Phil Robinson | September 21, 2013

The summer holidays dragged like a ball and chain and I resorted to preemptive yelling, mostly “No!”, at any request of my sons Caspar, 6, Conrad, 8, and Oscar, 11. By early
September, I was keeping a criminal record for each child in my head. I exploded at the smallest infraction. I had rules for just about everything.

Parenting had become more about the children letting me down than me teaching them how to explore the world safely. Though most of the time I am a good, present father, I have slightly lost my way. Would a whole new attitude to parenting help? The Harvard psychologist Shawn Achor believes the way forward is to mimic the behaviour of
dolphins and raise children by adopting a “playful, intelligent, social” approach to communication and discipline.

There are a few basics that effect almost immediate change: ensure that you have five positive interactions with your kids for every negative one. Try to be optimistic: think positive, be positive. And draw their attention to the smaller everyday blessings as much as possible.

My habit is to give the boys as much freedom as possible, but for this method to work, I need to stop lingering on the sidelines like a disinterested referee. They decide to construct an elaborate game in the garden involving an armed prison guard (Oscar), some kind of shop
steward (Conrad) and a recidivist jail breaker (Caspar). The game is borderline safe.

Ordinarily, I’d let them play by themselves and ignore them until someone started crying. Instead, I dip in and out of view, offering the occasional suggestion to make the game more fun and avoid violence and anarchy. This approach feels more collaborative.

Already I can feel my role evolving into more of a tour guide than a tyrannical captain. I let them play until it’s so dark that they come inside to ask for torches. When I suggest it’s time to finish, they’re surprisingly happy to end the game. Because I’ve been involved from the
start, my suggestion is accepted rather than viewed as an unwanted edict.

One key method of Dolphin parenting is to resolve problems using a playful approach. The idea is to make it easy to be good and more of an effort to develop bad habits. In the past, I’ve encouraged them to do their school work with threats of working at McDonald’s.
This time I hide the TV remote and put apple juice and biscuits on the dining table beside their maths books.

Conrad sits down to munch a biscuit and quickly gets on with some long division. Unprompted, the others bring their books over to join him. Caspar wants to
know what 19 minus 7 is. I’m almost too shocked to answer him. I thank them all for working hard.

Because I have spent the time thinking about helping them, rather than trying to control them, I feel more empathy and appreciate the effort they’ve made — in the past I’d have dismissed it, Tiger parentstyle, as never quite enough. Everyone goes to bed happy. For the first time I feel like a proper Dolphin.

One thing I have realised is that I am already a Dolphin Dad with other people’s kids. I manage my Conrad’s cricket team. As a coach, I have to create a supportive, fun, team environment to encourage the kids to keep coming back. I realise I will be a better father when I engage with my own sons as if they have a choice about being part of my team.

Next day Conrad runs up to me wielding what only can be described as a prison shank — a gnarly stick to which he has taped a carving blade that he flashes in front of my eyes. Instead of losing my temper and making him feel bad, I distract him and Caspar by constructing two toy rifles from basement junk. The guns are “awesome”. They disappear to hunt the cat.

My 11year old is at a vulnerable point, having just started secondary school. The smallest request, such as “turn off the TV,” can prompt a meltdown. The reflex response is for me to repeat the request at boneshaking volume.

But the Dolphin method highlights how pointless it is to resort to shouting,which leaves both of us shaken and upset. I realise, this week, that our disagreements can be best resolved with gentle humour: asking him what he wants for dinner in textspeak.

A long as I keep my patience, I can charm him into acquiescence, and, even better, he leaves the room happy. The final test comes during a shopping trip to Canary Wharf, in Docklands, East London. We are waiting for my wife outside the supermarket as it draws down its shutters for the night. While my mind wanders, I realise that Caspar has run up to the shutters and is performing a dance similar to “the Bart man” for the benefit of the two security guards. Before they, or I, can stop him, he has darted under the closing shutter, performed a quick lap of honour inside the shop and emerged triumphant through the front door with the last of the customers.

At this point I would usually shame him with a tellingoff, or terrify him with a dire image of being squashed to death, but the Dolphin approach tasks me to deal with realistic outcomes. Could he have been crushed? Possibly, faintly. Could he have banged his head? Yes. Was any harm done? He might have hurt the security guards’ pride. I tell  Caspar that I’ll talk to him about it later. The Dolphin method is making me understand my son better as a human.

I liked his cunning, skill and agility. I liked that he wasn’t scared or meek. He knew what he was doing, that it was naughty and funny. That’s the entire point of the gesture. This is how
6 yearolds say: “This is me.” I am sure this Dolphinlike irreverence for petty rules has served us well as a species. We need to break rules. However, while it feels good to be a Dolphin, the amount of effort it takes is alarming. I might need to spend a few weeks developing my brand of lazy carp parenting before I give this another go.

Do’s and Don’ts of Dolphin Parenting

  • Focus on their progress
  • For a child who is anxious about the beginning of the school year, Shawn Achor suggests highlighting progress before setting new goals. “Point out all the things that they learnt last year. If they are making a list of tasks to do, have them include things they have already accomplished to prime their brain to positive,” he says.
  • Share a funny moment
  • Watching a silly YouTube clip with your child not only improves bonding, but activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps their brains rebuild, decreases cortisol and increases their performance on cognitive tasks.
  • Praise the process
  • “If a child receives an A on a spelling test, you praise them not for the A but for how hard you saw them studying for that test,” Achor says.
  • Avoid the question “Did you do your homework?”
  • Instead, get children to practise once a day thinking of three things they are grateful for that day. In 21 days, levels of optimism dramatically increase, suggests research carried out at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Get them to say “Thank you”
  • Ask children to write a two-minute positive e-mail or note once a day to someone they know, praising them or thanking them for something. This increases children’s perception of social support, which is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness, Achor says.
  • Present choice
  • Dolphin parenting is not about the absence of discipline — happiness is impossible without discipline, Achor says. “Couple discipline with process-based praise rather than outcome. In a success-crazed world, a Tiger child will only be happy if they win. A Dolphin child will enjoy the process so they will keep working hard even if they don’t at first succeed.”
  • Join in
  • Dolphins in the wild teach by swimming alongside their babies. Dolphin parents encourage creative play by joining in. “Even playing a video game with a child signals that you value things other than academic achievement, and that you are interested in joining their world.”
  • Be enthusiastic
  • The most important thing is to set a good example. “You can see the world through a lens of negativity, stress and uncertainty or through a lens of resilience, gratitude and optimism,” Achor says. “That’s a valuable thing to teach children.”
  • Gain their respect
  • Being a Dolphin parent does not mean letting your children walk all over you. “We do not respect people who do not respect our emotions,” Achor says. “But if you want respect, you have to provide it. Children will respect parents who show an understanding of their emotions.”