (e.g., Hao & Bonstead-Bruns, 1998; Peng & Wright, 1994; Schneider & Lee, 1990). If Chinese American children are the model students, then Chinese American parents are believed to be model parents. This leads many to believe that Chinese parents and their children do not need additional support in schools or other social service agencies.

However, this image of highly involved model parent is not an accurate depiction of all Chinese American parents. For example, in a study on ethnic differences in adolescent achievement drawing on a large and highly diverse sample from different socioeconomic backgrounds, Steinberg, Dornbusch, and Brown (1992) found that unlike popular belief, Chinese and other Asian American parents were less involved in their childrens schooling than any other group of parents. School involvement was measured by student-reported parental homework support, school program attendance, presence at extracurricular activities, course selection support, and parents knowledge of how their child did in school. A number of more recent studies yield similar results (e.g., Pearce & Lin, 2007; Sy, Rowley & Schulenberg, 2007). A substantial portion of Chinese parents experience tremendous challenges after migration, which negatively impact their efforts to help and support their children in education. In this paper, drawing on longitudinal interview data collected on 72 Chinese immigrant children and their parents from mostly working-class families, we explore how immigration reshapes parental involvement in these Chinese immigrant families and its subsequent influence on parent-child relations. Our findings suggest that quite contrary to the popularly held image of highly involved Chinese parents, many parents in our sample, mostly working class, face multiple challenges in their adaptation after migration, which translated to a feeling of powerlessness especially in dealing with the childrens schooling. This over time forced their children to be precociously independent. This dynamic put a tremendous strain on parent-child relations and had a negative impact on childrens adaptation.

Our findings contribute to current research by moving us beyond the notion that parental involvement only influences childrens educational outcome. The experiences of both parents and children over a course of five years in our study clearly illustrate the devastating spiral effect of lack of parental involvement on parent-child relations as well as childrens psychosocial adaptation. Further, our findings debunk the stereotypical image of model minority by highlighting the struggles Chinese immigrant parents and children, especially those from working-class families, have behind closed doors. It is our hope that findings from this study can promote further future research on the challenges facing working class immigrant families. With one out of every five children attending public schools in the United States being a child from an immigrant family and immigrant children twice as likely to be poor as native children (Current Population Survey, 2007), understanding these challenges and designing appropriate intervention efforts aimed at supporting working-class parents in their adaptation after migration and bridging the gap between family and school will have far-reaching benefits for immigrant families and our society at large.

Parental Involvement

This study is guided by ecological models of development, which indicate that the child exists within multiple intersecting and overlapping contexts (e.g., peers, family, and school) and these ecological systems determine the course of child development . In this paper, we focus on one key context, the family, and examine how parental involvement impacts Chinese immigrant childrens educational as well as psychosocial outcomes. Parental involvement has been studied for decades (Coleman, 1990; Epstein, 1995; Fan & Chen, 2001; García Coll et al., 2002; Ji & Koblinsky, 2009; Lareau, 1989). Parental involvement refers to different parenting practices ranging from educational beliefs and academic achievement expectations to the multiple behaviors parents exhibit at home and in school to advance childrens educational outcomes (Seginer, 2006). It is considered an important part of the family social capital that has crucial impacts on childrens education (Coleman, 1990). With a few exceptions (e.g., McNeal, 1999), the majority of the studies have documented a strong positive relationship between parental involvement and educational outcomes (Seginer, 2006; Wachs, 2000). In particular, parental involvement plays an important role in the achievement of children from working class, ethnically diverse families (Dearing, Kreider, Simpkins, & Weiss, 2006; Lareau, 1989).

There are three gaps in current research on parental involvement that we expected to fill through this study. First, as most research on parental involvement has been conducted on middle-class Caucasian families, more research is needed to understand parental involvement in immigrant families, especially working-class immigrant families (García Coll et al., 2002; Ji & Koblinsky, 2009). Parents often choose to immigrate to the United States because they want to provide their children with better educational opportunities than at home (Lee & Larson, 2000; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). However, immigration can be a powerful transformative experience for every member of the family. It often changes parent-child dynamics at home (Qin, 2006). Research has shown that acculturation gaps between parents and children, i.e., children tend to learn English and the U.S. culture at a faster pace than their parents, often results in role reversals in many immigrant families (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). In the domain of educational involvement, it is expected that immigration may also have a compelling influence on parenting practices. Lower socioeconomic backgrounds may also pose important additional challenges to parents, e.g., parents may need to work long hours and would not have time to get involved in childrens education.

Second, most research on parental involvement has employed quantitative methods. We know little of the meaning, feelings, or nuanced experiences that parents and children have related to parental involvement. For example, how do immigrant parents feel about their involvement in their childrens schooling? If parents are not involved, why is this the case? What are childrens experiences of parental involvement? Using mostly qualitative methods to illustrate the nuanced lived experiences of immigrant parents, we expect, will generate a type of knowledge that will aid intervention efforts to support immigrant parental involvement.

Third, most existing studies examine parental involvement solely from the perspective of its impact on childrens educational outcome; little research has been done to understand how parental involvement may be related to parent-child relations and childrens psychosocial adjustment (Ying & Han, 2008). Positive parent-child relations have been found to correlate with a wide range of good child and adolescent outcomes, including lower internalizing, externalizing, and substance use problems and higher psychosocial competence (see Steinberg, 2001, for a review). Migration creates particular pressures and stresses on the family system, often bringing unique challenges, such as difficulty adapting to the new cultural context and an acculturation gap between parents and children (García Coll & Magnuson, 1997; Qin, 2006, 2008). Low levels of parental educational involvement in working-class families may negatively influence parent-child relations, thus creating additional stress for children in these families.


There has been a lot of research on Chinese immigrant parents involvement in their childrens schooling. However, most of the research focuses on the positive aspects of their experiences. The role of Chinese parents has been highlighted as part of the cultural thesis contributing to the educational achievement of Chinese origin children in the U.S. (Chao, 1994; Hao & Bonstead-Bruns, 1998; Kao, 1995; Pang, 1990; Peng, 1994; Schneider & Lee, 1990; Sue & Okazaki, 1990). Research has shown that after migration, Chinese immigrant parents from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds tend to have high levels of investment and involvement in their childrens education (Kao, 1995; Louie, 2001; Zhang & Carrasquillo, 1995). More specifically, research has documented specific ways that Chinese American parents, from both middle- and working-class backgrounds, contribute to their childrens education, including inculcating the importance of education in their children (Hess, Chang, & DmcDevitt, 1987; Lee, 1987), obtaining school-related information through ethnic networks (Dong, 2000; Louie, 2001; Zhou, 1992), and setting high expectations for their children (Goyette & Xie, 1999; Kao, 1995, 2001; Peng & Hill, 1995). They also promote their childrens education through providing them with better home study environments (Braxton, 1999; Stevenson, Chen, & Lee, 1992) and additional homework (Peng & Wright, 1994; Schneider & Lee, 1990), comparing their children with those from other families (Sue & Okazaki, 1990), making the best use of available resources (Louie, 2001), and investing heavily in their childrens education (Braxton, 1999; Sun, 1998). Some parents also try to motivate their childrens achievement through induction of guilt about parental sacrifice (Louie, 2004), considered a form of psychological control with mixed results on children. A few studies show that this approach predicts aggression in children (Aunola & Nurmi, 2005; Tangney & Dearing, 2002) while other studies suggest that children seek to please their parents in order to receive positive reinforcement for their behavior and to avoid guilt (Miller-Day & Lee, 2001). Research shows that all these different forms of parental involvement made a significant contribution to Chinese American childrens educational success (Sue & Okazaki, 1990).

However, little research has been done to understand the challenges facing many Chinese immigrant working-class families or to document the lack of parental involvement and its impact on parent-child relations. Many immigrant parents often do not directly involve themselves in their childrens education (e.g., attending PTA meetings) due to language barriers, unfamiliarity with U.S. schools, and access to fewer socioeconomic resources (García Coll et al., 2002). Indeed, research shows that Chinese American parents tend to report low levels of school-based involvement. For instance, Pearce and Lins (2007) study found that compared to White parents, Chinese American parents had much lower rates of participation in school meetings, teacher-parent conferences, and school events. Chinese cultural values tend to distinguish between the parents role at home and the teachers role in school, and parents are usually reluctant to get involved in the school environment (Chan, 2004; Sy, Rowley, & Schulenberg, 2007). This may especially be the case for working-class parents. Pearce and Lins (2004) study found that those Chinese American parents who participated in school activities mostly had higher socioeconomic status and tended to be fluent bilinguals.

Researchers suggest that Chinese immigrant parents often make up for their low levels of school-based involvement through high levels of home-based involvement (e.g., Hao & Bonstead-Bruns, 1998; Peng, 1994; Schneider & Lee, 1990). However, even in home-based involvement working-class Chinese parents may face many challenges. A parents school-based and home-based involvement level may both be connected to his/her general sense of confidence and ability to help in their childrens schooling, directly influenced by parental educational level. For example, language barriers and lack of content knowledge may undermine a Chinese immigrant parents ability to be involved both inside and outside his/her home. There are also different forms of home-based parental involvement, which may have different impacts on parent-child relations and childrens psychosocial adjustment. For example, simply having high expectations without other forms of support may push the child to achieve educationally, but strain parent-child relations and have negative implications on childrens psychosocial adjustment (Qin, 2008).

In this paper, drawing on mostly qualitative data, we examine the challenges Chinese immigrant parents face in both school and home-based educational involvement. Further, we illustrate the impact of the challenges and ensuing lack of involvement in some immigrant families both for childrens development and for parent-child relations.


This study is embedded in the Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation (LISA) study, codirected by Carola and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco. The LISA study was designed to understand recently arrived immigrant childrens academic engagement and psychosocial adaptation over time. The sample consists of 411 recently arrived immigrant students from Central America, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico. The students attended public schools in the Boston and San Francisco areas.

The LISA study first started recruiting participants in the fall of 1997.  In the Boston area, the research team chose four main school districts that had the highest percentage of immigrant students according to the districts records. The first step in sampling was to obtain official permission from the various school districts. Next, the principal investigators and their research assistants went to individual school sites and gave a detailed presentation to groups of interested faculty and staff describing the goals and timeline of the study. After the individual schools had agreed to take part in the project, the research assistants met with teachers and staff to identify students who might meet the selection criteria. Final eligibility for student participation was determined through a brief interview at the students school based on the following inclusion criteria: First, the students were to be 914 years old during the 19971998 school year. Second, the students were to have been born in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Central America, or China. Third, the students were to have lived in the United States for less than one third of their lives. Fourth, both parents (regardless of marriage status or presence in the childs home) were to have been born in the same country of origin as the student. Research assistants then briefed eligible and interested students on the project and gave each student a permission slip written in the students language of origin to be signed by the parent(s) or legal guardians.  Follow-up phone calls were made to the families to confirm the permission slips and to clarify the study. Once students brought back signed permission slips, the five-year data collection began.


Of the 80 Chinese students, eight students dropped out for different reasons (e.g., moving away) over the course of five years. There were no significant differences between these eight students and the remaining 72 students included in this study in terms of age, length of time in the United States, or family socioeconomic backgrounds. The mean age of the sample was 12 at the beginning of the study, and 63% were girls and 37% boys. The majority of the students families (77%) came from mainland China; the rest were from Hong Kong and Macau. Compared with parents from mainland China, those from Hong Kong and Macau (both former colonies with more Western influence) may be a bit more familiar with Western societies and ways of life. In our study, however, there was no significant difference in terms of the educational and socioeconomic backgrounds of the families that came from these three areas. The challenges faced by working-class families, e.g., lack of English skills and knowledge of U.S. educational system, apply to all three groups of parents. About a quarter of the parents had post-secondary education. The other three quarters of parents had a high school education or less. Most parents (about 85%) worked in service-type jobs while others (about 15%) worked as professionals. Mothers were more likely to be unemployed at the time of the final year interview than were fathers (19% vs. 6%). More fathers worked in the restaurant business than mothers (55% vs. 23%). For this paper, families in the study were considered working class if both parents had less than a college education and worked in service and manufacturing jobs after migration (e.g., Chinese restaurants, laundry store, or odd jobs).


There is a growing consensus among researchers that mixed-method designs, triangulating data, and embedding emerging findings into an ecological framework are essential in cross-cultural child-development research (Branch, 1999; Hughes, Seidman, & Williams, 1993; Weisner, 2005). Guided by the ecological framework, data collection for the LISA study focused on the key microsystems of family, school, and peer as well as larger neighborhood and sociocultural contexts that exert influences on immigrant childrens adaptation outcomes. The study took an interdisciplinary, longitudinal, and comparative approach, employing five major data collection strategies: (a) ethnographic observations, (b) structured interviews of students, school personnel, and parents, (c) psychosocial measures, (d) standardized achievement assessments appropriate for English Language Learners, and (e) academic records. The data were collected during a five-year period from school year 19971998 to 20012002. Data for this study came from the first-, second-, third-, and final-year student interviews and first- and final-year parent interviews that focus on the various contexts (e.g., family, school, peer, neighborhood) and how they may influence child and family adaptation. In these interviews, we asked open-ended questions regarding family immigration and socioeconomic backgrounds, parental adaptation after migration, parental involvement in education, and parent-child relations. For example, in the student interviews, we asked questions like What do you appreciate most about your parents? What would you change about your parents if you could? Do you talk to your parents about problems when you have them? If you receive a poor grade in school what happens at home? Who talks to you about the steps necessary to go to college? Does an adult at home help you with your school work? Do your parents have rules about what kind of grades you should get? In the parent interviews, we asked, What do you hope for your children? What do you do to help your child become successful in this country? How were schools back home different than schools are here? Have you had contact with any of your childrens school? In what ways is raising children in the U. S. different from raising them in [country of origin]? In what ways has your relationship with your [children] changed since you came to the U.S.? Because data was drawn from a larger study and parental involvement was only one aspect of the immigrant adaptation experiences we examined, the majority of the questions were asked only in one interview and not across multiple years.

A team of trained researchers, including the first author, conducted the interviews. Nearly all parent interviews were conducted with one parent (one fifth with fathers and four fifths with mothers). The participants chose the language in which they wished to be interviewed. Nearly all the parent interviews were conducted in Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese). Student interviews were in English, Mandarin, or Cantonese. All interviews were audiotaped and translated into English (if conducted in other languages).


Our qualitative data analysis was broadly guided by ecological models of child development focusing on the microsystem of the family, more specifically on challenges facing parents after migration, parental educational involvement, and parent-child relations. Quantitative data analyses were conducted using SAS. In qualitative data analysis, after all the responses to family-related open-ended questions were transcribed, they were indexed into one master Word document organized by questions, marked by student and parent ID number as well as the year when the interview was conducted. The first step was reading through this transcribed data and writing down notes and memos on the main themes observed in the data related to how parents were involved in their childrens education, factors that may contribute to their involvement or lack of involvement, and how their involvement may influence parent-child relations and childrens mental health. The authors also met to discuss these main themes and developed a preliminary list of codes both from existing literature (e.g., Intergenerational Dissonance and Language Barriers) and the major issues observed in our data (e.g., Child Precocious Independence) (Maxwell, 1996). Next, data were uploaded onto Atlas-Ti, a qualitative data analysis software, and a process of open coding (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) was first conducted using a combined method of inductive data-driven approach as well as a deductive approach drawing on the a priori list of codes developed by the two authors (Fereday & Muir-Cochrane, 2006). The purpose of open coding is to fracture (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) the data in order to rearrange it into categories that facilitate the comparison of data within and between these categories. This process aids in the development of theoretical concepts (Maxwell, 1996). Next, axial coding, was conducted, i.e., grouping the codes and concepts into higher level conceptual categories, which deepens the theoretical framework underpinning the analysis (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). For example, codes such as Cross-Cultural Misunderstanding, Language Barriers, Lack of Knowledge of the US Educational System, and Lack of Subject Matter Knowledge were grouped into the category of Parental Educational Involvement Challenges. Next, selected categories, codes, and linked quotations were indexed into a number of matrices arranged by theme (e.g., Parental Adaptation Difficulties, Parents Feelings of Powerlessness, Lack of Parental Involvement, and Strain on Parent-Child Relations). This served the dual function of reducing the data and displaying the analyses in a format that clearly shows each theme (Miles & Huberman, 1994). To understand the contextual factors around parental adaptation and parent-child relations, the researchers also considered the history of migration and family socioeconomic backgrounds before and after migration in each family and constructed a number of mini case studies (Maxwell, 1996) of families whose experiences were representative of many other families from similar backgrounds.


Trustworthiness in qualitative research refers to the standards that should be met in order to ensure the quality and accuracy of the data (Morrow, 2005). In this study, the quality and accuracy of the data were strengthened by prolonged engagement and triangulation of data sources. Data from four interviews with children and two interviews with parents with responses to questions related to parental involvement and parent-child relations were used in the study. This approach allowed for a deep and complex understanding of these issues from both parent and child perspectives in these families. Further, both authors conducted separate data analysis. Steps were also taken to help minimize potential researcher bias. The first author is a first-generation Chinese immigrant woman working in a U.S. university while raising two young children. The second author is a first-generation Korean American woman with a PhD from a U.S. university while raising two Korean American sons. Although we are both immigrant parents, neither of us has experienced many of the challenges described by most parents in the study because of our educational backgrounds and familiarity with American schools resulting from our extended trainings in schools of education. Our background may lead us to overemphasize these challenges and overlook the strengths and resilience in working-class families. To monitor researcher bias and check for reliability of the codes and categories, we carefully documented our coding process and cross-checked our analysis throughout the process. Discrepancies were discussed in meetings, which helped redefine the codes and categories. For example, in our coding process, there were some initial disagreements regarding parents wish to leave childrens education to the teachers. One coder interpreted this as parents lack of involvement in school while the other coder viewed this issue as cultural respect for teachers. After examining the issue in the context of our data, we agreed that while this may have originated from parents respect for teachers, it also resulted from multiple challenges parents experienced after migration, which limited their ability to involve in their childrens education.


Parents in our study noted common challenges in their involvement with their childrens education, ranging from lack of time to multiple barriers. As a result, the majority of parents, especially those from working-class backgrounds, expressed a strong sense of powerlessness and sometimes hopelessness in their childrens education. This sentiment contributed to their lack of involvement in their childrens schooling. As a result of these dynamics, children were often forced to be precocious in their own educational pursuit, making important decisions on their own without the support or guidance of parents. This also strains parent-child relations in some families. In the section below, we illustrate how this process happens.


Contrary to general perception or the tiger mom stereotype, Chinese immigrant parents in our study experienced a range of challenges in their childrens educational involvement, ranging from time conflicts to various barriers created by migration.


A common theme in the interviews was the lack of time parents and children could spend together after migration resulting from increasing economic survival pressure for the family. This often necessitated both parents to work, often at much longer hours than they did in China. As a result, parents available time to be involved in their childrens education tended to decrease after migration. Overall, the majority of the Chinese children in the study reported spending significant portions of their time after school at home without any parent. According to the fifth-year interviews, for example, close to 60% of Chinese parents were never at home after children got back from school. Over 70% of students reported spending less than five hours per weekday with their parents. On the weekends, over 40% of children spent one day or less with their mother and more than 70% of children spent one day or less with their father.

The problem of lack of time was particularly pronounced in working-class families where the parents had to work very long hours in Chinese restaurants or other service-sector jobs. For 13-year-old Lian and her younger brother Tian, even seeing their parents was a luxury. Their mother stayed behind in China and they lived with their 75-year-old grandmother in a senior center in Chinatown. Their father worked most of the time in a Chinese restaurant. When he could not find restaurant work, he worked in construction. He usually lived in or near his place of employment. He only came to stay with Lian and Tian at the senior center between jobs or on his day off.  Lian said, Sometimes I only get to see him once a week. In terms of his two childrens education, the father was quite hands-off.

Even when parents did live in the same house as their children, as in the case of the majority of families, increasing work demands for the parents still made it very difficult for them to be involved in childrens education. For example, 16-year-old Joyce whose mother worked in a laundry store and father worked in a Chinese restaurant said, My parents have to work all the time. Unlike in Hong Kong when they had two days off every week, they have one day off now. So we definitely have fewer chances to communicate now. Many parents echoed the feeling of not being able to be involved in their childrens lives as much as they used to be when they were back in China, Hong Kong, or Macau. For example, Mrs. Xu, a mother who did not have to work in Hong Kong, told us about the changes since immigration,

We do not see them [the children] as much. I did not have to work in Hong Kong. So, when they came home from school, I would be home. . . . This is impossible in the U.S. . . . Now we only see them for a couple of hours at night. Before I would bring them to and from school, I cannot do that anymore. They have to get up at 5:30 in the morning to catch the school bus.

Lack of time parents and children spent together due to parents work demands after migration influences both the home-based and school-based involvement of Chinese immigrant parents. As a result, often parents involvement in their childrens education at home decreased, for example, in helping with homework or talking about school-related things. Furthermore, this also made it very hard for the parents to go to school for PTA meetings or just to contact the teachers with any concerns. For example, a mother who worked in a bakery mentioned that I never see the teachers because of my long hours at work. Sometimes I sent my son as a representative of us to the school. Similarly, another father, who was an electrician and whose wife was a grocer, commented about their two childrens education, We cant help them to be successful in this country. . . . We just hope theyll do well in school . . . we have never been to their schools because of our work. For example, when our child graduated, we couldnt go because we couldnt take a day off from work. The issue of school-based involvement is especially challenging because in China, when parents attended PTA meetings, there was no loss of work time or pay. Parents were covered for these meetings. However, things were different here. For example, one parent commented, We have only contacted the school once. Because working hours crash with the school hours, we cannot take time off casually. In China, we could take paid time off to go to parents meetings.

Language Barriers

Besides lack of time and conflicting work schedules, language barriers were another common challenge among many parents. Many parents could not help their children with homework, which is a common issue in nonimmigrant families as well (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001). In many Chinese immigrant families, language barrier was a salient barrier. In our second year interview, 67% of Chinese boys and 39% of Chinese girls considered parents lack of English proficiency as a barrier, preventing them from effectively helping with homework. This is particularly the case for parents with low levels of education. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Deng, who both had five years of education in China and were both working in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, talked about difficulty helping with their childrens study. Mrs. Deng said, I dont know how to help them with their schoolwork. . . . We, as parents, dont speak English. That is why I tell them all the time, dont ever follow your parents footsteps.

While it is clear that language was an issue for working-class parents with limited education, it was also a barrier for middle-class parents who had more professional knowledge. Parents often knew the technical terms and contents of different subjects in Chinese; however, their ability to help their children with schoolwork was limited by their lack of English language skills. For example, Mrs. Guan, the mother of 16-year-old boy, Henry, told us about her frustration in trying to help her son with his homework. According to her, even with advanced training in math in China, language barriers rendered most of her technical knowledge useless:

I want to help him with his homework, but I dont understand English well enough. . . . It is the most problematic when I want to help him with his homework. I do not know many of the technical terminology in a lot of the subjects . . . for instance, in his math homework, I think I know the materials, but I do not have the English vocabularies in the subject. And when I use the Chinese terminology to teach him, words like xielu [triangular ratios], he had no idea what Im talking about.

In the student interview, Henry said that he simply stopped asking his mom for help in schoolwork,

Even though she may help me, but, as far as I know she isnt good at [my schoolwork]. It is impossible for me to ask her to help me with my English; she herself is going to evening school right now. Her English is not that good. But, in terms of math and science, Chinese people are generally considered being good at math, and I think my mom is much better than most of them. However, sometimes when I ask her, I dont know if it is because she doesnt want to or what, she just looks like she doesnt know much about math. Thats why I dont ask.

In this case, language barriers, which created a lot of frustration, also stirred conflict and misunderstanding between the mother and her son: The son sometimes interpreted the mothers inability to help due to language barriers as unwillingness to help him. We learned from Mrs. Guan that even with her advanced training in math in China, her limited English proficiency was a barrier in her efforts to explain math concepts using proper English vocabulary. The son, knowing his mothers superior math skills, was sometimes perplexed that she could not explain things and thought that she might simply not want to help him.

Lack of Knowledge

During the interviews, parents also talked about their lack of content knowledge as well as of knowledge in the U.S. education system, which further contributes to their lack of involvement in their childrens education. For example, Mrs. Leung, who worked as a private nurse in Hong Kong, considered it inappropriate for her to express her views to the teachers because I dont really know their educational system. . . . Thats why it is difficult to come up with something to talk to teachers. She also commented that I myself is a high school graduate and I didnt go to college, so I know that I cant help them very much myself. Similarly, another mother, Ms. Chan said, The American educational system is different from the system in HK. Until now I still dont know what exactly American educational system is like. I still dont know whether or not my kids English language skills have improved.

Parents lack of content knowledge, especially parents with little education before migration, also restricted their support of their childrens schooling. During the interviews, a quarter of girls and boys considered parents lack of homework content knowledge an issue at home. For example, Ms. Chans son Carl lamented that his parents could not help him on his school work, Some of the assignments are too difficult. It takes me forever to look up the dictionary. If I have to look up all the words in the dictionary I wont have enough sleep. Im suffering from sleep deprivation right now. My family cant help me . . . I have to study by myself.

Parents also had little knowledge of the steps necessary for their children to go to college. For example, one of the students in our study expressed his thoughts about his parents lack of knowledge: My parents would tell me that I should go to college, but they never explained to me the precise procedures of the application process. The great majority of students interviewed said that they would talk to their friends, counselors, or older siblings for steps to get into college rather than their parents. It is important to note that parents lack of content knowledge and the U.S. educational system is intensified by language barriers. While many nonimmigrant parents may also experience challenges in helping their children with homework or effectively involve in their childrens education, migration-related factors, e.g., language barriers and parental lack of knowledge due to different educational systems across cultures, exacerbate the situation, especially for those from working-class immigrant families.


Immigration itself can be quite difficult for those involved in it. After migration, nearly all the parents found certain aspects of the adaptation process challenging. For example, Mr. Fong, father of a 15-year-old daughter from Guangdong, said, Guangdong is better than here in the U.S. In China, I knew everything. I mean in terms of language. In the U.S., I dont know how to drive. I am blind and deaf because I cannot speak English. I knew the way in Guangdong. I knew how to communicate with people. The great majority of parents experienced downward mobility which further undermines their confidence after migration.

The majority of the parents from working-class backgrounds did not believe in their own effectiveness and capabilities when it came to their childrens education due to their lack of knowledge and language barriers. For example, Mr. Liu who worked in a maintenance company commented, In the U.S., we do not know how to take care of the children. We do not know about their grades and performances at school. They were easier to teach in China. Similarly, Mrs. Cheng said, I dont know anything, I dont know English. I just hope that they follow the guidance of their teachers. . . . I dont know the school systems enough to say. Thus for these parents, they had an overall sense of powerlessness, the feeling that I dont know anything that not only challenges their involvement in childrens schooling but also doubts their own ability to parent after migration.

In school-based engagement parents often considered themselves as an outsider who may have unnecessary influences on their childrens education. For example, Mr. Qiu said, My comprehension ability is low. I consider my opinion as outsiders. I do not want to express my comment to affect the schools system work. The school is pretty good. My son does not study well. I dont know about it much myself. Sometimes parents also had a lot of self-doubt and worried that they might teach something wrong to the children. This was true for some educated parents as well. For example, Mrs. Tan, a college-educated mother said about her middle-school daughter, I didnt teach her anything because I was afraid that I might teach her something wrong, such as pronunciation.

Portes and Rumbaut (2006) postulated that immigrant parents with higher human capital, as measured by education, income, and stability of occupation, are better able to foster childrens adaptation to American culture, including adaptation to school. However, there were difficulties even for those parents with higher education in our study, such as Mrs. Tans difficulties in helping her daughter with schoolwork due to her limited English proficiency, which demonstrated that parents lack of knowledge may contribute to their feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy. In the case of their children clearly needing help, parents often felt inadequate, especially in families where parents had limited education. For example, Lians father commented about his daughters schooling, If she doesnt know the study material, theres nothing I can do. I can only tell her to work harder. Just a few words of encouragement seemed to be the only way of involvement in some families. In the Xue family, where the mother worked in a garment factory and the father in a restaurant, they commented that, We would encourage our children. However, we do not have man power and resources to help them.

In some cases, even when parents were concerned about a lack of progress in their childrens education, there was not much they could do. For example, in Lings family, both parents were worried about their daughters grades in school, but neither parent knew any English and thus felt completely at a loss in help their children with their schoolwork. With a blank expression, the father said:

I can only understand [the letter grades on] the report cards, [such as] A, B, C. Other things I dont understand. . . . If they cant achieve at the level we hope, theres nothing we can really do. They all have different characters. Whatever level they can reach . . . we cant really do much. If we were in Chinese we would help them understand, but things are all in English and we dont speak any English. Theres nothing we can do.

He hoped that his children could make it to college, but he was not optimistic about it. He was concerned that his children all watched too much television but could do nothing about it. He was particularly concerned about his childrens English: they have been here for five or six years already, but when we get bills or documents from the government, they still cannot understand most of them. Mrs. Cui, the mother of a 15-year-old girl, also expressed a similar resignation in the final-year interview,

As parents, we do not know English and hence cannot teach them. If they do well in school, it will be our blessings. If they fail in school, there is nothing we can do. . . . She has to depend on herself. I cannot really expect much because I do not know her class materials. I do not know how to teach her. I can only hope that she does her best and becomes the most talented and smartest person she can.

Similarly, Mr. Tong said with much regret and helplessness about his three childrens education: I came here illegally when I was 30 years old; to this date I still dont know any English. . . . Theres nothing I can do. None of my daughters have finished high school. They just stopped going to school. Sometimes parents simply gave up. Mrs. Leong, a mother from rural Fuzhou with seven years of education, said, especially my eldest daughter says my husband and I control them with our old Chinese beliefs. . . . I have been trying to tell them, to do well in school, not to stay out too late and not to eat out with friends, but they dont listen. Now I dont even bother talking about it.

Even in terms of homework, if their children were not finishing homework, they did not know whom to ask about it. As Mrs. Zhao commented, In China there is a lot of homework. Teachers will punish the students for not handing in their homework on time. The punishment includes copying essays for a number of times. Parents approved this kind of teaching method. Here I dont know whether my child finished his homework or not. I dont know whom to ask if he has done any homework or not. As in the case of Mrs. Zhao, although Chinese immigrant parents hold high expectations of their childrens educational achievement and believe in the instrumental value of formal schooling to better their childrens life chances (Zhang, Ollila, & Harvey, 1998), they may not have the knowledge needed to assist with their childrens school work in the new education system.


Traditionally, Asian parents have seen their role as one of controlling and monitoring in their parenting. In the research literature and public discourses, Asian American parents are often depicted as tiger mothers, overcontrolling and overzealous in educational involvement, pushing children to achieve at any cost. However, that was not the case for the majority of Chinese parents in our study. Many parents, especially those from working-class backgrounds, were not available to monitor or be involved in their childrens education due to their busy work schedules or other barriers as mentioned above.

Indeed, our analyses show that parents had low levels of involvement in their childrens lives. At the time of the third-year interview, for example, less than half of the children reported playing games or going to museums, the library, church, or concerts with their parents. There was a particularly low percentage of students who reported doing academic-related activities with their parents: Only a quarter of students did homework with their parents; 17% of boys and 22% of girls discussed books with parents; and less than half talked about history or world happenings with their parents. Furthermore, the majority of children reported that their parents did not help them with homework. For example, in the second-year interview, fully 42% of boys and 60% of girls said that their parents did not help them with homework. Girls in particular seemed to perceive less direct parental help in homework. In the third year, fully 70% of students said that their parents did not help with homework, and girls perceived significantly less support from their parents than boys did in homework: 80% of girls (compared to 53% of boys) reported that no adult at home helped them with homework. As a result, when they encountered problems with schoolwork, less than a third of the students would ask their parents for help.

Chinese parents also reported low levels of homework and report card checking. In the fifth-year interview, fully 48% of Chinese parents never checked homework, and approximately 40% of boys parents checked their sons homework every day or a few times a week compared to only 22% for their daughters. In terms of report cards, 45% of Chinese parents checked their childrens report cards every few months. And surprisingly, only 7% of boys and 2% of girls reported that their parents always asked them how well they did; approximately a third of both girls and boys (30% of girls and 30% of boys) said that their parents never asked them.

Our analyses also show a lack of communication between parents and children in school-related issues, both academic and social. For example, in the first-year interviews, over 40% of students said that they did not talk about their day at school or what they learned with their parents. Over half of Chinese students reported that they did not talk about their homework with their parents. Fully 50% of boys and 70% of the girls did not talk about classes they wanted to take with their parents. Girls were slightly more reluctant than boys to discuss classes they wanted to take or their homework with parents.

In interviews, parents talked about different reasons that made it hard to communicate about school with their children, including the daily routine of life. Mrs. Lin, who worked part time in a food store, commented, I am tired when I get home after work, but I have to cook. My daughter works on her homework when she gets home. We seldom talk. Similarly, another working-class mother Mrs. Zhou said about her children, We now spend less time communicating with each other. Therefore we have less understanding for each other. . . . Sometimes when I get off from work I hurry to the kitchen to work. After I do the dishes I want to talk to them. However, they say that they have to do their homework and are not free to talk. Mr. Lau summed it up quite poignantly, We are a family, but sometimes its like, like we cant understand each other. I dont know what youre doing and you dont know what I am doing.

This was the case even in some middle-class families with well-educated parents, although the reasons for lack of communication may be different from working-class families. For example, in the Lai family, the father was an instructor at an elite university; he and his wife used to be very involved in their only sons education. However, over time, they found it increasingly hard to communicate. The father said with great lament at the time of the final year interview:


Now he doesnt want to communicate with us many important or deep things, like values, how a person should live his life, etc., he doesnt want to talk to us about them. I think with friends he probably talks about them. He used be little and that was fine, but not that much we can discuss, even like things and people in school, he doesnt want to talk and we do not know.

It is important to note that developmental reasons, i.e., children growing older and shifting their attention away from parents to peers, contributes to decreased levels of communication in all families. However, in for working-class families, lack of communication and involvement may be exacerbated by lack of time together, parents language barriers, and lack of knowledge. In middle-class families, this can be exacerbated by cultural conflicts resulting from immigration. In the Lai family, where both parents were well educated, their networks were still largely Chinese and their English ability and familiarity with U.S. culture still fell behind that of Li, who interacted with American teachers and peers and thus acculturated much faster. During the interviews, Mr. Lai said that his son might be following American customs, but he did not really understand American customs.

As a result, especially among working-class families, there was a common feeling among parents that they should leave the education of their children to schools. Traditionally Chinese parents held teachers in high esteem and rarely questioned teachers nor challenged the school on any issues concerning the education of their children, and some parents in the study also felt that they should appreciate teachers and leave their childrens education to school. Immigration and the resulting feeling of powerlessness further reinforce this dynamic with the school and in their involvement with childrens education. For example, Mr. Liang said, My opinion would be single-sided and I do not know much about things that my daughter is learning at school. I let the school nurture her. Similarly, Mrs. Tang commented on the education of her son,

School is the most important. School teaches him . . . then he learns. When he gets home, his parents dont speak English. They cant teach him. Whatever he learns from school is what he can get. We dont know English and cant teach them . . . learning English is the most important thing. It will help you make a living.

Even in terms of their expectations for their childrens future, some parents expected very little from their children. For example, when asked what the lowest grade he expected of his child among A, B, C, and D was, Mr. Fang said, I dont understand what A-B-C-D are about. I dont know how to care. No expectations. I guess not to fail.

The majority of the Chinese parents across diverse socioeconomic backgrounds in this study did place a great emphasis on their childrens education and have high aspirations for both grades and future success, in line with traditional Chinese cultural values. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish high aspirations as ideal from realistic goals parents had for their children. For example, Lings father said that his main goal was to train the next generation so that they can improve their lives tremendously in the future. He hoped that his children could do their best in school as well as with their life: the most successful thing would be to go to college and get a Ph.D. degree, and work for the United States later. On one hand, you can make money, will have a light and stable job . . . on the other hand, you can contribute to the government. However, in reality, he knew that none of his three children were doing well in school and felt that there was very little he could do to help them. Similarly, in the case of a 16-year-old Civic, his parents still expressed great expectations for him to go to college and get a good job even after he dropped out of high school altogether in his senior year. Thus, in our analyses we observed a disconnection in some cases between parents idealistic expectations and the educational reality their children were in. While they expressed high expectations for their childrens future, when children are clearly struggling in school, swerving away from the ideal track, parents felt powerless in getting their children back on track.


As a result of the perceived barriers and the feeling of powerlessness in their childrens education, parents often unintentionally left their children to cope with their academic as well as emotional life on their own, forcing children in some families to be precociously independent after migration. Many had to make important decisions about schools on their own, without much supervision or advice from their parents.

In Chinese childhood socialization, there is a common mentality that parents should try to foster independence in their children, encourage them to kao zi ji (depend on themselves). This is considered a healthy developmental goal for children. After migration, parents in our sample frequently mentioned the importance for their children to depend on themselves, often for their middle-school children. However, while in China, children may be encouraged to depend on themselves with the support of parents and still be able to rely on their parents for many education-related things along the way. After migration, children in some families found themselves being pushed to depend on themselves before they were ready to do so practically and psychologically. Parents sometimes rationalized their lack of involvement in their childrens education due to various barriers through the mentality that you have to depend on yourself sooner or later. And immigration provided one such opportunity. For example, Mrs. Liang said, I cant help them. They have to rely on themselves. Their mommy doesnt speak English. They themselves have to work hard for their own good. Often children were pushed by their parents to make their own decision and take the consequences as well. As Mr. Cai commented about her children, They have their own choice. But what I think is this is your own choice then you have to take the consequences as well. Parents often attributed things overwhelmingly to their children and their own motivation in success after migration. For example, Mrs. Lin said about her sons education, It depends on himself only. Its up to him that whether he has a motivated heart to improve or he gives up himself and falls greatly in lives.

Parents also emphasized their role as the provider after migration and downplayed their role in other aspects of their childrens education. For example, Mr. Lau who worked in a Chinese restaurant indicated, Ill provide, but the rest depends on themselves. In nearly the same words, another parent Mr. Tong said, I will do my best to help them economically. The rest will depend on themselves. Some parents also mentioned that they would do their best to provide their children with a stable physical environment, chuang zao liang hao de tiao jian. However, how children made use of the environment depended on themselves. It is important to note that in traditional Chinese child socialization, a key role of parents is jiao yang (education and provide for). In the case of the immigrant parents from working-class backgrounds, a variety of factors, including increased economic pressure and multiple barriers parents face in educational involvement, force many parents from working-class backgrounds to relent in the educational aspects of their traditional parental role and responsibility, placing much more emphasis on their provision role. This is not uncommon among new immigrant parents trying to survive in their newly adopted country.

As a result, children often do develop a precocious sense of independence. For example, 13-year-old Carl said, I seldom tell them [parents] my troubles or problems. I usually solve them myself or get help from my friends. However, during the interviews, children often expressed some sadness about this situation when they talked about the lack of involvement of their parents in their lives. For example, Carl commented that, My family cant help me. Dad and mom discipline my behavior, but they dont help with my school work. I have to study all by myself.

It is interesting that this push for independence in some families was also justified by parents view of the host countrys encouragement for independence in child rearing. For example, Mrs. Tie who worked in a pharmaceutical company said, This whole society cultivates independence in children the sense of independence is stronger and this would make you less worried in a lot of ways. In some ways, this justification may lessen some parents feeling of guilt of pushing their children to be precociously independent.

Implications on Parent-Child Relations

The analyses of our longitudinal interview data show that in many immigrant families, lack of parental involvement in education also permeated to other domains of childrens lives. Over time, both parents and children in some families mentioned a process of growing estrangement and alienation in parent-child relations occurring. While a range of development-, immigration-, and culture-related factors might have caused this to happen (see Qin, 2006, for a detailed discussion), lack of parental involvement in childrens education and forced precocious independence are one important contributing factor. Carl, for example, commented with some sadness about his relations with his parents:

Now I dont want to go home. There is nothing to do at home. . . . Before, when we were in Hong Kong, sometimes we sat down and talked. It happened more often in Hong Kong than in here. [Here in the US] we have to work. Even if we have time to talk, I mostly stay in my room. When I get home I stay in my room to play with the computer, listen to music, sleep, whatever. I just cant communicate with my parents (sigh). I dont know what to say.

Oftentimes, these children yearn for more parental involvement and feel sad that they couldnt be as involved. However, over time, this becomes a pattern in many families. When asked if he told his parents about what he did or felt, 14-year-old Jack said,

No. I dont really tell them anything nowadays because its kind of like I live my life and you live yours kind of thing. I do tell them about what theyre interested in hearing, but thats about it. Its like a dont ask dont tell kind of thing.


Research on Chinese parents in the United States has placed much emphasis on their overzealous educational involvement, an important contributing factor to their childrens superior educational success. However, as our data have demonstrated, this is not the case in many Chinese immigrant families. Most parents in our study are far from tiger parents; the metaphor of sheep parents may fit their experiences better. Immigration reshaped parental relations with childrens education in many Chinese families, creating cumulative practical barriers in time, language, and knowledge. On the other hand, the culture of origin continues to impact these immigrant parents family interactions, so they tend to look at the world through dual frames of reference (Falicov, 2003; Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). Because immigrant parents have background and the experiences of life in their countries of origin while their children do not, many parents continue to worry that there may be a cultural gap and/or a disconnect between them and their children. Coupled with acculturation struggles, these challenges rendered the majority of our working-class Chinese parents to develop a general feeling of powerless and helpless after migration. As a result, parents often unwillingly removed themselves from the educational experiences of their children, which forced children to depend on themselves and be precociously independent. Over time, this dynamic also removed parental presence in other domains of their childrens lives and alienated parent-child relations.

Our paper contributes to current research on immigration, parenting, and education in a number of ways. First, our findings underscore and illustrate how immigration can shape parental educational involvement in families. Immigration can create gains for many immigrant families in terms of educational and work opportunities. However, immigration can also be a process of multiple losses and need for readjustment. One of the most influential areas for children is the different role their parents may play before and after migration in supporting them with school. Our findings on Chinese immigrant families clearly illustrate both why and how this support may decrease after migration, especially in working-class Chinese families. The disconnection between immigrant parents universally high expectations for their childrens education after migration and their limited ability of providing support to help their children take advantage of the greater educational opportunities may be one powerful explanation for the substantial portion of immigrant children who fall through the cracks in their educational pursuit. To improve the education of one fifth of the U.S. public school student population, providing support to help bridge the gap between immigrant parents and their childrens schooling may have fundamental long-lasting impacts on the prosperity of the U.S. society.

Second, our paper contributes new knowledge to current research on parental involvement by demonstrating the psychological impact of parental educational involvement. In particular, we document how immigration created multiple barriers in Chinese immigrant parental educational involvement, which subsequently removed them from their childrens educational and emotional lives, forcing precocious independence in children and alienating parent-child relations. Challenges in parents involvement with their childrens education also had an important psychological impact on the parents in our study. Many parents expressed worry, self doubt, inadequacy, and a deep sense of powerlessness as a result of not being able to effectively help their children in their education. This, along with other acculturation challenges, is likely to negatively impact parents mental health, creating additional psychological burdens in their adaptation after migration. We found this to be particularly the case in working-class Chinese families, where the main contributing factors were economic stress forcing parents to work long hours, resulting in little time together with their children, parents lack of knowledge of the U.S. educational system, and language barriers. In middle-class families, this happened much less. Language barriers might limit parents ability to help children with homework in some cases; in the cases when parents were not involved in childrens education or general life, it often was the childrens choice resulting from cultural conflicts or developmental reasons.

Third, we identified a new developmental issue in our paper on immigrant childrens development, precocious independence. For immigrant children like those in the Chinese immigrant families we studied, precocious independence may have heightened risks. In a new cultural environment filled with attractions and distractions, disoriented immigrant children need parental guidance and support to lead them to healthy paths of development more than ever. The crucial stabilizing role of the parents in helping their children adapt after migration has been noted in numerous studies (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001; Garcia Coll et al., 2002). In many families, decreasing parental educational involvement after migration often translates to lack of parental involvement in other domains of childrens lives and strains parent-child relations. This dynamic over time removes a significant buffering factor in childrens healthy psychosocial development and may put them at risk for delinquent behaviors. Indeed, studies have found that many recent immigrant students are left to their own devices, staying out late, roaming pool halls, video game parlors, and cinemas (Sim, 1992).

Our findings also show that Chinese immigrant parents seemed to be even less involved in their daughters education than their sons, confirming previous findings on the role of gender in parental involvement in mainstream native families. Dearing et al.s (2006) review, for example, conclude that parental involvement may be less important to the academic functioning of girls than boys because girls are more self-disciplined and mastery oriented in the academic context than boys and tend to outperform boys in educational outcomes. The Chinese immigrant girls in our study also reported that their parents checked and helped their homework much less often than did boys. Girls also reported less communication with their parents about school-related issues like classes they would take than did boys. There may be different explanations for this observed gender pattern in Chinese immigrant families. In traditional patriarchal Chinese culture, there is a strong gender bias favoring boys in families because they will carry the family name. This may contribute to parental favor of boys and leading them to be more involved in their sons education than their daughters. However, very few studies have found this gendered treatment of children in immigrant families especially in the domain of education (see Suarez-Orozco & Qin, 2006, for a review). In our view, parental trust that girls are more responsible and tend to do better in school than boys, and thus that there is less need to be involved, may be a stronger explanation for the gender differences we found in our data.

One potential limitation of our study is that the data in the study was collected over 10 years ago. In the last 10 years, the number of Chinese immigrants to the United States continues to rise (Pew Research Center, 2012). In 2010, three out of five Chinese immigrants in 2010 were limited English proficient and 55% of Chinese immigrants older than 25 did not have a bachelors degree. More than 40% of Chinese immigrant adults work in service, manufacturing, and construction jobs (Migration Information Source, 2013). There have not been substantial shifts in the origin of immigrants or change of socioeconomic backgrounds among Chinese immigrants in the last decade. Findings drawing on our data continue to be relevant today. In the last 10 years, shifts in the U.S. educational policies, e.g., No Child Left Behind and more recently the Common Core standards, place a lot of emphasis on childrens achievement. Parental involvement and support of school efforts to raise students achievement are likely to be more important today. It is important for scholars to continue examine parental involvement in immigrant families and the challenges parents face given the shifting educational policies.

It is also important to note that the majority of the families discussed here are working-class families where parents received limited education before immigration. Children in these families tend to be forced to make important decisions on their own and left to their own devices when it comes to their education. Oftentimes, these children yearn for more parental involvement and feel sad that the parents could not be as involved. In many middle-class families, parents tend to have high levels of education and to maintain their high levels of involvement in their childrens education in different ways. However, in some of these families, they may face another set of challenges when parents become overcontrolling and put too much pressure on their children. This can also lead to emotional alienation (Qin, 2008). A key question is how parents can balance their high expectations with a thoughtful moderate level of involvement that will strengthen their relations with children rather than alienating them during this crucial stage of childrens development (Qin, 2008).

Taken together, our findings highlighted multiple challenges and disconnections in Chinese immigrant parent educational involvement, e.g., ideal versus realistic expectations and a cultural emphasis on the dual role of parents as both educator and provider versus parents realities of having to let go of their educator role after migration. We also identified precocious independence as a new developmental risk in immigrant children. The challenges facing mostly working-class Chinese immigrant families also complicate the current depiction of these families as problem-free and Chinese children as well adjusted, quiet, high achievers who need little support from school and other community resources. Immigration takes a heavy toll on Chinese immigrant parents as it does on parents from other ethnic communities. The challenges they face should not be discounted or masked by the model minority stereotype. It is important for educators, researchers, and practitioners working closely with them to be aware of these challenging dynamics. In practice, rather than prescribing one-size-fits-all activities that all parents should utilize at home, it is critical to propose alternate ways of involving Chinese and other immigrant parents in homework and home activities that celebrate these families, consider minority parenting styles, and respect the linguistic socialization children should receive at home (Daniel-White, 2002). It is particularly important for schools and other social institutions working with Chinese immigrant families to reach out to parents by providing them with more information and resources to be more involved in their childrens education and lives. Sometimes, school personnel may interpret Chinese immigrant parents reluctance to participate in school activities as their disinterest in their childrens education. This is not the case. Parents want to be involved; however, multiple barriers render parents powerless, especially in working-class immigrant families. It would be helpful for schools to send education-related information to the parents with translations to update immigrant parents of their childrens progress and needs at school. Open encouragement and clear articulation of the benefit of parental involvement can also reduce parental anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, and cultural misunderstandings, motivating parents to be more active in their childrens schooling. Having seminars and discussions on both the challenges and benefits of parental involvement and providing concrete examples of how parents could aid their childrens schooling can also improve parental enthusiasm. Many students from immigrant families whose parents could offer little support struggle through schooling silently. It is important for schools to understand the challenges many of these students may face and develop intervention programs (e.g., mentoring program within the school) to help meet their needs for guidance and support. Immigrant and local communities can also help by offering parent and youth programs to help improve parental involvement and parent-child relations in Chinese and other immigrant families.


We would like to thank Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco, codirectors of the Harvard Immigration Projects, for their generous support of our paper. The LISA study was funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. The first author would also like to thank her friend and colleague Isabel Wang for her insight in coming up with the metaphor of sheep parents.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 8, 2014, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17501, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 5:12:05 AM

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