In her memoir, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mom (Penguin Press, 2011), Yale professor Amy Chua recorded her personal experience as a mother and the challenges she had to face raising her two daughters. Coming from a strict Chinese family, Chua received a very tough education (‘no good grades in school, no toys, no playdates, no boyfriends’ kind of upbringing): according to the law professor, her parents’ demanding and restrictive strategy was the best gift anybody ever gave to her and she admittedly tried to raise her kids in the same way (without apparent success with one of her daughters, tough). The authoritarian brand of parenting made famous by Chua’s provocative memoir proudly excludes playing, choices, even bathroom breaks during piano practice. Her book stirred quite a controversy among critics and readers. Although not intended as a parenting guide, she strongly asserted her point of view about education in our country: “I do believe that we in America can ask more of children than we typically do, and they will not only respond to the challenge, but thrive.”
The cultural divide between Western and traditional Chinese parents is as wide as the geographical distance separating them: while we try to respect our children’s individuality encouraging them to pursue their own passions and providing a nurturing environment, in many eastern cultures parents believe that the best way to protect their children is preparing them for the future with strict rules and strong work habits. I am a strong supporter of the idea that virtue lies in the middle, not in the extremes.
As a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, researcher, and co-founder of the Youth, Culture and Mental Health Fund for the BC Mental Health Foundation, Dr. Shimi Kang, M.D. has worked with thousands of people dealing with stress, family conflicts, work-life balance, depression, anxiety, addictions, psychosis, and suicidal thoughts: drawing from her range of expertise and experience, and in response to Chua’s brutally honest story of extreme parenting, her guide, The Dolphin Way, argues that motivation as an external imposition doesn’t bring lasting results. Chua’s “tiger” parenting style (yelling, bribing, punishing) kills self-motivation:
“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.”
And so does the opposite:
“When we motivate via toys, money, or too much praise, we also take away the chance for internal rewards – that amazing dose of dopamine that keeps us feeling happy.”
At best, the “tiger” parenting focuses on mastery alone and it works only when the child finds the activity imposed by her/his parents to be important enough for her/him to master it. And even when children of “tiger” parents bolt out of the gates, so to speak, they do it only because of external pressure and will be often passed over by those who experienced a more relaxed approach to academics and extracurricular activities. The “tiger” kids will underperform in the real world; they will more likely develop addictions, self-harm habits, and suicidal tendencies. Action based on external motivation will last only as long as the external pressure, reward, punishing are in place. On the other end of the parenting spectrum, the permissive style (the “jellyfish”) will breed irresponsible and impulsive kids, poor relation skills, no respect for authority, poor school/work performance, and risky behaviors. The risks of parenting with an excess of control and micro-managing, or complete lack of guidance, are enormous. Both models destroy curiosity, the very roots of self-motivation.
“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity”, Eleanor Roosevelt used to say. I couldn’t agree more with her. Curiosity is linked to our brain’s dopamine reward system and fuels our self-motivation for learning: when we look at the world with curiosity, we stop judging and simply engage our thinking brain to observe and interact.
The dolphin-way appears to be the perfect balance between the authoritarian parenting model (the “tiger”), and the permissive style (the “jellyfish”). Dolphins, with all their attributes and qualities, are a powerful metaphor for a successful parenting: they display qualities of intelligence, creativity, learning, communication, and social connection, all traits necessary to fare with success in the shift age. They are social creatures, living and traveling in pods. They teach their young through role modeling, play, and guidance. They’re the most altruistic and collaborative animal species, with a brain size second only to humans. The dolphin parenting model is about guiding rather instructing, teaching by example, emphasizing the importance of play, exploration, social bonds, and community values, rather 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.
With a parenting style modeled on the dolphins’ behavior, discipline is assertive and positive, not restrictive; supportive, not punishing or dismissing. “Dolphin” parents are clear authority figures (not friends, or personal assistants, helicopters, slaves, drivers) that establish clear rules and guidelines while responding to the emotional needs of their children. Kang’s book offers numerous and practical examples of “dolphin” inspired approaches and communication strategies.
Unlike many other parenting books, The Dolphin Way offers guidance, not instruction, in a perfect dolphin-parenting way: it doesn’t add any more tasks to a parent’s to-do list. It actually helps eliminate some, clearly illustrating the multiple benefits of such a model:
•being warm and responsive helps children form secure attachments and protects them from internalizing issues such as depression and anxiety
•enforcing limits decreases the chance children will engage in acting out self-destructive behaviors (aggression, interpersonal conflict, drug and alcohol abuse)
•communicating about thoughts and feelings strengthens children’s empathy, emotional regulation, and relationship skills
•showing understanding for academic struggles helps children become better problem solvers and learners
•encouraging independence helps children develop self-reliance, a desire to help others, and better emotional health
To use Albert Einstein’s words, “look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
The Verdict: An illuminating read on the challenges of parenting in the twenty-first century, the limits of the “tiger” model, and the opportunities offered by a parenting style inspired to dolphins, the most wonderfully adaptable, self-reliant, and socially connected creatures on earth.
The Youth, Culture, and Mental Health Fund was created in recognition of the high degrees of stigma and profound need for mental health awareness and education among youth and those who interact with them. In 2010, Dr. Shimi Kang, Ms. Arvinder Grewal, and Mr. Jeevan Khunkhun co-founded the South Asian Youth Mental Health Fund (SAY MH). Since this inception, the project has expanded beyond the South Asian Community and thus, in 2011, the name was changed to Youth Culture and Mental Health Fund.
The mandate of the fund is to:
•Broaden understanding and support for mental health among youth within their cultural setting,
•Support professional development and delivery of best practices in mental health for youth within their cultural context, and
•Evaluate new strategies or approaches to the prevention and reduction of mental health issues among youth of diverse cultures.
An important part of the BC Mental Health Foundation‘s ability to stay true to its mission: “Changing the Face of Mental Health in British Columbia through supporting breakthroughs in public understanding, research, treatment and knowledge exchange” comes from the commitment and compassion of our generous supporters. Visit the organization’s website for more details.
Release Date: May 1, 2014
Publisher: Tarcher Books
Author: Shimi Kang, M.D.