Kathleen O’Brien -The Star-Ledger | October 22, 2013

If you’re looking for a parenting role model, you could do worse than to turn your gaze toward Sea World.

In a era crammed to overflowing with advice, “dolphin parenting” is the latest attempt to look to the animal kingdom for easy-to-understand guidance.

In her original CNN essay, “The call of the Dolphin Mother,” early childhood educator Erika Christakis found her parenting inspiration in the ocean instead of the jungle.

In her original CNN essay, “The call of the Dolphin Mother,” early childhood educator Erika Christakis found her parenting inspiration in the ocean instead of the jungle.

Dolphins learn by playing. They’re raised in a pod, with other adult dolphins helping. Dolphin parents communicate with their children — a lot. They allow for more fun. They don’t sacrifice intimacy for achievement.

The piece was originally conceived as a gentle push-back against Amy Chua’s book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.” In it, the Yale law professor described her attempt to pursue an undiluted Chinese style of parenting in a hostile American culture.

Her two daughters were not allowed sleepovers, play dates or any extracurricular activities — such as the school play — that did not focus on individual achievement. Their musical instruments were chosen for them, and the need to strive for excellence was such a priority that Chua once rejected a daughter’s homemade Mother’s Day card because it didn’t reflect sufficient effort. (Spoiler alert: She gets her comeuppance once her daughter hits adolescence.)

And if she had to be a tiger to battle the culture that gives kids “participation medals,” so be it.

Dolphin moms don’t have the inclination — or frankly, the energy — to hold the reins that tightly.

“I think parents are drawn to tigers, not dolphins, because they appear tougher and more single-minded,” Christakis wrote. “But dolphins understand that life is tough, too. We have standards.”

As a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center, Christakis specializes in the preschool age. Yet she also knows a lot about today’s college students by virtue of having been a “house mother” at Harvard College.

“I was seeing what happens when kids got to a very competitive college,” she said recently. “Certain kinds of kids are over-programmed. That starts really young and that can set you up for all sorts of problems. It’s hard to make decisions for yourself when you’ve had a highly scripted childhood.”

She saw teenagers who had been constantly pushed to build their college application resumes, at the expense of even the slightest amount of non-résumé-building activities, also known as “fun.” “The downtime of adolescence does have some value,” she said.

“I think that’s a failure of the adults — not just their parents, but all kinds of adults who are failing them,” she said.

She’d like preschool education to mimic the dolphin pod more, too. Humans learn from play — the research proves it. Yet parents were constantly fretting about whether the preschool curriculum was emphasizing academics enough.

“We think learning is incompatible with curiosity and joy and free time,” she said. “But it’s a false dichotomy.”

For young children, play enhances cognition, social and emotional skills, attention span, self-regulation and vocabulary. It has both a direct and indirect effect on learning. “When you take away play, you’re taking away this evolutionary way for children to develop language,” she said.

All the higher-order mammals learn by playing, she said.

Dolphins also rely on the pod to help, leading Christakis to write in her essay, “There are so many advantages to being a Dolphin Mother that I wonder why more people don’t try it.”

Parents may be casting around for inspiration from other species because the traits associated with some animals resonate with today’s parenting goals, said Amy Blankson, of Good Think, a positive psychology consulting firm. She, along with co-author Shawn Achor, is preparing a workbook on dolphin parenting to be published next year.

Part of that comes from a sense of distrust, she said. “Parents have more resources at their fingertips than ever before, but the range of advice in parenting books can be very confusing and even completely contradictory. I have heard a number of parents admit that they actively avoid parenting books because they find them to be so judgmental.”

The workbook will offer readers a quiz to see which parenting style fits them best. Blankson makes it clear that she thinks dolphins are onto something. “The tiger is known for being smart, but also ferocious, intimidating and intense,” she said. “In contrast, dolphins are highly intelligent creatures that are also fun, social and nurturing.”

Anchor, author of “The Happiness Advantage,” has now started touting the virtues of being a “dolphin dad.”

Such fathers have a lighter approach than their own fathers used, emphasizing playfulness and enjoyment. Success follows happiness, not the reverse, he argues.

For example, students who alternate periods of study with periods of play do better on tests.

“Not only do dolphin kids (and their parents) enjoy used the learning process more, they statistically outperform tigers as well,” Blankson said.

Christakis doesn’t believe in demonizing tiger parents. She enjoyed Chua’s book and admired her honesty in revealing the pitfalls of her approach. The book was designed to be provocative, not instructional.

And besides, both Chua’s daughter and Christakis’ son ended up at the same Ivy League school and are even friendly acquaintances.

“So I think dolphin and tiger babies do just fine,” Christakis said.{end}


  • Happy and positive brains fuel greater levels of success in future.
  • Creativity and choice increase engagement and investment in learning.
  • Social support in the greatest predictor of long-term performance.
  • Coming up for air lets you swim longer.
  • Failure should not be feared.


  •  Success leads to happiness.
  •  Kids don’t know what they need so parents have to choose for them.
  • Being social makes you less focused.
  • Never stop pushing ahead.
  •  Failure is not an option.

Source: Amy Blankson, Good Think Inc.

Read at NJ.Com