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For Effective Parenting, Be Like Water

By Jonathan Hoffman, Ph.D., ABPP

Martial arts styles- at least in the movies- often are taken from animal models. Classic examples of animal-associated martial arts styles include Deer, Monkey, Tiger, and Bear. No style, however, is perfect. Each has inherent advantages and vulnerabilities, not unlike the sublime game of rock paper scissors. In Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill films, the Bride’s Tiger Crane style is famously outmatched by Pei Mei’s Eagle’s Claw.

Parenting styles may also be compared to animals. The most well-known is Tiger Mom, AKA Tiger Parent- strict, demanding, and hyper-competitive- ‘pushing’ a child to the parental conception of success, whether they like it or not. Dolphin Parents, on the other hand, are authoritative, but also flexible and collaborative, while so-called Elephant Parents are nurturing and prioritize happiness over achievement.

Parenting style can also be related to non-animal forms of martial arts. I am a big fan of Drunken Boxing style, in which parodying the movements of an inebriated person is used to disguise skill and intentions, similar to how Peter Falk’s TV Homicide Detective, Lieutenant Columbo, disguised his razor-sharp mind by feigning being a bumbling incompetent, until the very last moment when he asked his inimitable ‘one more question’ that exposed who the culprit was. The Drunken Boxing style may be particularly effective as a stealthy approach to parenting teenagers. In the movies, sometimes the Drunken Boxer is really hammered, but don’t try it in real life!

But still, I’m an even bigger fan of Bruce Lee. He believed that committing to any style was a mistake, so his expressive embodiment of martial arts- Jeet Kune Do, the ‘way of the intercepting fist’ followed his core philosophy, “to be like water, my friend.” Being dynamically adaptive, water can be anything- hard, soft, boiling hot, icy cold, flowing or still. Lee considered freeing oneself from preconceptions, rigid responses, and fixed beliefs as the key to not only martial arts but to life- which, of course, for many people includes parenting.

If you are a parent, take a moment to consider your style. If you had to choose an animal your parenting resembles, which one is it? Or, is it a combination of various animals, or different animals at different times, or perhaps a legendary creature like a unicorn or- hope not – Bigfoot? There’s no right answer; this exercise is purely to build awareness because if you understand your parenting style, you will be in a better position to reflect on its strengths and weakness, as well as determine if it is a good fit for your child’s present needs, and, most importantly, supports their future well-being. If you are not a parent, it might be interesting to reflect on the style in which you recall being parented.

If you can’t relate your parenting style to an animal, this thought experiment works equally as well if you use a TV or film actor, or actually anyone or anything whose style you think exemplifies how you parent. It may also be a good idea to ask your spouse, partner, friend, or

even your child to tell you about an animal or character in a show they watch that they believe portrays your parenting style. It could be that you style yourself as a tiger parent when your child experiences it as something more like an anxious hamster style.

Let’s return to the rock-paper-scissors paradigm. Just as illumed in the game, there is no one parenting style that works at all times for all children. Depending on what the other person throws out, a rock, paper or scissors can be a winning or losing, well, ‘hand.’ Being a Tiger, Dolphin, or Elephant parent, acting like a Drunken Boxer or Lt. Columbo may work right now, but be ready to re-evaluate or switch styles as your child grows up or circumstances change. Sometimes being a Kangaroo parent that protects their child in a pouch might be necessary, but one day changing to a Bird-style Mom or Dad that makes that same child leave the nest, ready or not, maybe the best ticket. So parent like water, my friend.

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