TIME Parenting

A Case for Parenting the Dolphin–Not Tiger–Mom Way

Today
Amy Chua appears on NBC News' "Today" show. NBC NewsWire—NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Today’s disturbing trend of over-parenting is interfering with kids' self-motivation and ability to adapt.

I just accomplished my childhood dream of becoming an author, but my mom won’t be able to read my book. She never went to school, so she can’t read. Because of this, she never hovered over my homework and didn’t even know I applied to medical school when I was 19. She didn’t read any parenting books or blogs either. My mom parented me (and my four siblings) simply with what she felt in her gut was right for her kids and family. Like most parents of her generation and those that came before her, my mom raised her children by looking and listening to her parental intuition.

My mom was a Dolphin Mom, which means she was a collaborative (authoritative) parent. She was not a controlling (authoritarian) Tiger Mom, or a indulging (permissive) Jellyfish Mom. In addition to this parenting style, my Dolphin Mom prioritized long-term goals of living a healthy, balanced life with connection and purpose over short-term goals of medals and test scores.

As a psychiatrist and medical director, I have seen firsthand how modern-day parents are fast losing that knowledge gifted to us by nature. I believe this disconnect from our parental intuition partly explains the great paradox of our time: that we are the most involved group of parents in human history, yet our children have the highest rates of anxiety, depression, obesity and addiction than ever before. Today’s disturbing trend of over-parenting is under-preparing our children for a rapidly changing and ultra-competitive 21st Century by interfering with their self-motivation and ability to adapt.

This Mother’s Day, I will thank my mom for being a Dolphin Mom, for not over-parenting and for nurturing my nature and self-motivation. And for those who want to follow her example, this is how she parented:

Dolphin Moms are balanced and collaborative.

My mom was not an over-controlling, overbearing Tiger Mom. Nor was she a permissive, directionless Jellyfish Mom. My mom was the balance of these extremes, firm yet flexible. She had rules and expectations, including expecting us to do well in academics and be disciplined. But she also valued our autonomy, individual passions and independent choices.

Dolphin Moms do not overschedule.

I was never in a single scheduled activity. My parents didn’t have the time, money or interest to sign me up. My mom believed that the smartest people were not the busiest, but the most peaceful. Like many of today’s grandparents, she is horrified at our hurried lifestyles – and I agree. I’ve seen far too many kids who are sleep deprived, stressed out and burnt out simply because of the schedules imposed on them by their parents.

Dolphin Moms do not over instruct.

My mom believed in classroom learning, but also real-world learning. I learned math by counting change for passengers in my dad’s taxi. I learned spelling by translating documents to English. I learned that living in the real world is what ultimately prepares you for the real world. And without schedules and constant instruction, I learned to play freely and vigorously. It was not until I became an expert on the science of self-motivation did I realize the power of play. Play is directly linked to the development of our prefrontal cortex and helps a child develop vital social, intellectual and emotional skills that cannot be acquired any other way.

Dolphin Moms don’t over protect.

Of course, my mom protected me from serious harm, but she didn’t shelter me from life’s ups and downs. She let me make my own mistakes – plenty of them! And as long as I was okay, she didn’t rescue me when I fell down. My mom was known for saying, “It’s your choice, but it’s also your mess to clean up if it doesn’t work out.”

Dolphin Moms create a pod of support.

Social connection and bonding are the centerpieces of our culture. Dolphin Moms encourage their children to connect and contribute to others in a meaningful way. This forms essential social skills, character, values and a sense of community for mom and their children. My mom expected me to be fully independent yet fully connected to my family and community. She expected me to live a healthy life of balance, meaning and purpose.

Dolphin Moms adapt.

My mom did not parent all five of her kids the exact same way, nor did she stick to the same methods as her kids grew up. She constantly adapted to her changing kids and their changing environment.

As a mom of three, I have learned more about parenting from my mom than from my 15 years of academic training, my 12 years of clinical practice and all the books and blogs that I read. So although my mom will wait for the audiobook version of my book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger, she doesn’t really need to. She has lived The Dolphin Way her whole life.

Dr. Shimi Kang is a Harvard-trained physician and an expert in the neuroscience, psychology and day-to-day reality of human motivation. She is currently the Medical Director for Child and Youth Mental Health for the city of Vancouver and a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia.

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