Yale law professor Amy Chua set off a firestorm with the release of her 2011 book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The Asian-American academic wrote openly about her severe and strict parenting style that involved no play dates and hours of daily piano practice for her two daughters. Her memoir of that disciplinarian approach struck psychiatrist Shimi Kang, medical director for child and youth mental-health programs for Vancouver Coastal Health, the daughter of Indian immigrants, and mother of three.
“I had a very dramatic reaction to that book because as a psychiatrist, I see the fallout of that kind of parenting style,” Kang says in an interview at a downtown café. “I see depression. I see anxiety. I see it in kids and parents. I see unhappy homes….For months after the book came out, I saw more of it, people thinking this is the way to go, especially in particular ethnic groups.
“It affected me on a professional level, but it also affected me on a personal level,” she adds. “I’m eastern, and I thought it was totally misrepresenting half the world. It was painting a huge group with the same brush. I didn’t grow up with tiger parents at all; they were dolphins.”
With that, Kang hits on the underlying theme of her forthcoming book, The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Successful Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger. The youngest of five, Kang grew up in Calgary and moved to Vancouver for med school. She practises psychiatry at B.C. Women’s Hospital & Health Centre and is also a clinical associate professor at UBC’s faculty of medicine. She says that everyone, not just parents, can learn from the dolphin way of being: they’re considered playful, social, joyful, and altruistic.
“I definitely grew up in a pod,” Kang says. “Our family was big and we did things together. I was never in a single activity; none of my siblings were. We spent a lot of time at home together. The pod was very strong. We always had a sense of community. We had cousins nearby and we grew up in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. We knew all the neighbourhood kids. They were very strong on values, very strong on collaboration and being part of community. Helping the community was a key part—thinking beyond your own personal bubble. They asked, ‘What are you going to do to make the world a better place?’
“My parents definitely never pushed,” she adds. “They didn’t pamper, either. They were immigrants doing three jobs each. It wasn’t easy, but it was happy.”
Kang says that a “dolphin parent” isn’t the opposite of a tiger—that would be the jellyfish. “Jellyfish have no rules, no direction, no expectations, no boundaries—it’s what we call permissive parenting,” she says, noting that the tiger-mother style is authoritarian. Dolphins, meanwhile, tend to be authoritative. “Authoritative parents maintain authority but it isn’t authoritarian. There are rules, but they’re negotiable. There are expectations but they can be discussed, and there’s choice. The dolphin is balanced.”
The result of dolphinlike parenting, according to Kang and other proponents, are kids who are healthy, well-adjusted, content, confident, and accomplished.
On the other hand, research backs up the possible negative outcomes of tiger parenting.
Su Yeong Kim, an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s school of human ecology, headed a study that was published earlier this year in Asian American Journal of Psychology that involved more than 450 Chinese American families over an eight-year period.
The supportive-parenting profile—which was the most common style—was associated with the best developmental outcomes. Compared with the supportive approach, the tiger-parenting profile was associated with lower GPA and educational attainment, as well as less of a sense of family obligation; it was also associated with increased academic pressure, more depressive symptoms, and a greater sense of alienation.
“The current study suggests that, contrary to the common perception, tiger parenting is not the most typical parenting profile in Chinese American families, nor does it lead to optimal adjustment among Chinese American adolescents,” the American Psychological Association’s abstract states.
“What we know about childhood is that it’s a foundation for life,” Kang says. “A happy childhood really sets this groundwork for what is to come. We know as we get older that life has ups and downs, and we draw upon memories and lessons and values from childhood to deal with things. If you’re in a bubble of piano practice and activities without true social bonding—there’s plenty of socialization but not enough social bonding—it’s that much harder. The home, in many cases of tiger family, has become a pit stop between activities.
“The high expectations of perfectionism impact happiness," she adds. "Perfection is associated with lower mood and anxiety. It’s an unrealistic bar, and you’re never good enough.”
Kang, who draws on everything from her background in motivational therapy to her personal experiences as a mother with kids aged eight, six, and three in The Dolphin Way, says her book isn’t a “how to” parenting manual but a guide to adopting a dolphinlike way of life. That starts with a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
“As a psychiatrist and medical doctor, I find I spend a lot of time talking to people about very basic health: why it’s important to sleep; why it’s important to exercise,” she says. “There are things we need to do every day: exercise, sleep, eat healthy, drink water not caffeine. When we look at diabetes and depression and addiction, we can see that as humans we’re killing ourselves because our lifestyle is more out of tune than ever before. Dolphins sleep eight hours a day. The dolphin as a metaphor allows us to think outside the species to remind ourselves what it means to be human.”
Then there’s the fact that dolphins love to play. That’s one factor that’s seriously lacking in the lives of people of all ages, Kang says.
“Whether you’re an adult or a child, we know that if you were to ask people, ‘When does your mood get better?’ they will always give you an answer connected to play,” she says. “Dolphins play every day. We need to learn how to bring play back. We’re hardwired to play.”