In her upcoming book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids–Without Turning into a Tiger (Tarcher/Penguin May 2014), Dr. Shimi Kang explains what motivates us and how we can motivate our kids.
What is the Dolphin Way – and what are some of the ways in which it differs from some of the other parenting methods touted recently?
Many of the prevalent parenting styles today describe parents that “take over.” Whether it is the “Amy Chua-like” Tiger parent pushing piano, the Helicopter parent hovering over homework, the Bubble Wrap parent over-protecting, or the Snow-Plough parent shoving all obstacles out of the way – all of these models create an environment of external control and thereby diminish a child’s sense of internal control and self-motivation. Thus, I call ALL these styles “Tiger parents” because they are all authoritarian in nature. Children of such authoritarian tiger parents are at risk of anxiety, depression, entitlement, poor decision making, and have difficulty establishing healthy independence.
On the other extreme, permissive Jellyfish parents lack rules, discipline, and
expectations. Children of Jellyfish parents fail to develop impulse control and are at risk of poor social skills, risk-taking behaviors, and substance use.
The Dolphin Way is an intuitive approach to parenting that uses role modelling, guiding, and a healthy lifestyle to help children develop internal control and self-motivation. The Dolphin Way has two distinct parts: 1) A balanced authoritative parent-child relationship and 2) a balanced lifestyle, including what many of today’s kids are missing–Play and exploration, a sense of community and contribution, and Downtime. These are things Dolphins do every day that keep them healthy, happy, and motivated!
Are there any specific studies that support your core Dolphin Way principles?
Yes. The classic Harvard-based Grant Study of Adult Development was the first and remains the most comprehensive scientific examination of long-term adult wellness, happiness, and success of its kind. It showed that the ability to adapt creatively and “make lemonade out of lemons” was a key determinant of success. In addition, individuals who displayed altruism and a sense of humor during conflict and stress were more likely to be in the top quarter of the “happy-well” group, and those who scored highest on measurements of “warm relationships” in childhood earned an average of $141,000 a year more at their peak salaries (usually between ages 55 and 60) than those who scored lowest.
Not surprisingly, this same study showed that other important predictors of being “happy-well” were important lifestyle factors such as not smoking, little use of alcohol, regular exercise, and maintenance of normal weight.
You talk a lot about motivation and raising kids who are intrinsically motivated. What exactly motivates us – and how can this knowledge help us raise motivated kids?
Mother Nature is a parent’s best ally, as humans are naturally motivated towards health and happiness through the biologic release of the powerful neurochemical dopamine. The human brain’s positive motivation feedback loop works like this: Do something good for your survival > receive positive reward via dopamine pathways > experience well-being or joy > gain the intrinsic motivation to do something good for your survival again.
This means that the key to well-being and joy is identifying our intrinsic motivators and nurturing them in our children. Even though some are very obvious – i.e. we all feel more motivated when we have had some sleep vs being sleep deprived, I still spend a lot of time prescribing sleep to kids and parents alike. Other intrinsic motivators like play, exploration, social bonding (which is different from socializing), and helping others may be less obvious but they are just as effective in bringing us that sense of well-being. Parents must stop overscheduling, overprotecting, and being over-competitive to allow their children the time and space to develop their own internal motivation.
You discuss Tiger parenting and some of its damaging effects, but do you feel that there are any redeeming qualities to this method?
There is no evidence that authoritarian parenting and an imbalanced lifestyle (from overscheduling) has any benefit. People confuse Tigers with having high expectations – but this is confined to short-term performance only. Life is not a series of competitions confined to a structured Tiger arena like a math test or piano competition.
There’s a section on your book about Taming the Tiger Within. Is this something that you struggled with yourself? What are a few recommendations you would make to parents who are struggling to do just that?
Yes, the 21st century parenting pressures of global competition, unstable job markets, rising GPAs, and “keeping up” can bring out the over-competitive, overprotective tiger in anyone – including me. My recommendations are:
Stop and take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing takes us off the mindless “hamster wheel” and out of fear mode. When our lungs are fully expanded, sensory receptors send a signal to our brain that we are ok and we can now think with our higher cortex.
Second – ask yourself the question, “does whatever I am doing now feel right?” If it doesn’t, that is your intuition speaking to you. Intuition is defined as the “knowledge gifted to us by nature,” and we now know it is a biologic system involving multiple organs including your brain, heart, and gut. The human intuition system has evolved over millions of years to guide us to. Trust it.
In THE DOLPHIN WAY, you argue that the 21st century is the “Age of the Dolphin.” How so?
In the 19th century, “knowing the right answer” measured through grades and standardized tests often determined opportunity. In a 21st century marked by unprecedented access to knowledge through global connectedness, knowing how to ask the right questions, adapt, and collaborate will determine opportunity. Dolphins are very curious, great communicators, highly social, and community-minded. They are adaptable and playful but also strong and fierce when they need to be (the top of the food chain – the killer whale or orca - is actually a dolphin).
What is the one trait or skill that you feel it is essential for parents to cultivate in their kids – and why?
In the Dolphin Way, I coin the term CQ which is an integration of “left brain” raw intelligence (IQ) and “right brain” emotional intelligence (EQ). CQ stands for the 4 key 21st century skills of creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. These skills come from living a balanced life and developing a sense of self-motivation. They give our Dolphin kids the one thing consistently proven for survival and success – the ability to adapt.
Since the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Bringing Up Bebe, there has been a lot of debate about cultural differences in the realm of parenting and achievement – i.e., some cultures just know what it takes to raise successful kids. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, what are your thoughts on this issue? And how have your experiences growing up shaped your approach to parenting your own three children?
There are Tigers, Dolphins, and Jellyfish in all cultures, and this is supported by science and my own clinical and personal experiences. Throughout the history of this country, the children of immigrants from various cultures have made huge leaps. But is this because immigrant parents are all Tigers? No way! Many immigrants don’t have the time or money to sign their kids up for multiple activities or hover over their child’s piano practice. In fact, like my own parents, many immigrants need their children to work part-time, help around the house, look after younger siblings, interpret English, or just figure things out on their own. Practically speaking, immigrant kids are rarely “over-parented” and often grow up in real-life environments with enough time to play, explore, socially connect and problem solve. This is what leads children to develop the ability to adapt and gives them the internal drive that can catapult them to success. When I feel overwhelmed and stressed, I often remind myself that I am an educated, financially secure parent of three and my own mom was an uneducated, poor parent of five. So instead of doing more, perhaps I should be doing less.
What is the most important concept or idea that you hope people take away from reading THE DOLPHIN WAY?
The great thing about Dolphins is that most people can find something they love about them and can incorporate it into their own lives. Some people like to be reminded to be curious, collaborative, or altruistic. Others like the lifestyle reminders of social bonding, play, or sleep (dolphins sleep 8 hours a night by alternating their brain hemispheres). My hope for The Dolphin Way is to remind 21st century parents of what it truly means to be human.
Dr. Shimi Kang is a Harvard-trained physician and one of a few experts in the field of neuroscience, psychology, and day to day reality of human motivation. She's currently the medical director for Child and Youth Mental Health for the city of Vancouver and a Clinical Associate Professor at the Unviersity of British Columbia.