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The call of the Dolphin Mother

By Erika Christakis, Special to CNN
  • Amy Chua's new book offers a view of the tough-parenting Tiger Mother
  • Erika Christakis says she's more a Dolphin Mom: flexible, playful, tuned in to her kids feelings
  • She says such moms are creative in discipline, support other Dolphin Moms in pod
  • Writer: Risks, less control in Dolphin parenting, but result is kids who know their own minds

Editor's note: Erika Christakis, M.P.H., M.Ed., is an early childhood educator, former preschool director and college administrator. She is a parent of three teenagers and lives with 400 Harvard undergraduates as a residential housemaster at Harvard College.

(CNN) -- Have you heard a Tiger Mother's prescription for superior parenting?

As described by Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, in her recent and controversial book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," it includes relentless rote practice and generous doses of threats, shame and occasional physical punishment, yielding a successful person who takes pride in her accomplishments.

No play dates or trombone lessons or self-discovery for these kids: just an ultra-lean diet of school work and musical practice, a life stripped of the influences of personal choice, popular culture or peers.

That's how Tiger Mothers do it. Are they superior?

I couldn't say, because I am a Dolphin Mother.

Dolphin Mothers are flexible and playful with their children. As higher mammals, we know that our offspring learn through play, and we make time in their day for this important cognitive and social task. Dolphin Mothers also have a well-developed communication system. We can recognize the unique voice of our child in a sea of thousands of other children.

We can also clearly communicate our expectations, values and love to our children. And we are acutely tuned to their needs and feelings. This is especially helpful as our children go out into a world full of dangers and choices.

Dolphin Mothers benefit from complex social relationships with other Dolphin Parents that give us relief from the backbreaking labor of child-rearing while also teaching us new ways to guide our children's development.

Some of us care for our young full-time, while others depend on our pod for daily support. But all of us Dolphin Mothers value collaboration and welcome the presence of caring adults in our children's lives.

Dolphin Mothers protect our young but also encourage their independence. Our sharp hearing allows us to monitor our kids easily even when they are testing the waters on their own, so we are not too anxious about the occasional exposure to a bad influence.

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We are excellent protectors, but we are subtle about it. We create an invisible safety net around our children in which they can swim without fear. We are nurturing because we want to enjoy the deep bonds that arise between parent and child.

Sometimes we have to be tough -- we Dolphin Mothers have to protect our huge parental investment -- but, generally, we choose not to spend our lives in conflict over matters that have little long-term significance.

Dolphin Mothers are also, it must be said, highly intelligent and self-aware. This enables us to keep growing as parents, to be open-minded about our frailties, and to seek help when we have gone astray.

We Dolphin Mothers also know how to make and use tools to fit specific needs or circumstances. For example, after I have exhausted myself screaming at my children, I can try bribing them instead. If that fails, I can go back to my tool kit and fashion a new approach, such as reasoning with my child.

Occasionally I can get really creative. Just yesterday, for example, I tried ignoring a snippy comment from my adolescent.

There are so many advantages to being a Dolphin Mother that I wonder why more people don't try it. It doesn't require 24-hour indentured servitude or enormous material resources. Best of all, you don't have to sacrifice intimacy for achievement.

I think parents are drawn to tigers, not dolphins, because they appear tougher and more single-minded. Tigers are solitary and strong. They aren't distracted by fluff like feelings and relationships and play. But dolphins understand that life is tough, too. We have standards. We know there are dangerous predators and competition for resources. That's what our big teeth and muscular flippers are for.

Many parents are so worried that their children will be left behind in society's great race that they inadvertently narrow their children's opportunities rather than expand them. They are so fearful that they will fall back -- fail to learn their ABCs, fail to get top grades, fail to get a job -- that they pressure them to make safe choices, to do only what they are told. As a result, a Tiger Mother can wind up devouring her young.

Try dolphin parenting instead. It is risky, because you cede control of the outcome; you can shape it but you can't guarantee it. Sometimes the ride is wild. You might get knocked over by a few waves. But it's hard to beat the promise of a child who can swim in her own slipstream.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Erika Christakis.