"How can I stop being such a tiger parent for academics and such a jellyfish parent for junk food and video games? I need some balance."
This was a question posed to me by a father in Shanghai where I released the Chinese translation of my book, The Dolphin Parent, which promotes balanced authoritative parenting versus permissive jellyfish and authoritarian tiger parenting.
Needless to say, it was a fascinating trip. Not only was it interesting to see, hear and experience the different cultural viewpoints, I was genuinely relieved to learn that much of the Western assumptions often portrayed in the media on Chinese parenting are indeed misguided.
Stereotypes Broken: Raising Children in a Modern World
The Chinese put an enormous amount of energy into raising each child, so much so that it has become a global stereotype. However, according to a 2015 study conducted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, contrary to the widespread perception that Chinese parents are solely concerned with academic achievement, contemporary Chinese parents have been observed to care about much more on a deeper level where it concerns the well-being of their children.
Based on the research, Chinese parents understand that being a better parent for a child in today's world involves much more than academic excellence, but also taking care of their psychological health and socio-emotional well-being.
Moreover, the study shows that Chinese parents today tend to be more authoritative than authoritarian, further challenging people's stereotypes on Chinese parenting. And while authoritative and authoritarian parenting may sound similar and share the notion of establishing a sense of authority, the distinction lies in that authoritarian parenting ignores a child's needs while demanding their obedience, whereas authoritative considers their needs and allows for discussion.
With authoritative parenting, the doors of communications are open on either side, giving kids the space to make mistakes and express themselves in a respectful manner.
The reality is, tiger parenting can be found all over the world, amongst all cultures; but wherever tiger parenting is observed, so is the evolution away from it. For example, when comparing Turkish parents in 2003 to those studied in 1975, it was found that newer generation parents were more likely to value self-reliance and strong emotion-based parent-child relationships than the latter who valued an authoritarian parenting style.
This change is a direct result of the increase in desire to further the urbanization and socio-economic development of their country.
As circumstances change, socio-cultural evolution is bound to occur, often changing along with it certain family values, dynamics and overall attitude in raising children.
China Adapts to Global Parenting Trends
Let's face it. Parenting ideologies and practices are constantly changing in response to our evolving society. The same goes for newer generation Chinese parents, many of whom are quickly adapting to and aligning their parenting styles with the global trend of prioritizing proper socialization, psychological health, independent thinking and overall well-being of their children, as well as seeing the benefits of play and downtime.
While on Shanghai TV with a top Chinese scholar, I was reminded that despite being stereotyped as authoritarian parents, many Chinese cultural values today are fundamentally much closer to dolphin parenting than one might think, and actually aid the development of some of the most important life skills to have: self-motivation and adaptability.
In fact, in former president Jiang Zemin's 16th Congress Party Report, the Chinese spirit is aptly summed up as, "centering on ... unity and solidarity, love of peace, industry, courage and ceaseless self-improvement."
That's not to say academic achievement is thrown out the window, of course. Based on a study spanning four years, published in the Asian American Journal of Psychology, there is a clear increase in "parental warmth and autonomy support" in the Asian culture and decrease in authoritarian power assertion, despite retaining their values in high academic achievement.
As one contemporary Chinese mother puts it, "It's just like I am setting a higher goal for him to excel beyond just academics towards a fuller, freer, more joyful life."
Tigers vs. Jellyfish: Finding a Happy Medium the Dolphin Way
While it is important to move away from the harsh controlling nature of tiger parents, we do not want to stray too far down the spectrum and become indulgent, pushover jellyfish parents either, a mistake I see far too often amongst new-age parents who are trying to move away from the authoritarian style of parenting, and one that was repeatedly cited as a major issue by the young Chinese parents during my visit.
One father I met in particular told me the reason he gave into his son's every whim and bought him all the toys he wanted was because he was never given those privileges as a child, and therefore thought that was what represented love. As I'm sure you can guess, it was a recipe for disaster.
Parenting, like life, is about balance. Between independence and rules, work and play. With the authoritative dolphin style of parenting, greater self-confidence, critical thinking, good behaviour and academic performance are all achieved by encouraging collaborative communication that is both firm and flexible, creating genuine social bonds with others, valuing play and learning from trial and error. These all lead to better adaptability, emotional health and self-motivation.
The great irony is that research has found that in comparison to their native Asian counterparts, Asian-American parents have adopted a more authoritarian way of raising their children. So, while China itself is now progressing to a more balanced and authoritative dolphin parenting style, many in the West are not.
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