Book Review: The Dolphin Way by Dr. Shimi Kang

When @PenguinCanada offered up a free advance review copy of The Dolphin Way, I accepted. I was pretty sure Dr. Kang would make at least a couple of suggestions that would help me survive – and maybe even thrive – as my boys move through their teenage years and into young adulthood.

What I didn’t expect was that she’d prompt me to think really hard about the way I’ve been parenting for the past 18 years and face up to the hard truth that some of my time-worn parenting techniques are actually undermining my aim to raise kids who will be happy adults working at something that matters to them and the world. I have – at least in one respect – fallen into a Tiger trap!

Before I delve into what I learned about myself and what I’m doing to improve the situation, let me share what I consider to be the overall point of Dr. Kang’s book: as parents, we do our very best to raise children are happy and successful. But in the context of the very competitive world of the 21st century, that isn’t easy. Dr. Kang demonstrates that what is sometimes too easy is going with the flow – of what other parents are doing or what our children want us to do.

For some of us, the desire to see our children succeed leads us to take control. We schedule extra classes, constantly push our children to do better, direct their social activities and friendships, hover, over-protect and/or micromanage our children, all with the best of intentions. This approach, popularized in Amy Chua’s 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, can have devastating consequences: anxiety, high stress, addiction and even suicide.

Others parents cede control to their children. These Jellyfish parents are permissive, have few expectations, tend to turn a “blind eye” and are not viewed as an authority (in the positive sense of the word) in their children’s lives. The Jellyfish approach can have consequences very similar to those of Tiger parenting.

Dr. Kang proposes a third approach to parenting – the Dolphin way. Dolphin parents guide their children, are firm but flexible and teach their children through role-modelling, collaborating and communicating.

Using stories from her childhood and her own parenting challenges, sharing experiences from her work as the director for Child and Youth Mental Health community programs in Vancouver and drawing on the latest behavioural and neuroscience research, Dr. Kang makes a convincing case that children of Tiger and Jellyfish parents are generally less happy, less capable and less successful when compared to children of Dolphin parents. And children of Dolphin parents have better self-esteem, better social skills, improved quality of life, less depression and less anxiety.

Parts I and II of this book describe the three approaches to parenting and the implications for our children. In Part III, Dr. Kang writes a series of “prescriptions” to help parents and children start to bring more balance into their lives. These include some very basic things: drink lots of water, eat well, get enough sleep, schedule in some free time, be more physically active. Beyond the basics, Dr. Kang prescribes playtime (especially outdoor playtime) and enjoying time with friends and family.

She also describes quite a few Dolphin parenting tools and techniques. I’ve flagged this section, as I’m sure I’ll have to refer to it several times as I struggle against my snowplow Tiger parenting habit. Yes, reading this book made me realize I tend to anticipate problems and clear them out of the way before my kids even get a sense that might be a problem. And who’s going to do that when they go off to university? Not me. So I’d better let them practice solving life’s little problems while they’re still teens living at home and I can give advice and help if they ask for it. I’ve already opted out of nagging my younger son about his science project, asking whether he has all the supplies he needs, whether he needs any more reference books, etc. I’ve made it clear that I’ll help if he asks, but otherwise he knows the project deadline and it’s a project he’s really wants to finish, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he does. Worst case, he’ll have a partially finished project to share with his class and will lose a some marks for either a late or incomplete project.

In Part IV, Dr. Kang addresses one of the biggest parenting challenges: how to raise children who are self-motivated. After all, we all want children who are financially independent, move out of our house (preferably before the age of 30) and who find balance and happiness while making a contribution. And how can they do all of that without self-motivation?

SUMMARY: This book conveys a lot of information and prompts considerable self-reflection. But between the personal anecdotes, work experiences and research findings, I found parts of the book going back over ground covered in earlier chapters, albeit from a slightly different angle. And I have a strong difference of opinion about the role of Lego in free play! But overall, I found it a very worthwhile read. In addition to the prescriptions, there are lots of great quotations, helpful acronyms and checklists in this book. And beyond prompting parents to assess whether they’re happy with the way they’re parenting (and if not, to make some changes), it also provides a bit of a road map to help each of us find a little more balance in lives.

I RATE THIS BOOK: 4.5 stars

I use pretty much the same rating system as Goodreads where 1 star = did not like it, 2 stars = it was OK, 3 stars = liked it, 4 stars = really liked it, and 5 stars = it was amazing. Unlike Goodreads, I allow half stars.

Please note: I received an advance copy of this book for free. But I invested several hours of my time in reading and reflecting on the book and the opinions expressed in this review are solely mine.

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