Ever since the phrase “tiger parent” entered our vernacular, many parenting styles have taken on animal names. That doesn’t mean every chosen mascot leads to an immediate understanding of how those who abide by it operate. Take dolphin parenting, for instance. What does it mean? Are these parents, like dolphins, very smart but also cackling jerks who like to play pranks? Dolphin calves do swim after their moms and dads, following the slip steam they’ve left in their wake. So, does that mean dolphin parents are akin to snowplow parents, clearing obstacles for their young?
Definitely not. Dolphins are intelligent creatures known for their playfulness and high sociability. So, an offshoot of authoritative parenting, dolphin parenting is a parenting style that’s rooted in balance and driven by a desire to help kids grow to have healthy independence and emotional intelligence. Although the branding might need to be better, the dolphin parenting philosophy is one that makes a whole lot of sense.
Dolphin parenting was introduced psychiatrist Shimi Kang, M.D., in her book The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids –Without Turning into a Tiger. She created it as a direct response to tiger parenting, providing a roadmap for raising motivated kids that lacks the hyper intensity of the approach. In the book, she describes dolphin parents as those who “maintain balance in their children’s lives to gently yet authoritatively guide them toward lasting health, happiness, and success.”
“Authoritatively” is the crucial word in Kang’s descriptor, as authoritative parenting is widely considered the most effective parenting style. Dolphin and elephant parenting are pop-culture subtypes of authoritative parenting, which aims to balance structure with responsiveness to a child’s needs.
Placing too much emphasis on a child’s needs without giving them structure is the hallmark of permissive parenting, which tends to produce kids who are entitled and lack resilience. Placing too much emphasis on structure while not properly considering a child’s needs veers into authoritarian territory. Authoritative parenting is the healthy space between the two.
The parenting north star is to maintain appropriate boundaries and limits while maintaining a care and sensitivity toward kids.
What sets dolphin parenting apart from other authoritative subtypes is that it emphasizes discovery and exploration, whereas others focus more on protecting kids’ feelings of safety. Of course, dolphin parents want their kids to feel safe. They just tend to prioritize it slightly less than elephant parents, for example.
“The parenting Northstar is to maintain appropriate boundaries and limits while maintaining a care and sensitivity toward kids,” says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist, host of the Raising Good Humans podcast, and author of the upcoming book The Five Principles of Parenting: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans. “These values will be consistent throughout time, but you would want to change how they’re applied because kids grow and need to become more independent as they get older.”
Here are four dolphin parent practices that can help you nail that authoritative parenting ideal.
Dolphin Parenting Practice #1: Narrate Your Emotions
Dolphins are a chatty bunch. They can combine a wide array of clicks, whistles, and squeaks, and scientists think they can even communicate emotion through sound.
Taking a cue from the aquatic mammals and vocalizing emotions benefits both parents and kids. Researchers recently found that as parents’ levels of emotional intelligence increased, so does their preference for the authoritative parenting style.
“Thus, parents who manage to better perceive their emotions, understand them, express them and later regulate them, tend to find a balance between authority and gentleness, flexibility shown towards the child,” the study authors wrote.
Narrating emotions aloud has the added benefit of modeling emotional intelligence for kids. And talking them through what they feel helps them gradually learn to name and process their emotions independently. It’s a practice that Pressman suggests parents start when their kids are very young. “When your baby’s crying, you might say ‘you’re crying because you’re sad right now, and you wish your brother would give you that toy,’” she says.
As kids get older, there’s also a benefit in explaining to kids how you manage and process negative emotions yourself. Did you have a day when the office was too intense, so you’re being a bit short with everyone? Calmly explain that to your preteen, and then tell them you’ll take 15 minutes to do some yoga to get yourself in a better place.
“That’s called naming your affective state, and it can really help grow more emotionally intelligent kids,” Pressman says. “Then they don’t have to guess how you’re feeling, and they increase their emotional fluency as well.”
Dolphin Parenting Practice #2: Let Your Child Make Mistakes
Moms and dads who adopt emotionally attuned parenting styles like dolphin parenting can tend to slip into over-protective tendencies. However, allowing kids to make mistakes, learn from those experiences, and develop an ability to persevere through appropriate levels of discomfort can help them learn and practice healthy coping skills.
“I think good questions to ask yourself are, am I letting my child do what they can already do for themselves? And if not, why? Is it because it’s actually unsafe or truly overwhelming for my child, or is it because I’m not yet comfortable?” Pressman suggests.
Dolphin parents empathize with their kid and offer comfort when a misunderstanding with a friend causes tension. They encourage their kids when they strike out and lose the Little League game for their team. When their child gets a disappointing grade on a test, they’ll encourage their kid to visit their teacher to ask about it and even help them script the conversation before swooping in to address the issue directly.
It’s all about being fully present when kids face typical struggles and taking a collaborative approach to problem-solving. And when their child needs to learn something just outside their current ability range, dolphin parents will practice scaffolding — a process where an adult helps a child manage a task that they couldn’t otherwise manage on their own by slowly removing supports — to facilitate the learning process.
“Show kids how to do things when they need to learn, and then you can sit next to them and support them and scaffold down when they’re almost ready to do it on their own,” says Pressman. “That’s true of tasks and emotions.”
So when kids have big feelings about a difficult situation, don’t try to fix their feelings or make the uncomfortable feelings disappear. Validate their feelings and sit with them while they feel them, and what they’ll likely take from the situation is the assurance that although life can be challenging, their parent will always be there to support them.
Dolphin Parenting Practice #3: Model Downtime
Dolphins love to play, and not just at aquariums when they dance vertically in the water or splash the crowd in exchange for treats. Even in the wild, dolphins toss objects into the air, bat them around, and try to catch them — essentially playing catch with themselves.
So here’s a great parenting assignment: Chill.
“If you’re not relaxing and having at least some downtime in front of your kids, you’re telling them productivity is of the utmost importance,” Pressman says. “If that’s not the message you want to give your kids, you have to show them that you can be a couch potato on occasion, or at least have a weekend that’s not completely filled with activities.”
Denise Pope, Ph.D., a senior lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, has developed a three-part framework to help restore some balance to kids’ performance-driven lives. It consists of playtime, downtime, and family time, which her research has shown are all closely associated with building “crucial life skills that kids need to become happy and healthy adults.”
Although it’s a simple enough model, it may still be a lot to grasp and implement all at once for parents who have been living life at a breakneck pace. But remember that parenting is about growth and not perfection, so starting with an hour or so of purposefully unproductive time is a great start to modeling presence over productivity for your kids.
Dolphin Parenting Practice #4: Know And Commit To Your Values
Parents with lofty achievement goals for their kids may, at their core, be more tiger parents than dolphin parents. And parents who genuinely don’t care if their kids excel in extracurricular activities or graduate at the top of their class so long as they grow up with higher-than-typical emotional intelligence may operate better as elephant parents.
At the end of the day, dolphin parenting may not align with your goals and core values. And if that’s true, trying to adopt habits that don’t work toward your family’s goals can cause frustration for you and your kids.
“We all have different values and definitions of success,” Pressman says. “I might define success as someone who’s emotionally agile and can recover quickly when they have setbacks. For someone else, success might be doing what they can to make sure their kid gets into the best college possible. I don’t necessarily think one is more right than the other, but your child does need to know that you love them for exactly who they are, regardless of the outcome of who they become.”
At the end of the day, there’s a spectrum of ways to parent along the authoritative continuum, and being clear about your goals and values will help make family life work as smoothly as can reasonably be expected.