Most of the animal nicknames given to parenting styles make intuitive sense. Jellyfish parents are spineless and permissive. Tiger parents are strict, success-driven, and authoritarian. Then there are the elephant parents. While elephant parenting elicits the image of a lumbering beast that stomps around kicking up dust like an authoritarian-style parent, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the parenting style is one of the most enticing.
So what is elephant parenting, exactly? Well, elephants are incredibly social, intelligent, and empathetic creatures. As such, elephant parenting is a softer, more authoritative parenting style that encourages warmth, encouragement, and empathy. Elephant parents prioritize their kids' happiness and emotional security above all else.
When kids are younger, elephant parents are more likely to rush to their child’s aid when they take a tumble on the playground and more likely to co-sleep or, at the very least, cuddle their child to sleep longer than other parents. They also adopt the mindset of letting kids develop at their own pace, so they won’t be as bothered with such milestones as being able to tie shoes or button a shirt.
Elephant parents place a high value on helping their kids develop the ability to articulate their emotions by offering encouragement and reassurance when their kids are upset. The focus on developing emotionally secure kids is so at the forefront of the parenting style that most elephant parent explainers note that these parents prioritize emotional security over academic and sporting success.
For example, when a child brings home a test with a low grade, an elephant parent is far likelier to ask how that makes them feel instead of jumping immediately to why the child thinks they struggled on the exam. And pushing kids to participate in sports or activities they don’t love on the premise that doing so will at least give them the option to participate when they get older is totally out of the question.
When elephant parenting is done well, the emotional intelligence and emotional awareness it can foster is linked to a number of positive outcomes. “Research indicates that encouraging emotional intelligence in children is a better predictor of success than academic intelligence,” says Anjaili Ferguson, Ph.D, psychologist and psychology faculty for the Virginia Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Program. “And emotional awareness helps a child improve communication, encourages independence, builds empathy, and builds self-confidence.”
Although elephant parenting sounds excellent in theory, it’s easy to see how it could drift into overprotective helicopter parenting territory that stifles children’s independence, or a style of permissive parenting that lets the children’s demands run the show.
“It is important to remember that nurturing a child is not ‘spoiling’ them,” Ferguson says. “Children thrive on nurturance, as long as it is coupled with structure and boundaries.”
Elephant parenting is a difficult needle to thread, Ferguson says. If you’re interested in adopting an elephant parenting style, Ferguson has the following four tips on embracing it without sliding into parenting styles and habits that stifle independence and make children emotionally codependent.
Elephant Parenting Mistake #1: Not Examining Why You Want To Adopt The Style
There’s a lot to like about both the philosophy and end goal of high emotional intelligence that elephant parenting encompasses, but it isn’t simple. Kids bring variables to the table as their personalities and experiences shape how they respond to parenting. And parental motivations for gravitating toward a specific parenting style can affect one’s ability to adopt the style healthily.
It’s important, then, to ask yourself why you want to become a so-called elephant parent. Our own histories inform parenting approaches because, as Ferguson notes, a parent may overcompensate for their own upbringing or inadequacy. Determining your true reasoning can help you steer clear of such behavior.
It’s also critical to make sure you’re on the same page as your partner. “The demands of life may also add pressure to an already stressful role and breed competition between parents who prefer different parenting styles,” says Ferguson.
Understandably, a parent who felt neglected as a child would want to provide a different and healthier experience for their kids. Careful reflection and guidance from peers or even a therapist as to why elephant parenting style holds personal appeal can help guard against some unhealthy parenting habits that elephant parenting might create.
Pitfall #2: Becoming Overprotective
Few animals will mess with a full-grown elephant based on its size alone. But baby elephants don’t yet have that earth-shaking gravitas, so you’ll likely see them hovering around and under their parent’s massive legs. That protective image is at the heart of elephant parenting, but there’s an art to protecting kids. Putting them in an overprotective bubble can have a negative impact on their development.
When parents become unduly anxious or concerned about their child's safety and outcomes, Ferguson cautions that they may start over-monitoring their children, over-controlling their interactions and relationships, or providing excessive supervision.
“A parent may also be overprotective if they are very avoidant of risk and challenge, or they strongly discourage risky, age-appropriate activities,” she says.
The line between risky and reckless can be a difficult one for parents to draw. Still, risky play helps make kids more resilient, self-confident, and independent by assisting them in honing executive functioning and risk-management skills.
So, while your kid heading toward the tallest slide on the playground may raise your pulse, it’s necessary to let them give it a whirl. Research indicates that exposure to contexts or stimuli that can cause fear actually reduces fear in kids. The flip side is that overprotection is tied to higher anxiety in children.
And parents can overprotect their kids in interpersonal relationships as well. Learning how to navigate interpersonal conflict is a critical life skill, but one that kids will have a harder time developing if their parents are constantly jumping in with solutions every time their child has a playdate spat.
Pitfall #3: Limiting A Child’s Independence
Kids need to develop the ability to do things independently, be it through chores, playing alone for a few minutes, or grabbing a snack on their own. But independence doesn’t dawn in an instant. It’s a skill that develops over time, and one that parents should foster early in their child’s life.
Raising self-sufficient kids can sound counterintuitive to elephant parenting in that for kids to grow in independence, they need to face challenges and learn to work through some discomfort. So, for elephant parents, it’s important to adopt a flexible mindset and continually give kids more freedom as they get older.
“To ensure you are promoting independence while being nurturing, make sure to build in clear rules and collaborative opportunities to problem-solve and make age-appropriate decisions,” Ferguson says. Asking questions to engage kids in problem-solving and acknowledging that facing challenges can make them feel uncomfortable are two ways to embrace the pull toward nurture without inhibiting their growth and development.
For example, if your child is having difficulty assembling an age-appropriate Lego set, instead of jumping in and finishing it for them, say something like, “Wow, this step is really frustrating! Can we work together to double-check the pieces and make sure we have the right ones out?” Or “What if we turned the Legos differently so we could see them better?” Your child will develop a much higher level of self-satisfaction if given the tools to solve the problem on their own or collaboratively instead of having it solved for them.
Additionally, pointing out instances in which kids acted responsibly and praising their efforts when they complete tasks by themselves can foster independence since they’ll be more likely to repeat behaviors that receive positive reinforcement.
Pitfall #4: Shielding Your Child From Difficult Emotions
Helping kids identify and articulate their emotions is a core value for elephant parents, and it's foundational for how kids will hopefully develop as they get older. “Encouraging emotional intelligence in children is a better predictor of success than academic intelligence,” Ferguson says. “Emotional awareness helps a child improve communication, builds empathy, and builds self-confidence.”
Whereas a protectionist instinct might cause a parent to tell their child there’s no reason to be sad after accidentally breaking a toy they’re playing with, a better response might be, “I can see how breaking that toy would make you feel sad. You really liked playing with it.”
Ferguson suggests that parents ask open-ended questions to encourage children to elaborate on their feelings. Then, validate them to reassure kids that having big or uncomfortable feelings is perfectly normal. It may be necessary to help them label emotions to develop a robust emotional vocabulary, but not without first giving them a chance to consider and express their feelings.
And don’t forget that kids replicate behaviors they see from adults around them. “Model emotional expression by sharing your feelings appropriately,” Ferguson says. “This helps normalize the idea that talking about emotions is okay.”
How To Foster Independence In A Nurturing Fashion, By Your Child’s Age
Elephant parents face the challenge of fostering independence while focusing on prioritizing emotional security. In addition, they must also contend with how kids change and grow so quickly. As children’s emotional intelligence and capacity for self-sufficiency grows, parents must adapt how protective they are and how they talk about emotions. Ferguson offers the following examples of how to hold both goals in tandem at different stages of development.
Early childhood (infant/toddler):
- Encourage exploration of their environment in a safe manner
- Label emotions and use gentle discipline strategies
Preschool (ages 3-5 years):
- Encourage self-care and independent tasks like dressing oneself and making simple choices
- Teach problem-solving skills collaboratively
- Be consistent in enforcing consequences and rules
- Label more advanced emotions and encourage discussion
- Encourage decision-making that is guided by you, but avoid controlling practices
- Promote their own self-identity and expression and be open and validating of their responses
- Manage your own emotions and respect their process of independence
- Keep communication open with clear expectations of communication check-ins
- Encourage the development of goals with realistic and attainable outcomes