Tiger mums could learn a lesson from sociable, playful 'dolphin parents'
Tiger mums could learn a thing or two from laid-back dolphin parents, happiness researcher Shawn Achor tells Hazel Parry
Do you hover over your children and swoop when they need advice, or do you mow down every obstacle in their path? If the former, you're a helicopter parent, if the latter, a lawnmower parent.
Parenting methods have been given some strange labels in recent years, with the most fearsome being the tiger mother who puts studying ahead of play dates and fun.
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Dolphin parenting is the term coined by US happiness advocate and author Shawn Achor to describe parents who are smart, fun, sociable and believe children learn better through play. He says dolphin parents encourage flexibility and are attuned to feelings, and can transfer these skills to their children.
All this makes for a better recipe for success than tiger parenting, which he claims is based on the broken formula that hard work brings success and that success will make you happier.
"It is important to note that both dolphin parents and tiger parents are interested in success and discipline, but choose a different means to the end," Achor tells the Post.
"Whle a tiger parent might focus on hours of repetition to achieve success, a dolphin parent knows that the brain works optimally when it alternates between periods of performance [90 minutes or less] and recovery [play].
"Not only do dolphin kids [and their parents] enjoy the learning process more, they statistically outperform tigers as well."
Achor says he bases his theories on counselling students at Harvard, and talking to students and parents from as far afield as Silicon Valley, Singapore and Dubai.
"If this [tiger mother] formula worked, then Harvard students would be happier than most other students," he says. "I spent 12 years at Harvard, eight of them counselling students, and 80 per cent of Harvard students report experiencing work debilitating depression."
In his TED talk, "The Happiness Advantage", Achor outlined why the tiger mum method, championed by Amy Chua in her book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, failed in two ways.
"First, every time your child has a success, your brain will change the goalpost of what success looks like," he says.
"Getting an 'A' won't make you happy because now you need to get into a better school. Winning at the local science fair won't make you happy for long, because you need to win now at regional."
Second, Achor says the formula does not work because it does not follow how the human brain works. Intelligence, creativity, productivity, energy and health all improve when the human brain is positive.
By way of a contrast, he says, the dolphin parent follows a scientifically validated formula: creating a positive brain first will dramatically improve long-term success outcomes.
"Happiness is the fuel of success, not merely the result of it. If your success rates rise, happiness remains the same. If you raise happiness by increasing optimism, social connection and changing how you view stress, every single educational and business outcome improves."
Hong Kong mum Angela Le Gonidec says in many respects she and husband Leigh could be considered dolphin parents. But she says it comes out of a desire for her eight-year-old daughter, Ally, to have a real childhood, rather than being a conscious decision.
"For us it is a natural thing. We are both very involved as parents. We do everything with her. We eat dinner with her every night. I go horse riding with Ally and we swim together.
"She plays a bit of rugby and cricket with her dad. We go to the beach, we do a lot of playing games at home together. Ally is quite a happy child," she says.
"Kids need to be kids, and they need to grow up playing and learn from that. We prefer Ally to learn from those kinds of experiences, rather than sitting behind a desk memorising 500 things, and being able to do maths at level 10.
"But Ally is not running wild, and she does have boundaries. I think it is important to introduce them [boundaries] in a way which is easy for a child to accept."
Le Gonidec likes the idea of her daughter learning from her experiences, and believes it's important that children see their parents enjoying life.
According to Achor, being happy yourself is one of the first steps in becoming a dolphin parent. The next steps, Achor plans to expand on in his soon-to-be-released book Dolphin Parenting, which he co-authored with children's book author Amy Blankson.
For some parents, being a dolphin will come naturally, while others will find they have to work at it, says Achor, who will become a father in February.
"Yes, some people are genetically disposed toward happiness. Yes, some people have childhoods which make it easier for them to choose positive change. But that is not the end of the story," he says.
"You will be just your genes and your environment, unless you make conscious positive changes to your mindset and habits. Only 10 per cent of your long-term happiness is predicted by your genes. Happiness is a choice."