When I first heard of The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy and Motivated Kids — Without Turning Into a Tiger, a new parenting book by Dr. Shimi K. Kang, I expected it to be just another forgettable parenting advice book. It was clearly capitalizing on the success of the controversial “tiger mom” book and seemed a little gimmicky. But I was happily surprised when I began flipping through its pages: Dr. Kang’s parenting philosophy resonated with me, and she has a lot of research and personal experience to share as a mom, psychiatrist, and motivation expert. Plus, who doesn’t want to be like a dolphin? Dolphins are seriously smart and fun — which seems like a great kind of parent to be. Turns out, plenty of others agree: The book recently became a best-seller in Canada.
A few things stand out about The Dolphin Way: First is Dr. Kang’s focus on the importance of unstructured playtime for children. Additionally, her concept of helping children to develop “CQ” — a blend of four criteria believed to be keys for success in the 21st century — is thought-provoking, and I like her suggestions for helping children become self-motivated. Instead of a straight review of The Dolphin Way, however, I thought it would be more interesting to speak to Dr. Kang, so I asked her a few questions about her book.
Zoe Saint-Paul: Dr. Kang, your personal story is interesting: You mother couldn’t read, your dad drove a taxi cab at night, and you weren’t put into any structured activities as a child. Where did you find the drive and motivation to go to medical school and do all the things you’ve done?
Dr. Shimi Kang: My self-motivation came from the “dolphin” way of life, so the full answer is the book itself! My parents were not pushing tigers or permissive jellyfish — they were balanced and had rules and high expectations, but they also allowed me to pursue my interests and development independence. They focused on the inside of me (character and values) versus the outside of me (activities and resume items). As the fifth child of immigrant parents, I had to adapt because no one was catering to me; I learned to use what I call “CQ” — collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. My self-motivation came from living a life of balance, which allowed my curiosity to flourish. I was also driven by the values of gratitude, contribution to others, and optimism that my parents constantly modeled. This lead me to be driven by a purpose to live life beyond my personal bubble.
The information in your book about the importance of play is enlightening. In a nutshell, how does unstructured play time benefit children?
My answer is adapted from the book:
For people of every age, play is directly linked to the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex — the region of the brain responsible for discriminating relevant from irrelevant information, goal direction, abstract concepts, decision making, monitoring and organizing our thoughts and feelings, delaying gratification, and planning for the future. The prefrontal cortex directs our highest levels of thinking and functioning. It’s the part of our brains that evolved last and also develops last in our personal growth: Its full maturation doesn’t happen until our mid-twenties.
For the young of all animals, the amount of time spent playing is tied to the rate and size of growth of the cerebellum, which contains more neurons than the rest of the brain. In addition to motor control, coordination, and balance, the cerebellum is responsible for key cognitive functions such as attention and language processing. Active play stimulates brain-derived neurotropic factor, which stimulates nerve growth. It also promotes the creation of new neuron connections between areas that were previously disconnected. Our desire to play is so important to our survival that the impulse to play is just as fundamental as our impulse to sleep or eat.
Play is essential to the development of the four CQ skills — creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration — we need for 21st-century success.
If parents want to encourage their children to play more, what steps should they take?
In the past, parents didn’t have to work hard to create a favorable environment for their children to play in; often, all they had to do was open the door. Now children have become accustomed to glittery customized dolls, cars that speak, hyperrealistic video games, and LEGO that comes with detailed instructions. But let me remind you: Children love to play. It can cost nothing, you don’t need a lot of stuff to make it happen, and you don’t need any special instructions. Play doesn’t even require toys; commercial toys may actually get in the way of play. In general, the simpler the toys (which usually means those that are less expensive), the more divergent the play. Household items, old clothes, a stick, and whatever children find outside are ideal for play.
The main steps are to limit screen time, limit scheduled activities, tolerate the initial whines of “boredom” and “nothing to do” because they will not last long – and finally, when possible, open the door and send kids outside!
Could you explain why modern parents should be focused on CQ when it comes to parenting their kids?
To do well in today’s fast-paced, highly social, ultra-competitive, and globally-connected world, our children need 21st-century skills. These four essential skills were determined by the Assessment and Teaching of 21stCentury Skills (ATC21S™), an organization at the University of Melbourne that includes more than 250 researchers from sixty different institutions worldwide. These skills have been incorporated in educational institutions and workplace environments everywhere. I’ve mentioned them above, and here they are with a brief explanation:
- Creativity: Creativity has been identified by today’s business leaders as the most important competency for the future.
- Critical thinking: It isn’t knowing the “right answers” that counts, but rather knowing how to ask the “right questions.”
- Communication: You can have all the raw intelligence in the world, but if you can’t express your thoughts effectively and in different media, it won’t matter.
- Collaboration: Whether it’s in the family, the workplace, or the global community, being able to learn from and inspire others while working in a team is key in today’s work world.
I refer to this set of core skills for 21st-century success as the cognitive quotient, or CQ. As you likely know, IQ (intelligence quotient) represents raw intellectual ability, and EQ (emotional quotient) represents emotional intelligence. For success in the 21st century, our children will need CQ.
My almost six-year-old daughters would play all day if they could — and sometimes they do. How do dolphin parents teach their children responsibility while still encouraging play and self-directed activity?
The message of The Dolphin Way is balance. My kids know that work and play are essential parts of a day,along with sleep, healthy eating, exercise, etc. When you give the message of balance, children will understand; a good way to show them that is to “instruct” them to play right after school because they need balance to their day of work. They they’ll be more likely to accept your instruction for other activities, too.
How does a dolphin parent discipline?
We use natural consequences and positive reinforcement for positive behaviors.
Discipline is the process of teaching your child what type of behavior is acceptable and what type is not acceptable, and it can involve punishment, rewards, or the experience of natural consequences.
The dolphin way of parenting relies on rewarding legitimate good behavior (not empty praise) to encourage acceptable behavior and letting your child experience the natural consequences of unacceptable behavior, while making sure the child understands the connection between the two (a very important step parents sometimes forget). Dolphin parents focus on “catching” important values and good effort versus “catching” bad behavior or poor results.
For example, when my son drew a picture on our kitchen wall for his crying sister, I praised his effort to help his sister when she was distressed, but I made him use soap and water and clean up the markings himself. (I actually kept the picture of the butterfly he drew for her, though.)
The dolphin parent will make sure important rules and consequences are clear and consistently reinforced. Punishment may be used for serious offenses that violate core values, such as intentionally harming someone else. However, even in this situation, the dolphin parent will be collaborative and affectionate. I may say, “I love you, but I cannot let you get away with hitting your sister. What do you think would be a good punishment for breaking the very important rule of no hitting your little sister?”
I found myself wanting to read more examples in your book related to parenting young children. What should a parent focus on the most when it comes to raising toddlers and preschoolers if they’re following the dolphin way?
Before the age of 6, the most important things to focus on are a healthy balanced lifestyle and strong social skills. Develop a sense of balance of sleep, healthy diet, play, and social connection. Have your child experience diverse people and social environments. Provide a safe, nurturing environment, and get to know your child — his or her likes, dislikes, and personality — and let mother nature do the rest!
A big thanks to Dr. Kang for speaking with me about her book.
What do you think: Does the “dolphin way” of parenting resonate with you? As I think about my childhood and the way my mother and father parented, I’d have to say they were very much like dolphins, though I would never have drawn the comparison. I’m looking forward to thinking about how I myself can incorporate some of the ideas in The Dolphin Way into my own parenting. If you read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Images: 1 via Pinterest, 2 & 3 supplied by Katie Schnack, Senior Publicist at Shelton Interactive