Boasting over 15 years of clinical experience and extensive training in the science that lies behind motivation and mental wellness, Dr. Shimi Kang–an award-winning Harvard-trained physician–shows people of all ages how to cultivate the skills we need to flourish both professionally and personally. Dr. Kang is the author of the recent book The Dolphin Way, A Parent’s Guide To Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger, which is flying off store shelves. The Toronto Star caught up with Dr. Kang to help parents figure out what parenting model they fit into:
First it was tigers, now dolphins are being touted as the best models parents.
In 2011, Amy Chua popularized the term “tiger parent” in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Now, a new book by Vancouver psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang, The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger, says parents should base their approach to raising kids on the playful, community-minded dolphin. And, Kang says, parents should also avoid the other extreme of the spectrum, the too permissive “jellyfish” approach.
In a recent interview Kang helped break down each parenting style and its stance on key aspects of child rearing.
Play: Play dates and slumber parties take a back seat to homework. Play is structured with kids participating in numerous organized sports and activities.
Academics: Academic success is a priority and failure is not an option.
Extracurricular activities: Children are enrolled in activities parents deem important for their success, with little or no input from the child.
Giving children the vote: Parents are the ultimate authority and make decisions about what’s best for their child, with no input from the child.
Discipline: Threats — “I’ll burn your stuffed animals” — are commonly used to get children to abide by parents’ unbending household rules.
The pressures of the modern world have led to a generation of parents who either push their kids too much — to excel at piano or achieve straight A’s, for example — or helicopter parents who hover over their kids, seeking to protect them from anything negative. While these parents love their children deeply, Kang says the tiger’s authoritarian parenting style is harmful to kids in the long-run, as it leads to a loss of children’s sense of internal motivation.
As medical director for child and youth mental health at Vancouver Coastal Health, Kang has seen an increase in anxiety, depression, addiction and substance abuse problems in youth, which she attributes to demanding tiger parents who overschedule their children’s lives, leaving no room for free play. “[These kids lack] the ability to decide things for themselves, to try new things, make some mistakes and readjust,” she says. Although children of tigers often appear to excel in the early years, they’re driven by external praise, rewards or fear of punishment.
Play: Play is unstructured.
Academics: Children can decide whether or not they want to do their homework. Grades are given little weight as an indicator of success.
Extracurricular activities: Children’s activities are spontaneous, with little routine or schedule.
Giving children the vote: Parents provide little guidance, meaning children are free to make their own decisions about their lives.
Discipline: Parents often use bribes to get kids to behave.
Permissive jellyfish parents consider themselves a friend to their child rather than an authority figure, so they provide little direction or rules. Forced to rely on their own self-motivation, children of jellyfish parents may appear more confident than other kids at a young age, but Kang argues the lack of direction provided by parents causes this internal motivation to get channelled in the wrong direction, resulting in impulse control issues, a tendency to get in trouble with authority, lower academic performance and eventually lower confidence when they fail to excel.
Play: Free, unstructured play is prioritized.
Academics: Children are praised for their academic successes, but rather than being punished for low grades, parent and child work together to solve learning challenges.
Extracurricular activities: Children choose one or two extracurricular activities that appeal to their interests.
Giving children the vote: Parents collaborate with kids on decisions that involve them.
Discipline: Parents model the type of behaviour that they deem appropriate and provide clear rules and consequences. Children may be asked to choose the appropriate punishment for breaking important rules: “I cannot let you get away with hitting your sister. What do you think would be a good punishment for breaking this very important rule of not hitting?”
A dolphin’s body is firm, but flexible, which is exactly what this parenting style embodies, says Kang. Parents’ role is to provide direction while allowing kids to make their own choices and mistakes. Kang uses the acronym POD to describe this approach. P represents “play” — free, unstructured play which Kang argues is essential for the development of emotional, intellectual and social skills. O stands for “others.” The concept “it takes a village to raise a child” is perfected in the dolphin community, where dolphins live together in a pod. D stands for “downtime.” Says Kang: “40 per cent of Canadian kids are sleep deprived because they’re too busy.” She argues kids need less structured, organized activities and more relaxed family time. Kang argues the dolphin approach produces kids who embody the skills required in today’s marketplace. “This century wants kids who are social, that are innovators that can think outside the box, that are adaptive to change,” she says.
So which parenting approach results in healthy, happy kids? The experts weigh in:
Joan Grusec, professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto who specializes in the impact of parenting styles on children’s social and emotional outcomes says: “[The dolphin model] reflects what current psychological research indicates: that effective parenting involves the provision of structure, autonomy, support and choice. Parents need to provide rules for acceptable behaviour as well as explanations for those rules but they also need to allow choices: ‘I know you don’t like vegetables but you have to eat them to be healthy. Would you prefer peas, broccoli or green beans?’ ”
But Kathy Levene, associate and early intervention services director at the Child Development Institute in Toronto is skeptical about labelling parenting approaches.
“The idea that you can address all parenting needs with one approach and that that approach will give you a content, successful child and a good parent-child relationship [is misleading],” she says. Levene argues parents should rely on their own instincts and do what feels right for their child.
“Parenting is the hardest job there is. If there was a manual for parenting it would have been written a long time ago,” she says.