It’s a zoo out there in the parenting jungle
Since when did parenting mean becoming a zoo animal? References to zoos and young families in the same breath are common enough. Families with young children visit zoos, petting farms, aquariums and nature centres more than most other folks.
Trips to zoos can take on aspects of wildlife wrangling. First, lunches, jackets, hats, shoes, sunscreen, diapers and so on must be gathered. Then family members must be assembled. After that, loading everyone and everything safely into the minivan and making it as far as the zoo entrance is enough to make anyone organizing the expedition feel a bit like a zookeeper.
Then there are the animals that families with young children sometimes acquire: dogs, cats, birds, fish, hamsters, gerbils, ant colonies, lizards, tarantulas, ponies, garter snakes, turtles, bullfrogs, backyard chickens and such.
Now, however, even parenting styles have assumed zoo-related references. If you’re authoritarian, you’re a tiger parent. If you’re permissive, you’re a jellyfish parent. If you are firm but flexible, you’re a dolphin parent.
But the references have more to do with our social and cultural assumptions than with the actual animals.
American lawyer Amy Chua brought the expression “tiger mom” into common use with her 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which describes her efforts to raise her kids according to strict, traditional “Asian” parenting methods. Many readers saw the book as advocating for a strict, controlling, ethnically defined approach to parenting — one that uses psychological and emotional manipulation such as public shaming to control and direct children.
The term, however, doesn’t reflect real tiger parents’ and cubs’ lives. Although tiger cubs, born with their eyes closed, are dependent on their mother for the first few months of their lives, as they mature, the relationship dynamic shifts toward their litter mates.
The tiger mother continues to feed and protect her young for about six months after birth, but the litter’s most dominant cub takes over leadership of the siblings, dictating when they should sleep, play and eat. This cub dominates siblings until the cubs leave their mother and become wholly independent.
Jellyfish parents acquire that description because they seem to lack backbone. They don’t establish or enforce rules for their kids, they set low or no expectations for performance and they don’t enforce consequences.
But the term “jellyfish” parent is misleading on several accounts. For one, jellies are not fish. Biologists stopped calling them fish years ago, and to avoid perpetuating the confusion, everyone else should, too. Also, jellies don’t parent. Their involvement with offspring ends once they release their own eggs and sperm into the water. If we applied our human values, we’d call this abandonment before birth. And even when jellies reproduce through cloning, parental influence ends once the clone separates itself from the parent jelly.
As for the term “dolphin parenting,” it too exposes our own biases and cultural views of dolphins. We view the animals as playful, sociable, intelligent animals — therefore, good and worthy.
Ask a real dolphin parent how she raises her young, and (if she could talk) she’d say it takes a pod to raise a dolphin calf. Like whales, dolphins raise their young in a group. Other female dolphins in the pod might help a mother take care of her calf during its first years. Calves stay close to their mothers until they’re about six years old. It watches and learns from her example as she hunts, interacts with others and the environment, and navigates the ocean. It’s parenting by example, plain and simple, and by community.
In keeping with the theme, here are a few other animal names to arbitrarily pin to parenting styles: • Monkey parents monkey around with their kids and teaching them to fling crap at strangers they don’t like. • Parrot parents teach kids by rote instruction, not example. • Lemur parents blindly follow what other parents do, without questioning. • Eagle parents raise other families’ stray kids — and redtailed-hawk chicks — as their own. • Spider parents eat their young for breakfast.
If you’re going to bring the zoo into the home, at least try to get the biology right.