Barbara McMahon | September 21, 2013

Playful parents make for smarter, happier children, according to new research.  

Amy Chua’s provocative memoir described a strict method of raising children known as  Tiger parenting. The Yale law professor recalled how she rejected her 4yearold daughter Lulu’s homemade birthday card for being carelessly drawn, threatened to burn her older daughter Sophia’s stuffed animals if she did not improve her piano playing, and never accepted grades that were less than an A.

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it,” she
wrote in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, published in 2011. Now, a new parenting method is being promoted that advocates the polar opposite of the pushy parent ethos. Anew book, Before Happiness, argues that the Tiger parenting approach is “scientifically backward”. That the success first, happiness second formula is not the best way of helping children to get ahead in school or in later life.

Using another label from the animal kingdom, the author and positive psychology expert Shawn Achor says that Dolphin parenting — being a relaxed, playful and positive rolemodel for your children — will make youngsters happier and smarter, and will improve educational and career outcomes. “The Tiger parent believes that the means justifies the end, that if their children work hard right now then eventually they will be successful and, hopefully, that willmake kids happier, or at least fulfilled,” Achor says.

Research being carried out in neuroscience and positive psychology clearly shows that this is not true, he says. “Happiness is the precursor to success, not the other way around,” Achor says. “Dolphin parenting flips the formula and says that if we can increase levels of happiness in our children — teach them how to be optimistic, to have close connections with family and friends, and to manage stress in a positive way — then it might actually be a faster route to success than the nose to the grindstone approach. In other words, raising happiness dramatically increases success rates, but increasing success rates does not necessarily have an impact on happiness.

Achor, a 35 year old from Waco, Texas, whose father was a neuroscientist, applied to Harvard on a dare and recalls being “surprised and thrilled” when he was accepted. He stayed for 12 years, earning a masters degree in Christian and Buddhist ethics, doing postgraduate work and delivering lectures. He also counselled undergraduates.He noticed that after only a few weeks, many of the students were struggling in the rarefied atmosphere.
“About two weeks into their first term, their brains were no longer focused on the privilege of being at Harvard,” he says. “Their brains were focused on the competition, the workload and the stress. Little setbacks overwhelmed them. Instead of being energised by the possibilities ahead, they shrank away from them.” Some 80 per cent of the students experienced depression.“What happens is that success becomes a moving target. Once you hit your target, your brain changes what success looks like.”

This pattern usually continues into adulthood. “Someone gets the job they were seeking, but then they find out that’s not enough and so they have to get a promotion or start their own company. It never ends.”

In 2007, Achor founded GoodThinkInc, a consulting firm with a mission to teach positive psychology principles. His TED talk, during which, with infectious enthusiasm, he discusses a theory he calls the “happiness advantage”, has been viewed almost five million times.

The reason why some people are able to make positive changes while others are
stuck, and why some people are happier and more successful than others, is
because of the different ways they look at the world. This is the most vital lesson we can give our kids, he says.

“Before we can be happy and successful, we need to develop the ability to see that positive change is possible, and this is one of the most important things that we can pass on to our children.” Research shows, he says, that when children (or adults, for that matter) work with a positive mindset, performance on nearly every level improves. “Children who are primed to be positive perform significantly better in school than children whose brains are negative or in neutral,” he says, asserting that improvements can be as much as a 10 to 15 per cent swing at academic level. The research also says that intelligence and technical skills predict only 25 per cent of job successes; the other 75 per cent is predicted on cognitive abilities such as optimism, the ability to get on well with  others and how you view stress.

“A lot of times we stress out our children by making them think that if they don’t do well they won’t get into the college they want or they won’t have the career they hoped for,” he says. “The Dolphin parent helps their child to enjoy the learning process. Teaching children to use the power of positive thinking shows them that they have more control than they realise.”

Dolphin parenting doesn’t have to be soft, Achor says. Children should be encouraged to aim high. “Happiness is actually the joy you feel when striving towards your potential,” he says. “We feel least happy when we stagnate. If we can help our children to seek that type of happiness, you get a continual pattern of that child moving in the direction of their potential instead of stagnating.”

A misconception is that our genetics and our environment determine how happy we are. Achor says that although they are factors, they are not the whole story, and that brains are surprisingly malleable. Research reveals that you can “rewire” the brain and change it, even in adulthood. We can choose to be happy.

The most important thing a Dolphin parent can do for their child 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. “It’s about adjusting our brains so that we can realistically see the present, but also see viable paths to success.”

Other research appears to back up these findings. A recent study published in the Asian American Journal of Psychology says that the children of Tiger parents suffer low academic achievement, anxiety and a greater sense of alienation; a report by Berkeley University in California and Beijing Normal University says that easygoing, supportive parenting leads to
better developmental outcomes.

The goal of the Tiger and the Dolphin parent is the same: a child achieving their
potential, Achor says. But, he says the studies in his book show that children are
most creative and effective when thinking within a guiding framework, rather than having a Tiger parent standing over them. Giving a child freedom within boundaries makes them invest more in their activities; the absence of freedom results in a deceleration of potential, he says. And, he says, the unconscious brain time needs time to process what it’s learning “Tigers must be kept in a cage, but Einstein figured out relativity in a streetcar after a party, and Poincaré discovered relativity while on vacation.” {end}