The Dolphin Way

Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids Without Turning Into a Tiger

Lessons I Learned in my Dad’s Taxi Cab

My father was the ultimate dolphin parent, this father’s day I want to thank him

If one believes in cultural stereotypes, my birth should have been a day of mourning. I was the fourth girl born to traditional Indian parents. And because I was an overachieving student who started medical school at the age of 19, one may also assume that my immigrant parents were pushing, hovering tiger parents. Neither of these are true. My birth was celebrated loudly and authoritarian tiger parents actually inhibit the achievement of their children. Unlike the fierce, competitive, and solitary tiger parent, or the permissive, directionless jellyfish parent; the dolphin parent is collaborative, authoritative (firm yet flexible), and have high expectations for their children. This leads to children with greater confidence, better social skills, and enhanced intrinsic motivation. My father was the ultimate dolphin parent and this Father’s Day I want to thank him for it.

Growing up, I was often embarrassed that my dad sometimes drove a Taxi because I thought it was not “prestigious”. Ironically, it was during my research on motivation at the prestigious Harvard Medical School Addiction Research Program that I realized that much of what motivates me (and all people) comes from lessons I learned from him in that taxi. Here are some of them. 

Having fun enhances the learning process. A universal truth is that we are motivated to learn in playful, joyful environments. The ability to complete any and every task is enhanced when we bring positive emotions into it. Many of today’s parents forget this truth or confuse “fun” with something trivial or requiring expensive lessons or experiences. My dad was playful and made driving around in a taxi, counting change for passengers, and doing math fun too.

Humans are motivated by curiosity. Albert Einstein once said, “I have no special talents: I am just passionately curious.” Curiosity is linked to our brain’s dopamine reward system and is the fuel that keeps self-motivation for learning going. My dad role modeled and guided me to be curious and ask questions about every person who sat in his back seat. Where did he/she come from? What language did they speak? What did they do for a living? When the search engine Google entered our lives, the era of needing to know the “right answer” left us. To be successful in our modern world, a child must learn how to ask the “right questions”, seek knowledge expansively, and apply that knowledge to diverse settings.

Bonding is a parent’s greatest tool. Bonding means knowing someone for who they really are, not for who you want them to be. It was in the front seat of his taxi, that I got to know my father and he got to know me. It was through our conversations that I discovered his hopes, dreams, and interests. It was through my observations of how he treated his passengers with the same level of respect whether they were high profile politicians or intoxicated vagabonds, did I come to know his character and values. It was through my connection to him as a person, did I better appreciate his role as my father and his character and values continue to guide me to this day.

Gratitude and optimism are among the most powerful motivators. The most powerful aspect of being in my father’s taxi was witnessing his commitment to work hard not just for himself but to also “pay it forward.” While driving his taxi, it was not uncommon for my father to waive the fare for someone in need or bring home new immigrants who had just landed at the airport with no-where to go. My father was highly optimistic and had deep gratitude for the chance to have a better life. As witness to this, I became optimistic and grateful for my opportunities as well. The scientifically proven benefits of gratefulness are many, such as better sleep, less depression, less stress, better ability to cope with stress, and an improved sense of social relationships and happiness.

As the medical director for child and youth mental health for a culturally diverse city, I have come to realize that we humans are more similar than we are different. Parents would be wise to forget cultural stereotypes that hold us back. Regardless of one's race, cultural group, or socioeconomic class, all humans are driven by joyfulness, connection, curiosity, optimism, gratitude, and purpose. These are universal human motivators and will guide all children towards their true potential. Thankfully, these traits can all be experienced in any setting – even the front seat of a taxi cab.

 

Shimi Kang, M.D., is an award-winning, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and author of The Dolphin Way.

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