New 'Dolphin Dad' Parenting Strategy Is Better Than The 'Tiger Mom'
If there's one topic that can fuel the range and fire of human emotion, it's parenting.
There's zealotry in the quest to correct and preserve teachings of past generations, profess the rectitude of a chosen parenting style and defend against the readily exchanged judgment about how to win or lose at this paramount task.
If you already felt parental performance anxiety, Amy Chua, aka Tiger Mom, probably didn't help matters. In her 2011 book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Chua championed a take-no-prisoners approach of Chinese parenting, a term she frames not as an ethnic moniker but a traditional style, which can be summarized by the old Lexus slogan: "the relentless pursuit of perfection." No play dates, no grades below an A, no sleepovers, no TV and voilá, her kids became successful, Chua preached.
[Read: Sleepaway Camp: A Remedy for Overparenting?]
They may also be depressed. Two recent studies have debunked Chua's claims: In the first example, researchers found that, when compared to a supportive style, tiger parenting begets children who suffer academically and emotionally; a second study found that children raised by authoritarian parents struggle with depression, anxiety and social skills.
Instead of tiger parenting, consider dolphin parenting, says Shawn Achor, a happiness researcher who teaches at Wharton Business School. Why dolphins? They're playful, social and intelligent, and thereby represent the attributes of successful parenting, he says.
[Read: How to Be a Better Example for Your Kids.]
Success follows happiness, Achor argues in his book, "The Happiness Advantage," and in his widely-viewed (and laugh-out-loud funny) TED talk,"The Happy Secret to Better Work." But to attain happiness, you first need the right perspective, he writes in his new book, "Before Happiness," slated for release next month.
Over and over again, Achor illustrates how perception of reality dictates what follows. So, the best outcome hinges on the ability to see multiple, realistic opportunities and navigate among them, whether it comes to your career trajectory or your child's SAT score.
[Read: Hidden Risks of Chronic Stress.]
In the latter, for example, Achor cites research showing that SAT scores rise and fall according to the number of test takers in the room. Why? "When we perceive there are fewer competitors, we believe there is greater likelihood of success, which results in more engagement and concentration and improved performance," he says. The same rationale explains why a stadium with better "park factors," such as propitious wind flow or altitude levels, could enable a baseball player to hit so many more home runs than expected. In this example, the baseball player moved to a team whose stadium boasted 28.6 percent better park factors, and yet the player far surpassed the logical advantage, batting 60 percent more home runs.
"What we focus on becomes our reality," Achor writes. But to get our perspective right, we must prime ourselves, and our children, for the right angle. One tool is to remind ourselves of past accomplishments to nurture future achievements. So, for example, you might display a picture of your child clutching her debate trophy before she heads off to a big tournament.
A ratio of five positive interactions to every negative one is optimal to achieve a state of emotional health in which success can flourish, Achor says. Consider modeling optimism to your kids by expressing gratitude for daily happenings at the dinner table, he suggests. And don't forget to smile – it causes a mirror reaction in others.
[Read: 7 Steps to Successful Family Meals.]
Happiness depends not on deluding ourselves about negativity, but putting it in perspective to surmount the obstacles, Achor says. It's what he calls "rational optimism" – or what you may recognize as encouragement.
When it comes to parenting, that means making your child's goals seem more within reach and the negative habit harder to persist. Want your kid to watch less TV and exercise more? Hide the remote, so it takes more effort to switch channels, and put her in sneakers so she's ready to get moving. Or, take a cue from research, which found that as rats approached cheese, they ran more quickly through a maze to reach it. So, break up your child's goals into smaller objectives so they seem easier to obtain.
And if nothing else, have fun. As a counselor to college freshmen at Harvard University for several years, Achor recalls the mentality that made so many students miserable – that happiness would follow success. Instead, enjoy the process to bring about success. Rather than wait to reward your child for finishing his homework, let him wear his favorite pajamas while he studies, or kick off the study session with a funny story.
All this positive energy isn't easy, Achor admits. The human brain "naturally scans for threats," he says. So, even when we're not facing a sabre-toothed tiger, we may still act like it. But we don't have to. "While it takes more cognitive processing to be happier, the more that you do these positive habits, the more that you switch your default." And, according to Achor, happiness is "the belief that you can change."
It's commonly said that it takes more muscles to smile than to frown. Of course, smiling gives you – and others – an instant lift. So, if you find yourself scowling at your child, try fighting gravity, and perhaps your nature, and curl your lips upward. Here's betting your kid will smile right back.