Adolescents' Perceptions of Their Parents' Academic Expectations: Comparison of American, Chinese-American, and Chinese High School Students

Article excerpt

It is well accepted that parents' expectations have a powerful effect on children's academic performance: "It is clear that high achieving children tend to come from families which have high expectations for them, and who consequently are likely to 'set standards' and to make greater demands at an earlier age" (Boocock, 1972, p. 60). Vollmer (1986) also concluded that there is a strong correlation between parental expectations and children's school performance: "Many empirical studies have found positive linear relationships between expectancy and subsequent academic achievement" (p. 15). Henderson (1988) found that this held true across all social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. Parental expectations, however, will have little effect unless communicated to their children, and this process may reflect cultural differences.

The cultural and historical backgrounds of people in America and China differ dramatically. Chinese civilization is ancient and for over 2,000 years was an inflexible, hierarchical, feudal society. Even today, the culture is strongly influenced by Confucian philosophy, which exalts the scholar and emphasizes human malleability, the value of self-improvement, and the unity of the family. As a result of this tradition, Chinese children are considered more obedient and respectful to elders. They are more concerned about their parents' expectations and evaluations and work diligently to receive good grades in order to avoid disgracing their family. In 1975, an American delegation investigating early childhood development in China reported, "Although parental standards for good behavior were rather exacting, they seldom require reinforcement, since children generally lived up to or even exceeded expectations" (Kessen, 1975, cited in Kit-fong Au & Harackiewicz, 1986). Similarly, Chung and Walkey (1989) concluded: "The Chinese students attribute higher academic expectations and higher achievement orientation to their parents' response to failure and a greater sense of obligation to their parents than is found among the European students."

American children, especially adolescents, function more independently than do their Chinese counterparts. In an analysis of childrearing practices over two thousand years, Bossard (1954) reported that only in this century, and almost exclusively in America, have children been assigned status in any manner equal to that enjoyed by adult members of the family. Specifically, Lindgren (1976) noted: "When we compare family life in America and Germany, we are struck by the greater freedom for self-expression and self-assertion enjoyed by the American child."

Weggel (1987) concluded that the Chinese base their behavior more on group norms and traditional values (e.g., respecting their elders). In contrast, Americans are oriented more toward individualism and autonomy (e.g., self-realization), according to Krumm (1988). Weisz et al. (1984) also noted different control strategies: Americans and Europeans more often use "primary control," attempting to solve problems by changing their environment. Chinese apply "secondary control," solving problems through conformity.

Thus, culture is seen as influencing, among other things, family beliefs about the value of education, as well as how academic expectations are communicated and perceived. The present study compared American, Chinese-American, and Chinese high school students regarding their willingness to fulfill parents' expectations of achievement.

METHOD

Subjects

Tenth-grade students were asked to participate: 185 Chinese, 140 American, and 39 Chinese-American. They were drawn from four high schools, two in the People's Republic of China and two in the United States. The U.S. high schools were located in Oakland, California, and Chicago, Illinois, where there are high concentrations of Chinese-Americans. The Chinese schools were also in urban areas: Shanghai and Luoyang. Shanghai is the educational and economic center of China. …