As the mother of an ever-increasingly stubborn 2 year old, I am constantly rethinking the most effective parenting style. My head hurts just from thinking of the dozens of parenting philosophies out there, some of which are named after aircrafts and others inspired by species in the animal kingdom. One such parenting inspiration is the dolphin, one of Earth’s most intelligent creatures. Dolphins have brains almost the size of an average human’s, except unlike humans, their brains never fully sleep. When it comes to this thing called “parenting,” dolphins have pretty much nailed it.
Dr. Shimi Kang, psychiatrist and author of the book The Dolphin Way: A Parents Guide to Raising Happy, Healthy and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger, describes the dolphin way as balance between the infamously strict tiger parent and the starkly looser jellyfish parent. The dolphin parent takes the best of both worlds and encourages creativity and independence while still valuing rules. I thought to myself, this could be it; the dolphin way might just be the best parenting method for my crazy toddler and me. Of course, there was only one way to find out.
My usual go-to method of hovering around like a helicopter and thinking of ways to load our days with enriching activities is exhausting, especially when my daughter’s favorite word is “NO!” Through parenting like a dolphin, I hoped to find some type of balance that would still lead to a happy, healthy kid without losing my mind over-scheduling and over-disciplining. Dr. Kang simplified the dolphin parenting method through the acronym POD (which is a group of dolphins): “P = Play and exploration; O = Others, including a sense of community and contribution; and D = Downtime, including the basics of regular sleep, exercise and rest.” So I posted the acronym, “POD,” on my kitchen cabinet to remind myself everyday for one week to live by each value drawn out in the acronym, find my inner dolphin, and let her call the parenting shots.
We dove into Day 1 of dolphin parenting like any other day. My daughter (let’s call her “J”) and I spent the morning doing our usual playful activities: coloring, building towers, and having impromptu dance parties. I even let her take more initiative on what she could play with; for example, she started rummaging through my drawers and trying on my clothes, which, when I’m in a hurry to get out of the house to run errands, is a pain in the *ss. But as a dolphin parent, I recognized J’s desire to explore, so I let her run around with my t-shirt on for as long as she wanted. I could tell she was getting a kick out of it, and it was actually pretty funny once I stopped stressing out about getting her dressed.
Later in the evening, J started getting aggravated that I was splitting my attention between playing with her and trying to get chores done. (Seriously, how does that pile of dishes just keep growing?) Just as J was at the cusp of a meltdown, there was a knock at the door. J’s grandma, who happens to live in the house next door, popped in for a visit. She suggested she take J to go pick vegetables in her garden, and J dropped her toys and hastily grabbed her shoes. Feeling the tension of motherhood lighten as J walked out the door, I realized the importance of having a pod (like dolphins do) around to share child-rearing duties. When they came back, we spent the rest of the evening eating dinner together, playing blocks, and cuddling bedtime. It was a total family effort, one that included her grandma, her great uncle, and my partner.
At the end of Day 1, it turned out that dolphin parenting required very little change to our everyday lives. It came so naturally; perhaps I was already being a dolphin parent without knowing it!
With what felt like a successful first day of dolphin parenting, I decided to give J the opportunity to play with others in a community environment, which is another huge value according to the dolphin way. We took a trip to the local library for toddler story time and saw a number of neighborhood kids, some of whom we already knew by name from the local park or from past trips to the library. As an only child and territorial toddler, playing with others isn’t J’s strongest suit, so exposing her to kids in the community was a great way to ease her into being more socially aware. I gave her the time and space to explore freely, reminding myself not to hover so much. She spent the next half hour climbing on shelves, rummaging through books, and trying (albeit reluctantly) to share toys with other kids.
Teaching a toddler how to share is like trying to bathe a cat; it often involves screeching and scratching in the process. I had to remind her a few times to “be nice,” and “wait for your turn” without dictating her every move. As each second passed, she peeped out of her only-child shell bit by bit and grew comfortable playing with others. So far, I really loved everything about this POD acronym, especially valuing time with others and the community.
In keeping with the true dolphin way of not overwhelming kids with scheduled activities, I asked J if she wanted to go to her only scheduled activity (Kid’s Gym) versus forcing her into the car and driving there without giving her an option, which is what I typically do (these classes are not cheap, for the record). Of course J jumped at the opportunity because she gets to tumble around freely and hop across high beams without me yelling at her to get down. As soon as we entered gym class, she ran over to her coaches to commence a game of hide-and-seek.
While J jumped on trampolines and popped bubbles, I chatted with the coaches and caregivers about sports and playgrounds. I exchanged numbers with a nanny to schedule a playdate and talked with a babysitter about ridiculous extra-curricular toddler activities. In the midst of our playing and chatter, I realized that gym time was just another opportunity to connect with others. Instead of feeling like a weekly obligation, it felt like a fun space to promote imaginative play and foster a sense of community. Less than halfway through a week of dolphin parenting, and it has so far been unbelievably fluid.
With nothing planned and warm summer-like weather beckoning us outdoors, J and I took a trip to the park and let our moods decide where to take us from there. I had no real goal other than to let her play like a dolphin until she decided she was over it. We spent the first half hour by ourselves in the sand pit, digging up holes with her sand toys and filling them up with water. When another group of women arrived with their babies in tow, and the sound of other children giggling and romping around filled the air, J immediately looked around to see what everyone else was up to. Then she turned to me and said the most unexpected thing I’ve heard from her to date: “Mommy, can I share?”
I wasn’t sure if my ears were working, so I responded, “Pardon me, honey; what did you say?” J repeated herself with certainty, “Can I share?” Apparently allowing J to play freely among others the past couple of days instilled a generous desire, even if it seemed fleeting, to willingly play with them. J spent the next hour approaching other 2 year olds and kindly asking, “Can I borrow” or, “Can I share?” and handing them plastic shovels and dump trucks in exchange for their toys. She peacefully played in the sand pit among little strangers with no conflict or tears. The mommy dolphin in me was so thrilled at how quickly she was catching on to the joy of playing with others, and I could see her social skills blossoming before my eyes.
It was J’s dad’s birthday, which gave J the opportunity to practice how to “contribute” by celebrating the birth of another person. I had big plans for us to bake a cake, make a birthday card, and go to a baseball game. I kept explaining to J that we were doing these things because, “It’s daddy’s birthday, and we love daddy!” I knew that it’d be hard to drive the point home to a 2 year old that it’s important to make daddy feel special on his birthday, and that contributing and helping mommy bake a cake and make a card is a nice thing to do. Yet, aside from begging for cake from the minute she found out there was a birthday, she was incredibly helpful, stirring cake batter and decorating cards without a fuss. She even found these activities to be a lot of fun, mostly because they involve sugar and glitter.
When J’s dad came home from work, she was ecstatic to hand him the birthday card she made for him, pointing out all the details from balloons she painted to the sequins she glued. Her dad loved the card and thanked her for it, and they shared a joyful hug that rivaled all birthday gifts. I know the idea of “contribution” may be a difficult concept to grasp, but I hope that teaching J this early how to help and care for others, like her dad during his birthday, will just improve her ability to appreciate others as she gets older.
We had a couple of close friends come to visit on day six, and I knew that although J would be thrilled to see them, she might be caught off guard by a surprise visit. One of our friends arrived early that morning before J even woke up, and I expected her to freeze up and hide behind me for the first 15 minutes like she normally does when we have visitors. To my surprise, as soon as she saw her uncle (she calls our friends “uncles” and “aunties”) sitting in the living room, she darted in his direction and started shoving toys in his lap, squeaking demands to, “play this” and “play that.” He complied cheerfully, excited that, for once, J didn’t hide away in shyness like she has during previous visits.
As I watched her play freely, I couldn’t help but think that getting out and interacting with other kids and folks in the community throughout the week helped her become more confident in new situations, even in the short period of time. When our other friend arrived, J continued to be a little social butterfly and ran outside to play who-knows-what with her. I could see the delight in her eyes as she molded animals out of Play-Doh with someone other than us. Plus, I was easily able to step back and let our friends watch her while I stole a minute for myself. At this point of dolphin parenting, I’ve already determined that the focus on “play” and “others,” and the overall idea of a pod, was a crucial component to both happy parents and kids.
I woke up on day seven with every intention of getting my toddler and I out the door to run errands and do some chores. Yet the exhaustion that comes with birthdays, company, and endless playtime finally caught up to both of us. I could barely get myself to put pants on, and J was peacefully playing by herself without demanding my undivided attention — a rare opportunity to stay at home with zero expectations of accomplishing anything but relaxing.
We spent the day putting puzzles together and leisurely lying down on the lawn. When I put J down for a nap, I miraculously crashed out on the couch and drifted off for an unknown amount of time. I can’t for the life of me recall the last time I took a nap, and not an ounce of me felt like I wasted time. My partner dropped our daughter off at grandma’s later that afternoon and I was able to whip up dinner. At the end of the day, I felt refreshed and, surprisingly, not guilty about doing almost nothing. For the first six days, I managed to give J healthy doses of “play” and “others,” but I didn’t really focus on some prolonged “downtime,” which is an equally important component of dolphin parenting. Our day of downtime came instinctively after a week frequent interactions with others. I understood that dolphin parenting not only meant raising healthy, happy kids; dolphin parenting focused just as much on keeping parents from overworking themselves.
The Dolphin Is Officially My Parenting Guru
Trying to parent like a dolphin turned out to be a seamless transition that felt almost too good to be true. It didn’t actually change our day-to-day activities, but it did transform my perspective of what successful parenting should look like. Allowing J to safely explore and play without worrying if I was doing enough to enrich her was freeing. Instead of viewing playtime as nonsense, I let it be the vehicle through which we learned, and I could see J’s social and emotional skills flourish in just a short amount of time. Additionally, having a pod around and intentionally engaging with community members, family, and friends not only brought joy to J’s life, but also relieved me of feeling like I had to hover over her every move. In order to hover around less, having a community around to support us was essential.
This experiment came at an opportune time, when visiting friends and family were readily available to be our pod; this isn’t always the case since we live quite far from many of our close family and friends. Keeping the dolphin way may require us to move closer to family, or engage more personally with the community that we presently live. Plus, I don’t think dolphin parenting will always be this easy. I imagine dolphin parenting to be more difficult as J gets older. Letting a 2 year old romp around to her heart’s content isn’t hard, it’s what kids this young are expected to do. But when J is a school-aged child and begins to take an interest in extracurricular activities, I’ll have to be wiser about giving her a balance that enriches her, yet allows her the freedom to play and have downtime as much as she needs.
Of all the animals in the kingdom, I think dolphins trump tigers and jellyfish in the parenting department. I feel that the dolphin way provides families with a healthy balance, not only to allow kids to be kids, but also to keep parents in check and avoid over-parenting. I’ll keep my handy-dandy “POD” acronym posted in the kitchen to remind myself to relax; don’t be so hard on my kid, and definitely not so hard on myself. Mostly do as the dolphins do, and go with the flow.