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What's a 'Dolphin Parent'? Psychiatrist Decodes Parenting Styles

As a psychiatrist and medical director of child and youth mental health, I come face to face with families from all ethnic groups and social classes, and I've seen the results of every parenting style. I've also delved deeply into the science of self-motivation and achievement, exploring how our biology naturally motivates us toward health, happiness and success—if we allow it. From this, and from my personal experience as the mother of three children, I've seen firsthand the benefits of a clear and universal metaphor for effective parenting.

By using metaphors from the animal kingdom, we can better understand the attributes needed for successful 21st-century parenting. Today's parents are raising children in an era of dangerous paradox. Despite being the most informed group of parents to walk the Earth (our ancestors never read parenting blogs), our children stand a much higher chance of developing serious illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and addiction. Some of these diseases are rooted in our genetics, but they can also be attributed to our imbalanced modern lifestyles. The 21st century is marked by global competition, breakneck-speed technology and the "flattening out" of institutions and corporations. In this modern world, children who have exquisite social skills, who know how to adapt, innovate and think on their feet while maintaining a balanced lifestyle, will rise to the top of the food chain. With this in mind, let's look at three classic parenting styles through metaphor, using the tiger, jellyfish and dolphin.

The Tiger Parent

Whether it's the Amy Chua-like "tiger parent" pushing piano lessons, the "helicopter parent" hovering while a child does her homework or the "snowplow" parent shoving all obstacles out of her child's way, these "take over" parenting styles promote an environment of external control and diminish a child's sense of internal control. These overinvolved parenting styles are all forms of tiger parenting because they're authoritarian in nature. Children of tiger parents of every stripe grow up with too much external control and become overdependent on external circumstances. Even though these children may sometimes appear more "successful," especially early on, they can't adapt to life's ups and downs on their own. Research shows that these children have poor independent decision making, have difficulty establishing healthy autonomy and, without a sense of internal control, are at a higher risk of anxiety and depression.

The Jellyfish Parent

The opposite of the tiger is the jellyfish parent. These parents have few rules and expectations, "give in" to avoid confrontation, lack authority and are generally overly permissive. Since they're rarely told "no," children of jellyfish parents may initially seem more confident on the outside. But without rules and direction, they often look to peers for guidance and fail to develop vital impulse control. Research shows that children of permissive jellyfish parents have poorer social and academic performance and are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, including drug and alcohol use.

The Dolphin Parent

Dolphin parents are the balance of these extremes. They're collaborative and have rules and expectations, but they also encourage independence and creativity. Like the dolphin, they're firm and flexible and use their community to nurture their child's nature. This balanced approach results in children who develop a sense of autonomy over their lives but still have impulse control. Dolphin children are able to follow appropriate rules and guidance and are better able to establish healthy independence. Research shows that children of dolphin parenting have better social skills, increased self-confidence and creativity, better academic performance and enhanced self-motivation.

Before parenting guides, magazines and blogs ruled the day, parents relied on their intuition, and that's perhaps all we need. The message of the "dolphin way" is to couple authoritative parenting with a balanced lifestyle, which is what many of today's kids are missing. The ideas can be remembered through the acronym POD (a pod is a group of dolphins): P = Play and exploration; O = Others, including a sense of community and contribution; and D = Downtime, including the basics of regular sleep, exercise and rest.

We humans are capable of being great parents—maybe even better parents than any species out there due to the complex nature of our brain and behaviors. We just need to balance taking over our kids' lives with providing them guidance and direction. We also need to stop overscheduling and overinstructing them. Only then will we cultivate our children's self-motivation and give them the time and space to connect with their own intuition. Intuition is the knowledge gifted to us by nature. It's an essential ingredient for the one trait consistently needed for lifelong success for parents and children of any species—the ability to adapt.

For more parenting concepts, check out our "8 Discipline Mistakes Parents Make" and "5 Discipline Traps to Avoid."

Dr. Shimi Kang is a Harvard-trained medical doctor with more than 10 years of clinical, research and media experience. Her book, "The Dolphin Way: A Parents Guide to Raising Happy, Healthy and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger" was released by Penguin-Random House in the spring of 2014. Kang serves as the clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia. She is also the medical director of Child and Youth Mental Health for Vancouver Coastal Health. In 2003, Kang founded the Provincial Youth Concurrent Disorders Program at BC Children's Hospital in Vancouver. She also works as a psychiatrist in the Provincial Women's Mental Health Program at BC Women's Hospital.

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