Dolphin Parenting: Motivation and Communication Tips

The Tiger Mom’s time is up, says mother of three and psychotherapist Dr. Shimi K. Kang in this excerpt from her new book, The Dolphin Way. Tap into your own intuition and learn how to raise happy, motivated and resilient kids.


Photography courtesy Frédéric de Villamil via Flickr

Importance and confidence are strong motivators for action. When a task has importance, a person understands “what’s in it for me” or the reasons why the task is necessary. When a person has confidence, that person believes that she can accomplish the task. A task must meet these two criteria for a child (or anyone) to want to act.

Knowing that both importance and confidence are needed for motivation, how can we motivate children to do everyday tasks without them driving us nuts? Our children are highly attuned to our tone of voice, stance, facial expression and all other non-verbal cues. So, what we say and how we say it are important.

How to Motivate

I developed a four-step process for effective motivational communication—called the dolphin keys—that I’ve been using for more than 10 years. This process may not work the first time, and you may need some practice to get it right, but its cumulative effects are helpful for motivating your child.

The four steps complement but don’t intrude on your child’s development of his or her self-motivation. The four steps have been adapted from the four basic principles of motivational interviewing—a therapy proven to enhance motivation—developed by professors Bill Miller (University of New Mexico) and Steve Rollnick (University of Cardiff). If you follow these four steps, all communication will be more effective and easier.

    Kill the tiger. If the tiger is roaring within you, start with a few deep, controlled breaths and make sure you’re calm before you proceed.
    Empathize. Express that you understand your child and that you are on his or her side.
    Identify your child’s goals. You are now in your child’s shoes, so acknowledge his or her goals (rather than focusing on your own goals).
    Support success. Express belief in your child’s ability to carry out the task. Here are some examples of how to apply these keys to different situations. I’ve assumed that you’ve already completed step one and killed the tiger, so you’ll notice the tiger is absent from the statements below.

Your child is late in the morning.
“I know it’s hard to get going in the morning [empathize], but your goal was not to be late again [identify your child’s goals]. Come on, I know you can move a little faster [support success].”

Your child doesn’t want to do homework.
“I used to hate doing homework, too [empathize], but you don’t want to miss out on free time or recess, [identify your child’s goals]. Thank goodness you pick up things easily once you put your mind to it [support success].”

Your child resists going to soccer practice.
“Aw, you look so tired today [empathize], but this is the only way to prepare for that upcoming game [identify your child’s goals]. You always feel great once you’re on the field [support success].”

Your child doesn’t want to eat dinner.
“Yes, it’s hard to eat food you don’t like very much [empathize], but if you don’t eat, we don’t get to go to the park [identify your child’s goals]. You did it before, so I’m sure you can do it again [support success].”

Communication Tips

Ask permission before giving advice. Many children and almost all teenagers are resistant to advice and suggestions, even if they’re “for your own good!” Ask your children whether they would welcome your input before you give it and things will go much smoother.

Change the speaking/listening ratio. Often parents say to their children, “let’s talk,” and then end up doing around 80 percent of the talking. This turns a conversation into a lecture. Neurons in our brains connect around ideas a person speaks more than around those a person hears. Flip the 80:20 parent-child speaking ratio on its head. At least aim for a 70:30 ratio in which your child talks 70 percent of the time, while you listen and limit your own speaking to only 30 percent of the time, if that.

Review benefits and drawbacks. Discussing a behaviour’s benefits and drawbacks is a great open-ended way to get your child thinking (and speaking) about not only the positive but also the negative aspects of a behavior. If you want your discussions to go well, it’s important for you to be open to talking about issues your child may not expect you to be open about.

Support your Child

Emphasize commitment and support for your child. Despite the emphasis on personal control, dolphin parents make it clear that they’re fully committed and available to their child for support and guidance. The children of dolphin parents know that they’re a priority in their parents’ lives and that their parents will “always be there” when needed. Dolphin parents make statements like, “I will always be there for you”; “If you need me, I will come”; “I will still love you no matter what”; and “You can always ask for my advice or help.”

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