Taking the Bite out of the South Korean Tiger Dad

Korean Father School trains dads to become actively involved in their families

According to Karen Pyke (associate professor of sociology) the Father School movement draws upon various cultural influences and relies heavily on ideals of Western masculinity, which serve as the standard the movement advocates.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) – In South Korea, a movement has emerged that helps men to answer the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a man and father today? The Father School movement enjoyed rapid growth following the 1997 Asian economic crisis, when many South Korean men lost their jobs overnight, sparking a dramatic rise in suicides, according to Karen Pyke, associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside.

“The loss of jobs left many Korean men unable to fulfill their traditional family breadwinning role, sparking a masculinity crisis. Many fathers began questioning their identities and family roles, leading them to seek answers through participation in the South Korean Father School movement,” Pyke explained. Quoting a brochure from the Father School, Pyke said the movement’s goal is to “help men recover their identities, return the father to the family, and reunify the family through the father role.”

Korean Father School takes issue with the masculinity it associates with South Korean men marked by workaholic fathers who are gender rigid, uncommunicative, emotionally distant, and disconnected from their families, Pyke explained.

The goal of Father School is to transform participants from “distant Korean patriarchs” into loving family men.

The goal of Father School is to transform participants from “distant Korean patriarchs” into loving family men.

The solution? A masculinity transformation into a nurturing “new father” closely modeled on an ideal type that the Father School movement attributes to American men. In five week training sessions that Pyke and her co-author Allen Kim refer to as “gender boot camps,” leaders attempt to transform participants from “distant Korean patriarchs” into loving family men. Father School relies heavily on images and ideals of what it presents as the typical form of American masculinity, which serves as the standard to which Korean men should aspire. The core of Father School conference activities involve learning to express affection through hugging rituals and  sharing personal letters written to family members in which men participants express regrets, apologies, and promises to be more loving, responsible, and involved husbands, fathers, and sons.

But even with its positive intentions, Pyke said the Korean Father School movement reveals Western cultural dominance.

“On the surface, the Father School masculinity makeover seems a positive process for Korean men and their families. However, it relies heavily on stereotyping and denigrating a distinct “Korean” masculinity alongside the glorification of an ideal type of masculinity associated with white American men. Certainly Korean men could embrace new family roles within a Korean cultural context, without rejecting all of ‘Korean’ masculinity. Instead the Father School movement imbibes notions of Western superiority which casts Asians as in need of Western liberation from an antiquated gender order and the ‘authoritarian’ Tiger Dad. This is an example of the internalization of racial oppression and Western superiority,” Pyke explained.

Pyke and Kim, a recent Ph.D. recipient from University of California, Irvine, co-authored “Taming Tiger Dads: Hegemonic American Masculinity and South Korea’s Father School” recently published in the top gender journal, Gender & Society.


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Karen Pyke
E-mail: karen.pyke@ucr.edu

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