Sunday, March 11, 2018

Parental Investment in Children, Why Asian-Americans Succeed?

Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.

Amy Chua’s 2010 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, set off a fervent discussion of the degree to which Asian-American parenting styles, especially their investment in their children’s education, was important in producing the observed above-average performance of these children subsequent to their schooling.

In March 2014, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics produced an analytical report related to this issue, “Investment in Higher Education by Race and Ethnicity,” written by Tian Luo and Richard J Holden. They showed that, compared to white parents, African-American parents invested less, and Asian-American parents invested more in their children’s education, with Hispanics not being statistically significantly different from other whites in this regard. [The authors controlled for several of the most likely confounding variables in their analysis.]

Different degrees of investment in their offspring are also found throughout the entire range of the animal kingdom. In fact, those who study such things have a term for the two extreme cases of parental investment, “R and K strategies,” the terms derived from the equations generally used in the field to model the outcomes of the two strategies:

A short article (by Jared Reser) posted on the Internet by the Organization for the Advancement of Interdisciplinary Learning [] described the two extremes:
·   “R-strategists usually create an abundance of offspring in the hopes that a few will make it. The species usually have a very short maturation time, often breed at a very young age, have a short lifespan, produce many offspring very quickly, have young with high mortality rates, and invest relatively little in parental care. The parents do not focus on passing down memes, units of cultural information, to their young. Instead the behavior of the young is determined by their genes. The young are precocial, meaning that they often can make it on their own without any instruction from their parents. Examples of R-selected species include bacteria, insects, and fish.”
·   K-strategists are very different in that they attempt to ensure the survival of their offspring by investing time in them, instead of investing in lots of them. It is a reproductive strategy that focuses on quality over quantity. K-strategists have relatively few offspring and make an effort at being good parents. Their young are altricial, meaning that they cannot survive on their own until they reach adulthood. This extended period of maturation is used for mimetic transference – the parents teach the young so that they can go on to reproduce themselves. K-strategists are known to have a relatively long life span, produce relatively few offspring; the offspring have lower mortality rates and parents provide extensive parental care. The offspring are also relatively intelligent so that they can internalize the lessons from their parents. K-selected species include elephants, apes and whales. Humans are perhaps the most K selected….”

The same source (Reser) produced the following ordering of organism types, from the R-strategists to the K-strategists, or quantity versus quality strategy: bacteria, mollusks, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, apes, humans…an ordering that resembles that of evolution, from the least to the most advanced species.

More details come from an article posed by the University of Miami [] entitled “r and K selection,” based on evolutionary considerations, which notes
·   Organisms that live in stable environments tend to make few, ‘expensive’ offspring. Organisms that live in unstable environments tend to make many, ‘cheap’ offspring.” When investment is risky, it is wise to invest little.
·   It makes more sense to invest when the life spans are longer, to give time for the investment to pay off.
·   If you plot the fraction who survive versus the age of the organism, the R (quantity) species (bacteria, oysters) tend to lose a far larger fraction at young ages compared to their maximum life spans than do the K (quality) species (whales, humans) compared to their maximum lifespans. Which is cause and which is effect? Do they die young because of a lack of investment? Do they live longer because of the investment? Ecologists study this kind of issue, often related to the “carrying capacity” of the environment, related to the number the environment could handle if they lived to the maximum lifetime.

When applied to the global situation for humans, this theory indicates that in dangerous parts of the world and in dangerous times, having many children is a strategy that may maximize the chance that some survive. In the less hazardous, more developed parts of the world, during peaceful times, having fewer children and giving them more input is advantageous for those who seek to pass on their genes and ideas. Thus, ethnic groups and races that traditionally have had large families are generally expected to have fewer children as their safety improves. Of course, culture and religion can work to over-ride this tendency.

Anecdotally, I have seen this investment in education by my Chinese - American in-laws: eldest child, a daughter, went to Cornell on a scholarship and eventually became an orthodontist; middle daughter, my Tina, went to Cornell on a scholarship and eventually became an Asian Studies scholar who worked for the Encyclopedia Britannica; youngest child, a son, went to a private high school and then on to Brown and became a rheumatologist. The girls would have preferred other schools but family resources were saved to facilitate their brother’s becoming an M.D. Furthermore, these parents themselves were the products of intensive educational investment, the mother having gotten her degree with a major in chemistry at China’s pre-eminent Tsinghua University, where she met their father, who went on to get his Sc.D. degree at America’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a scholarship he won in a nation-wide competition in China back in the 1930s.

Investment in education, broadly defined, pays off.

According to a research paper entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” published in June 2012 and updated in April of 2013 by the Pew Research Center [], the median family incomes---which might be taken as a measure of success---of groups in America are in almost the same order as the percentages holding bachelor’s degrees (or more) among those who are 25 and older and in those groups. Specifically, 49% of Asians, 31% of whites, 18% of blacks, and 13% of Hispanics hold a bachelor’s degree or more among the population 25 and older in 2010. Similarly, the median household incomes in 2010 were: for Asians $66,000; for whites $54,000; for Hispanics $40,000; and for blacks $33,300. Some Asian subgroups have higher poverty levels than the U.S. average, some lower, however, so other factors can trump education.

Granted, there is always some question about which is the cause and which is the effect when looking at correlations. Conceivably, this order might due to the greater availability of college to groups that have greater incomes, but it seems more likely that it reflects the greater probability for financial success of groups that have a higher percentage of their population with college degrees. In other words, investment in advanced education has paid off in terms of relative incomes, whether or not it was financially sound.

The same Pew report noted that 2/3 of Asians believed having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life, whereas only 50% of other Americans agreed with this. Their newborns are less likely than those of other Americans to have an unmarried mother (16% vs. 41%), although that figure is higher (31%) for women of Asian ancestry born in the U.S.
     The Pew report describes the arc of Asian ascension the U.S.: “A century ago, most Asian Americans were low-skilled., low-wage laborers crowded into ethnic enclaves and targets of official discrimination. Today they are the most likely of any major racial or ethnic group in America to live in mixed neighborhoods and to marry across racial lines. When newly minted medical school graduate Priscilla Chan married Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last month, she joined the 37% of all recent Asian American brides who wed a non-Asian groom.”

          Parental investments in education and in maintaining intact marriages pay off in greater probability of success for their Asian American sons and daughters.


Dr. Cooper (, a retired scientist, is now an author, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011. Also available from online booksellers are two memoirs he co-authored, The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice, and three memoirs he edited: High Shoes and Bloomers and But…at What Cost and Home is Where the Story Begins. With Adria Goldman Gross, he recently co-authored Solved! Curing Your Medical Insurance Problems. His latest books are Write Your Book with Me  and How to Manage Nursing Care at Home. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His writing, editing, coaching site is

No comments:

Post a Comment