The dolphin doctrine

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We are raising our children in an era of dangerous paradox. We are the most educated group of parents to walk the earth, yet our children stand a much higher chance of developing serious conditions such as stress, insomnia, anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and addiction. While all of these problems also have roots in our genes, the fact that they are all on the rise in children has nothing to do with DNA and everything to do with the imbalanced modern lifestyles in which we are raising our children.

A lack of balance plagues the everyday lives of so many children. If our children spend too much time working at a desk and not enough time living in the real world, they won’t learn how to balance work and real life in adulthood. If our children spend too much time studying or practising and not enough time resting or unwinding, they’ll have a hard time being able to relax. If our children spend too much time being protected, they won’t learn how to protect themselves. If our children are given too much instruction and not enough time to problem-solve on their own, they’ll have a hard time facing and solving their own problems. A child who grows up imbalanced won’t even know what balance feels like.

With the goal of balance in mind, let’s look at the three classic parenting styles through the metaphor of the tiger, jellyfish and dolphin.

The tiger parent

Whether it’s the Amy Chua-like parent pushing piano, the helicopter parent hovering over homework, the bubble wrap parent who overprotects, or the snow plough parent shoving all the obstacles out of the way, all of these “take over” parenting styles promote an environment of external control that diminishes a child’s sense of internal control. These over-involved parenting styles are all forms of tiger parenting because they are authoritarian in nature.

Children of authoritarian parents often become externally driven by fear, rewards or micromanaging, and fail to develop self-motivation. Even though these children may sometimes appear more successful, especially early on, without a solid sense of internal control and self-motivation, they’ll struggle to adapt to life’s ups and downs. Research shows that children of authoritarian tiger parents often have poor independent decision-making skills and have difficulty establishing healthy autonomy, and without a sense of internal control, they are at higher risk for anxiety and depression.

The jellyfish parent

The opposite of the authoritarian tiger is the permissive jellyfish parent. These parents have few rules and expectations, give in to avoid confrontation, lack authority and are generally overly permissive. Since they rarely are told no, children of jellyfish parents may initially appear more confident. However, without rules and direction, they often look to peers for guidance and fail to develop vital impulse control. Research shows that children of permissive jellyfish parents have poorer social and academic performance, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviours, including drug and alcohol use.

The dolphin parent

Dolphin parents are the balance of these extremes and are authoritative (versus authoritarian). They have rules and expectations but also encourage independence and creativity. Like the dolphin, they are firm and flexible and use their pod – or community – to nurture their child’s nature. This balanced approach results in children who develop a sense of autonomy over their lives, yet still have impulse control. Dolphin children are able to follow appropriate rules and guidance, and are better able to establish healthy independence. Research shows that children of authoritative dolphin parenting typically have better social skills, increased self-confidence and creativity, better academic performance and enhanced self-motivation.

Dolphin parents are not just balanced in their parenting relationship, but also in their lifestyles. The message of the “dolphin way” is for balanced authoritative parenting coupled with a balanced lifestyle that so many of today’s kids are missing. You can remember it easily with the word POD: Play and exploration; Others, including a sense of community and contribution; and Downtime, including regular sleep, exercise and rest.

We thrive in a state of balance. In this modern world, marked by global competition, break-speed technology, and the “flattening out” of institutions and corporations, the dolphin child who has exquisite social skills, knows how to adapt, innovate and think on her feet, while maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle, will rise to the top of the food chain.

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Finding your way

As a psychiatrist and medical director of child and youth mental health for a culturally diverse city, I come face to face with families from all ethnic groups and social classes, and I’ve seen the results of every parenting style. I’ve also delved deeply into the science of self-motivation and success, exploring how our biology naturally motivates us towards health, happiness and success… if we allow it. From this and my personal experience as the mother of three children, I have seen first-hand the benefits of balanced parenting.

But my goal here isn’t to accuse anyone of being a bad parent. We all have some tiger, dolphin and jellyfish within us. When I am exhausted after a long day at work, I sometimes become a permissive jellyfish and turn a blind eye to bad behaviour. When I am stressed about my kids falling behind their competition, I become a pushy tiger and enrol them in all kinds of activities. And when I am in a state of balance myself, I am more balanced in my parenting like the dolphin.

The good news is that Mother Nature is a parent’s greatest ally. We do not have to work so hard in our parenting – and, in fact, the generations before us certainly didn’t! Of course, we need to provide our children with safety and nurturing, but we must stop trying to speed up their natural pace of development. Nature cannot be rushed. If we over-fertilise a garden, it will die. Likewise, we need to stop overscheduling and over-instructing our children. Only then will we help cultivate our children’s health, happiness and self-motivation.


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Quiz: Are you a tiger, dolphin or jellyfish parent?

1. Your child is not getting to his homework on time. So you:

a. Stand over your child while micromanaging his work.
b. Are clear that homework must be completed and insist that he try it first before giving any instruction.
c. Give up after your child throws a tantrum.

2. When it comes to household rules and expectations:

a. You micromanage so there’s no chance to break a rule.
b. You and your children create some rules together.
c. Even though you would love rules, no one knows what they are.

3. In terms of your child’s career goals:

a. You are clearly directing them towards certain careers.
b. You will guide them towards a secure and meaningful career based on their natural passions.
c. It is not really up to you.

4. When your children identify a problem in the home, you:

a. Dismiss it. You are the parent and you know best.
b. Consider their views but ultimately make the decision that is best for the entire family.
c. Apologise and change as much as you can to minimise their discomfort.

SCORING: Add up the number of times you answered A, B or C. If you answered mostly A’s you align with the tiger style; mostly B’s and you think like a dolphin; and mostly C’s, you align with the ideas of a jellyfish parent.


Dr Shimi Kang is an award-winning, Harvard-trained doctor, researcher and lecturer on human motivation. She is the medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health for the Vancouver community, a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, and the founder of the Provincial Youth Concurrent Disorders Program at BC Children’s Hospital. She is the author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into A Tiger. Learn more at www.drshimikang.com.

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