IF you are worrying about your kid’s performance at school, take a deep breath and read Shimi Kang’s “The Dolphin Way.”
In the book, the Harvard-trained psychiatrist and researcher proposes a parenting model that harkens back to a time when the real purpose of parenting was to raise healthy, happy and well-balanced children — long before the aim became to mould them into public speakers, science fair winners, concert pianists, or team captains.
Dolphins, as Dr Kang sees them, are social creatures, living and traveling in pods. They teach their young through role modeling, play, and guidance. They’re known as the most altruistic and social animal species, with a brain size second only to humans.
The dolphin parenting model is about guiding rather than instructing. Teaching by example, emphasizing the importance of play, exploration, social bonds, and community values, rank higher than competition and isolation.
“All these positive traits are natural to human parenting, but we have lost connection with them because of our imbalanced, over-competing, over-achieving lifestyle,” says Kang.
In contrast to the dolphin way, the tiger parenting model, which is prevalent in many Eastern cultures, focuses on mastery alone. All the child’s actions are the result of external pressure.
According to Kang’s research, the outcome is that “tiger” kids tend to under-perform in the real world; they are more likely to develop addictions, self-harm habits, and suicidal tendencies.
“Pushing, hovering, demanding, and cajoling may get results when tasks are simple, but when tasks become complex, involve creativity, and require critical thinking, these external motivators work poorly.
“Carrots and sticks can’t replace autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the foundation of self-motivation, pleasure, and joy,” she says.
On the other end of the parenting spectrum lies the so-called jellyfish style. Mostly seen in the West, it is bound to breed irresponsible and impulsive kids, poor relationship skills, a lack of respect for authority, poor school performance and reckless behavior.
“The risks of parenting with an excess of control (the tiger way) or complete lack of guidance (the jellyfish way) are enormous. Both models destroy curiosity, the very roots of self-motivation, and do more harm than good,” Kang argues in her book.
However, there is no clear cut between being either the tiger or the jellyfish, despite cultural differences.
Most of the time, we are both; and sometimes we can be the dolphin. It all depends on how we, as parents, are balanced in our own life, which is probably most sincerely expressed in our own choices.
How do you feel when you hear your son’s classmate has just won the District Spelling Bee, and you turn around to find your own son digging up earthworms?
“Are you ready to suppress the tiger in your heart and give your kids back their childhood?” Kang challenges.
She highlights qualities such as creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration — what she calls the CQ, or cognitive quotient — essential life skill for the 21st century.
As the fifth child of Indian immigrants in Canada, Kang recalled her own childhood.
“My mother didn’t receive a year of schooling; my father worked as a cab driver at night. Neither of them offered any assistance in choosing a school for me and my brothers. But we all ended up in top-class universities, and are doing well in life,” Kang told Shanghai Daily.
“The secret lies simply in the values they live by,” she added.
So to speak, there is no perfect parenting formula. Kang’s book reminds us to look inwards to listen to our own intuition, let go of the urge to micromanage, and to act based on the willingness to guide our children — the dolphin way.
Dr Kang’s prescription
Playtime appears to have positive effects on the brain and on a child’s ability to learn as it improves memory and stimulates the growth of the cerebral cortex. Kids pay more attention to academic tasks when they are given frequent, brief opportunities for free play which is, so to speak, self-motivated and fun.
Children have many needs, and one of them is downtime. It gives children room to develop their interest and personalities. “I’m bored!” is the last thing most parents want to hear their kids say, and, as a result, many parents feel compelled to keep their children busy all the time. But there is nothing wrong with them “doing-nothing-at-all” every now and then.
Be consistent but flexible
To be a dolphin parent means to stick to certain rules, but there is also freedom. Enforcing limits decreases the chance children will engage in acting out, such as being aggressive, struggling with interpersonal conflict, or even drug and alcohol abuse. At the same time, being warm and responsive helps children form attachments and protects them from internalizing issues.
Seek support from each other
There is no reason to bear all the stress of child-rearing on your own. Surround yourself with loving families or other parents with kids of the same age group within the community. Communicating about thoughts and feelings in front of them strengthens children’s empathy, emotional regulation, and relationship skills, while showing understanding for academic struggles helps children become better problem solvers and learners.