The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In praise of middle-of-the-road parenting

(AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Since the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother debuted in 2011, parents have been living in fear that they’re not doing enough to ensure their children’s success. Meanwhile, those against micromanaging their kids’ every move are increasingly criticized for being too permissive or lax (even criminal) in our era of competitive child rearing.

Well, everyone can relax.

In her recent book The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning into a Tiger, Shimi Kang argues that neither pushing our kids to excel in activities nor being mostly hands-off will result in happy, balanced children who have enough internal motivation and strong character to thrive in the 21st century’s fast-paced, dynamic environments.

Her remedy: to gently nudge our kids along, the way Dolphin moms do, with lots of guidance (rather than threats or too much instruction), communication and firm boundaries, so that kids develop solid social bonds, a sense of purpose and most important, a robust internal sense of self.

Here, the author answers questions about what a balanced life for a child can look like and how we can make change.

Q: Your book contains a lot of common sense advice like making sure kids get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet and have enough time to daydream—or even be bored. How did childhood get so far away these basics?

A: We’re a culture that has lost touch with our own intuition, or what I call our own “humanness.” Part of it comes today’s sense of competition that’s permeating all aspects of life today, then there’s all the marketing and consumerism plus how busy we all are. It’s the perfect storm, and parents are caught up in it.

Q: Everyone these days seems to constantly mention how tired they are or post about the myriad activities in which their kids’ and families are involved. When did it become cool to be so constantly occupied and exhausted?

A: We’re in a state of negative evolution. We’ve made being exhausted a status symbol of ambition and being rested synonymous with laziness. And that’s because of our current definition of success. When we call someone successful, we mean he’s made a lot of money or has achieved recognition, not that he lives a balanced, happy life, or that he’s a passionate, joyful person. The result: as a culture, we’re the sickest we’ve ever been with rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and addiction at all time highs. We need to redefine success to include security, passion connection, purpose, and maybe wealth.

Q: What does an out-of-balance life look like for a school-aged kid? What about a more balanced one?

A: If we talk about a child who’s around 7 or 8—someone who is in school, but not yet worrying about college—a balanced life includes roughly 12 hours of sleep daily, a healthy diet that includes plenty of water (not fruit juice or soda), age-appropriate academic stimulation and time for free, unstructured play. It also encompasses genuine social connections to siblings, parents, friends, neighbors—not just teachers, tutors and instructors.

An out-of-balance child is missing the basics of sleep, a good diet and authentic interaction. They’re often sleep deprived and eat their meals in the car between sports practice and music lessons. They do extra work before school and head straight to extra curricular commitments and tutoring directly after dismissal. At night they’re rushed to fall asleep. Sure, they might be excelling at activities and academics, and might even have significant social status at school, but they’re often lacking meaningful social connections, and they definitely don’t have enough time to play. In fact, they’ve likely even forgotten how to and are anxious when they are bored or have free time.

Q: And what happens to kids who don’t know how to play?

A: They never develop the neural pathways that help them negotiate, figure things out, imagine, adjust and problem solve—all of which are skills that kids are going to need in the future. In the early part of the twentieth century, the winners were the over-gatherers and linear thinkers. But we’re even phasing out of the Information Age at this point and moving into the Conceptual Age, where creative thinking, collaboration and innovative ideas are king. The future is not linear, but expansive. And kids who don’t have down- or playtime aren’t getting a chance to develop these essential skills.

Q: So what can parents do to help?

A: Authoritarian parenting, whether in the form the classic Tiger Mother who forces hours of music practice or extra studying with no breaks or a Helicopter Parent who micromanages and overprotects, takes over a child’s locus of control and inhibits his self motivation. Jellyfish parents who have no boundaries or expectations can leave children with no guidelines or goals. Dolphin parents, however, are authoritative without being authoritarian. They have rules and expectations, but they’re negotiable and adaptable depending on the needs of their children. They strive for balance, which allows kids to thrive.

If we reconnect to our humanness, without question we’ll be healthier, happier, and more self-motivated. Luckily, Mother Nature is our ally in this regard because we’re actually programmed to be this way. We just need to give ourselves—and our kids—permission to get back there.

Audrey D. Brashich is the author of All Made Up: A Girl’s Guide to Seeing Through Celebrity Hype and Celebrating Real Beauty. Find her on Twitter @AudreyBrashich.

 You might also like:

Her son wouldn’t listen, so she did

5 ways to help your child have a good school year

Want your middle-schooler to stay out of trouble? Then let them take risks

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.