Tiger Mom and Beyond: A Field Guide to Animal Parenting Styles

by Laura Lambert

Illustration: Nathan Gelgud

Tigers and pandas and dolphins, oh my! In the endless struggle to understand modern parenting, experts have looked to the animal kingdom for inspiration, guidance, and, well, book sales.

Here are four of the most popular spirit animals for parents.

Tiger Mom
Patron Saint: Amy Chua
Bible: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

You don’t have to be Asian to be a Tiger mom, but, culturally, it helps. Tiger Moms — and they are always moms — are strict, driven, unmoved by childhood emotions, and motivated by accomplishments, not emotional connection.

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale professor Amy Chua outlined the Tiger Mom’s playbook: piano lessons, violin lessons, straight As, no sleepovers, no playdates, no TV, no video games, no questions. As the daughter of a Tiger Mom myself, I know these things to be true.

To practitioners, being a Tiger Mom is largely about doing “what’s best” for your child — having Ivy-League expectations, pushing your children to reach their full potential — no matter the emotional cost. It is a long-term strategy, with a lot of short-term strife. To critics, being a Tiger Mom is a recipe for extreme over-parenting, with children marred by anxiety and poor social skills.

Panda Dads
Patron Saint: Alan Paul
Bible: “Tiger Mom…Meet Panda Dad”

After Tiger Mom came Panda Dad. Alan Paul, a musician, freelance writer, and primary caregiver to his family’s three children, witnessed firsthand the Tiger Mom culture while living in China — and he disagreed. “Call me the Panda Dad,” Paul wrote in his viral Wall Street Journal blog post. “I am happy to parent with cuddliness, but not afraid to show some claw.”

Hours of repetitive practice stifle creativity and innovation, he claimed. No playdates or sleepovers lead to social isolation. Micromanagement sabotages self-sufficiency. Instead, Panda Dads value independence and strive to raise children who are happy, engaged, and self-motivated. The rise of the Panda Dad is no accident — this dad-centric parenting style comes just as the number of stay-at-home dads hit an all-time high, in 2012.

Dolphin Parents
Patron Saint: Dr. Shimi Kang
Bible: The Dolphin Way: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Motivated Kids — Without Turning into a Tiger

Fast forward to 2014, when Dr. Shimi Kang’s book The Dolphin Way hit the shelves. In it, she argues for a flexible parenting style built around strong social connections — and against over-parenting and the over-scheduled lives most families are currently living.

Like dolphins, humans are playful, intelligent, social creatures, meant to live in “pods.” (Think: It takes a village.) Dolphin parents have authority and there are rules and consequences, but it all centers on the power of play. As Kang wrote in Time magazine, “Play is directly linked to the development of our prefrontal cortex and helps a child develop vital social, intellectual, and emotional skills that cannot be acquired any other way.”

Jellyfish Parents
Patron Saint: n/a
Bible: Who has time to read a parenting book?

To a lesser degree, The Dolphin Way also introduced us to the Jellyfish Parent. People do not typically strive to be Jellyfish, they are Jellyfish by default, held up as the opposite of all Tigers, Pandas, and Dolphins.

In a Jellyfish home, there are few rules, low expectations, little confrontation, and even less structure. It’s permissive parenting taken to the extreme, doled out by people who often have little self-control and structure themselves. The stated goal of many Jellyfish is to make their kids happy, but, in the long run, explains Kang, the indulgence is counterproductive.

And the rest of us…

As the daughter of a Tiger Mom and a Panda-esque dad, I see those tendencies in my own parenting — but I also rail against them at times. And that’s the truth of being a parent: It’s complicated and dynamic. I like to think of myself as one of my 7-year-old daughter’s wacky drawings — a (pink) Dolphin with a Tiger’s tail and Panda paws, who, after a particularly long day, might lose her resolve and go all Jellyfishy for a bit. And you won’t find that in any zoology book.