Tiger or Dolphin – the politics of parenting

Prime Minister David Cameron makes the front page of The Times in the UK today with a headline that throws down the gauntlet in the battle to conquer disadvantage and inequality, beginning with social mobility – specifically, children’s potential in life, as determined by the start they get. Setting out his ‘bucket list’ of what he wants to change before he leaves office, he emphasised in a speech yesterday the importance of parenting in giving all children the very best start, and he focused in on the desirability of improving parenting, so that every child can benefit from the high expectations that will be their passport to a better future. His answer: tiger parenting; the headline reads: “All children should have ‘tiger mums’ – Cameron”, and he is quoted as saying “It is, in fact, what the tiger mothers’ battle hymn is all about: work, try hard, believe you can succeed, get up and try again”.

In many respects, he is absolutely right. Children thrive on boundaries, and they also rise to high expectations. This is not an easy ask of parents – challenging children to work hard and do their best can be very tough. If at first children don’t succeed – and they often won’t – then it can be hard to coax them to try, try, try again. It requires time, effort, a belief that this kind of tough love has an end goal that is worth more than the discomfort of the moment, and, sometimes, tears and meltdowns. It is extraordinarily painful for a parent to watch his or her child suffering (however temporarily), and it is so, so much easier (in the short term, at least) to alleviate the demands on them, to weaken the structures and boundaries, and to let them relax – apparently more comfortably – into the moment. Part of the wisdom of parenting is to know that this is not always the right thing to do, and this is where the Tiger Mother philosophy comes into its own.

Part of the art of parenting, however, is to know the limits of this philosophy. Tiger parenting has been associated with increased levels of childhood anxiety, depression and stress, as well as developing deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy, and it is easy to see why. If a child is constantly being told that he or she is not good enough, and has to do better, then instead of developing a resilience and robust desire in the child to succeed, this approach be entirely counter-productive, and the child can, quite simply, withdraw and give up. Although most children, much of the time, will benefit from tiger parenting, it is not always the answer.

This is where Shimi Kang’s Dolphin parenting comes into its own. Published in 2014, her book ‘The Dolphin Way’ (an interesting and insightful read) has struck a chord with parents and educationalists who know that there is more to parenting than constant pressure. Tigers are fierce, unrelenting and single-minded; dolphins, meanwhile, are social creatures with a collective mindset and a gentler approach to life, Tiger parenting, Shimi points out, is all about instruction which leads to mastery; dolphin parenting is all about role-modelling, play, exploration. and guidance. It is a useful antidote to the intensity of the tiger approach, but it is no less demanding – it requires parents to learn who their children are, and to understand when they need to be left alone, as well as when they need nudging.

And therein lies the rub – even gentle parenting is still tough on parents. Tiger, Dolphin or mixture of the two … no matter what style or styles parents adopt with their children, there is no let-up: parenting is for life, not just for the first few days or months of a child’s life, and in an increasingly complex world, it is an increasingly complex process. Parents are not born, they are made – through their own experiences as children, through their observation of others, and, if they are lucky, through access to the accumulated wisdom of society, which is (encouragingly) constantly developing fresh insights while rediscovering old ones). The more we can talk about parenting and support, value and empower parents, the more likely it is that parents will learn to parent in the very best interests of each unique child.

In a liberal society, it be rather disconcerting and unsettling to witness politicians entering into the private life of the family with frameworks and targets for what should go on inside the home, but it is not hard to argue for a greater good in this respect: well-parented children make for better rounded, more well-rounded, happier people, and, undoubtedly, better citizens. Perhaps there is something to be said for qualifications in parenting after all …


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