Dolphin style parenting leads to happier and smarter children

Tiger mums, helicopter mums and now dolphin parent is a new parenting term touted as the key to raising happier and smarter children.

Dr. Shimi Kang, a Canadian child and adult psychiatrist, author of The Dolphin Way: A Parent's Guide to Raising Healthy Happy and Motivated Kids without Turning into a Tiger, says a dolphin parent acts as a guide, is firm but flexible, and engages in role modelling, collaborating and communicating with their children. It is a balanced approach to parenting when compared to tiger or jellyfish approach.

Dolphin parents allow their kids to learn skills others don't.
Dolphin parents allow their kids to learn skills others don't. Photo: Getty

Dolphin parents trust their own instincts when parenting and as a result allow their kids to learn how to become adaptable, develop a sense of community, become creative and critical thinkers; important traits to help navigate a complex world. As wild dolphins live and play together in their pods, humans are also social by nature and are meant to live in families and a community promoting a sense of happiness and wellbeing explains Kang on her website.

The benefit of play

Dolphins are intelligent mammals and have the ability to invent creative games and exhibit playful behaviours in their pods. A key aspect of dolphin parenting is a parent being playful with their child. Dr. Richard Fletcher, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Health and Medicine, University of Newcastle and author of The Dad Factor has conducted research into the benefits of fathers playing with their children. He calls this type of play – rough-and-tumble.

Fletcher in his book says a father’s play is actually a form of parenting. It is one of the key ways that children learn to understand what others are thinking and how to get on with peers, “There isn’t much understanding presently around fathers playing with their children; it’s seen as mucking around or useless”.

He points out boys tend to seek out rough-and-tumble play more than girls as they’re biologically tuned to do so. However rough-and-tumble play is also beneficial for girl babies, it sends a positive message from the father to the child – dads usually underestimate how much fun and benefits girls can get out of it.

Fletcher observed that some dads didn’t actually know how to play with their children. Either they tried too hard, or pretended to have fun or wouldn’t let their child win which led to the child losing interest because the game simply wasn’t fun. In order to use rough-and-tumble play as a learning tool to boost learning, fathers have to make it fun, ensure sustained interest in the game, make it safe for the child and let him or her win occasionally.

However he cites research in his book which has confirmed fathers who engage in good quality rough-and-tumble play leads to the children experiencing less behavioural problems than those who didn’t. The play leads to a boost in thinking, emotional development and problem solving skills plus health benefits like muscle flexibility and strength.

Role modelling

Dolphin parents discipline their children through role modelling suitable behaviour and providing transparent rules and consequences if the rules are broken. Kang says a parent needs to act as a guide while allowing children to make their own choices and learn from their mistakes. For example, "I cannot allow you to spill juice on the carpet, what do you think is a good punishment for breaking this rule?"

Adopting a firm but flexible approach to discipline is a key aspect of dolphin parenting where expectations and outcomes are very clear.

In her blog, Kang says that dolphin style parenting allows children to develop internal control and motivation. Other benefits include an authoritative parent-child relationship, a balanced lifestyle with unstructured play time (doing away with over scheduling), involvement in community and time to relax and recuperate. This observation comes straight from wild dolphins which do the same things to keep themselves happy and healthy. Kang believes that over parenting interferes with a child’s ability to survive in the 21st century because it discourages self motivation and flexibility.

Strategies to adopt dolphin style parenting (according to Kang):

1. Be firm and flexible by having clear rules and consequences in place while respecting a child’s freedom and independence to choose.

2. Resist from over scheduling children into extra curricular activities. Allow time for free play and relaxation to prevent burn out.

3. Allow children to make mistakes and learn from them instead of being overprotective.

4. Nurture a sense of community and connection to others and encourage children to help others out as often as possible.

5. Play with your children as often as you can; play helps a child develop social, thinking and emotional skills which cannot be obtained in any other way.

Rashida Tayabali is a freelance writer and founder of Project Mum. You can connect with her on Twitter @rashidawriter or @projectmum