The ‘dolphin’ approach is a parenting philosophy rooted in a balanced, firm-yet-flexible mindset, with the ultimate goal of raising healthy, happy kids who are self-motivated
As summer holidays wind down, a new school year is ramping up – along with a whirlwind of questions and concerns for parents. We wonder if our children will achieve their best academically this year, if they’ll qualify for the competitive team or reach new heights in musical performance. Most of all, we wonder how much energy – and plain old nagging – will be required from us to get them there.
In her book, The Dolphin Parent: A Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Self-Motivated Kids, Harvard-trained physician Dr. Shimi K. Kang says raising kids who are successful and self-motivated doesn’t require “tiger parenting” or a revolving door of piano lessons, math tutors and high-level athletic coaches.
As a mother of three and a child of Indian immigrants – who couldn’t afford to send their kids to special summer camps or music lessons – Kang says today’s parents need to learn to rely upon their natural instincts, while helping their children do the same.
Parenting Times writer Sonia Mendes spoke to Dr. Kang about her refreshingly simple recipe for family success.
Parenting Times (PT): You bring quite a unique perspective to parenting. As an accomplished doctor, you have prestigious training and a firm grasp of how the human brain works. Yet in the book, I noticed that you often tie in your own humble upbringing to present a very holistic, down-to-earth approach to parenting. Tell me a little more about that.
Dr. Shimi Kang (SK): In parenting, I aim for a balanced approach, an intuitive approach. On one hand, through all the research and the actual science of parenting – we really want to know the truth. We don’t just want someone’s opinion.
But what was really interesting about exploring the science of parenting is that science supports intuitive parenting. So many parents I’ve interacted with – during my years as a psychiatrist and my work as medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health for the city of Vancouver – people tell me they don’t know what that means. Many parents tell me their intuition tells them to hyperschedule their children.
PT: Yet throughout your book, you caution parents against the dangers of hyperscheduling. With fall just around the corner – and extracurricular activities ramping back up – that’s always a temptation for parents. Why is it so important to scale back?
SK: The concern is burnt-out kids; in the book I call them “crispies.” I talk a lot about sleep deprivation – I don’t think parents get it. Parents want to give their kids the best, but they are depriving them of the most basic human needs.
Kids are chronically and severely sleep deprived because so many parents are simply packing in too many activities in a day. There’s also the over-instruction part of it – we see this with kids who constantly have a coach, a tutor or a parent telling them exactly how to do something.
Over-instruction leads to fragile kids and rigidity; we end up with kids who can’t think outside the box. There’s nothing wrong with activities, but you have to dial it back.
PT: So how do we achieve that intuitive approach to parenting? What does it mean and how does it compare to some of the other major streams of parenting philosophies?
SK: It means striving for a balanced parenting relationship, which I describe in my book as the dolphin approach. On one end of the parenting spectrum, we have “tiger parenting” – this is the authoritarian approach. This is ineffective because humans have evolved to have a critical quality called free will; when we’re pushed too much, the human brain doesn’t like it; the tiger parent interferes with that sense of self-reliance.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the “jellyfish parent” – this is the permissive approach. Decades of research has shown that children raised this way seem confident initially, but over time – because nobody says no to them – they lack impulse control, which can lead to poor academic performance and a higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse.
Dolphin parenting is in the middle; the metaphor is firm but flexible. The dolphin parent is authoritative – they establish clear rules and guidelines while nurturing their children and responding to their emotional needs. From this, we see kids who have better academic performance and better communication skills.
PT: On a day-to-day basis, what does “dolphin parenting” look like?
SK: The second component of the dolphin approach is the importance of a balanced lifestyle. I use the acronym POD – which represents the need for play, for others and for downtime.
Kids need to have free, unstructured play. Get them outside as much as possible; there are so many health benefits to it – it’s how we all grew up. For older kids, allow them exploration in an intellectual environment as well – like picking their own electives, even if they pick a class they might get a bad mark in.
The “O” of POD is for “others” – pay attention to social bonding, the quality of friendships and relationships. Having a connection to the community is
The “D” is for downtime – take at least three time-outs, or breaks during the day, even if it’s just having your kids close their eyes and take some deep breaths in the van between activities. We’re not meant to wake up at the crack of dawn and go at full speed until
PT: As parents, what can we be doing to help our children learn to self-motivate?
SK: For our children to grow into self-motivated adults, they need to have a balanced brain; remember, nobody’s motivated when they’re sleep deprived. They also need to have passion, that innate interest or curiosity for something.
Ask your child – they’ll tell you what they need. Ask them how they feel about how their day is structured; they might say, “I really like gymnastics, but I want some free time, too.”
Kids also need to have a sense of purpose or contribution – we’re driven to have meaning in our lives, to make an impact. When it comes time for our eulogies, we ultimately want to be remembered for making the world a better place.
The Dolphin Parent: A Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Self-Motivated Kids is available from Canadian retailers. Readers ordering through Amazon will find it under the title The Self-Motivated Kid: How to Raise Happy, Healthy Children Who Know What They Want and Go After It.