We’re often presented with an image of parenting that is a bit too perfect. Like a Norman Rockwell scene preserved in a snowglobe.
But all too often parents wake up to realize they were cast in a reality show without their permission. The kids cause more problems in 4 minutes than I could get into in 4 years. You wonder if your genetics have spawned an unholy chimera of you and you partner’s worst traits. It gets to a point where you wake up to the sounds of screams. Not the kid’s screams. Yours.
How are you supposed to teach that little one to be a moral, productive human being when you can’t even get them to eat breakfast? (It’s much better to consider how you could be a better parent now as opposed to during the sentencing hearing.) You read books but the tips from the Parent Industrial Complex don’t seem to be that helpful.
But if you look a little deeper you realize that…
No, you were right the first time. They’re not that helpful.
Christina Hardyment looked at over 650 parenting books dating back to the 1700’s and found the vast majority of the information they contain wasn’t from science or even the hard-won insight of wise moms. Most of it actually came from manuals designed to industrialize the care of kids in eighteenth-century foundling hospitals. Yes, really. Babies should be fed four times a day… um, unless the nurses in the ward are too busy. Fine, make it twice a day. Whatever.
And, frankly, many modern science studies aren’t dramatically better. As Brian Nosek of UVA points out, parenting research is notoriously “underpowered.” Instead of studying thousands or tens of thousands of kids, they often only look at a couple hundred — leading to the flip-flopping advice we get every few years.
So where is the useful information? Perhaps it’s time we tried another route. Humans have been raising kids almost as long as “Law and Order” has been on the air. There must be effective traditions out there that work…
And that’s what led Michaeleen Doucleff to travel the world with her three-year-old daughter in search of ancient answers from other cultures. She lived with the Maya in Mexico, the Inuit in the Arctic, and the Hadzabe near the Serengeti. Then she cross checked what she learned with anthropologists, psychologists and neuroscientists. Her wonderful book is “Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans.”
Let’s get to it…
Maya children in the Yucatan Peninsula are the most helpful children in the world. Researcher Lucia Alcala found that in this community, three quarters of kids take initiative with housework.
What’s their secret? These parents don’t spend time trying to keep their kids entertained – they see their job as teaching children to be part of a team.
Maya culture tells kids they are a working member of a family who is expected to contribute. Engaging in adult tasks is a privilege. Being a “big boy” or “big girl” is the ultimate Xbox achievement. They’re a part of something bigger than themselves and they need to earn their team membership card.
Chore charts and allowances just teach kids to respond to rewards and punishments, killing intrinsic motivation. Instead, the Maya make sure kids understand the value of their tasks to the community. This way they actually enjoy chores because they’re making a real contribution. Connectedness and being a competent, respected member of the group is the reward.
Some parents are making lip farts right now. “My kids would never respond to that. They’d prefer to just watch YouTube.”
And those parents are right. You know why? Because that’s what those kids have been taught. Little ones usually want to be helpful. To be a part of what mom and dad are doing. But often we shoo them away from tasks when they’re young. Eventually they learn that chores are “mom and dad work” and “my work” is to stare at an iPad until mom comes by to wipe drool from the screen. Of course they don’t want to do chores – how do you feel when someone asks you to do something that “isn’t your job”?
When the kid world is so divorced from the adult world, children feel exempt from responsibilities. Instead of getting emotionally rewarded by being a part of the family team, they find reward only in Roblox and Minecraft. But when their primary context is family tasks, they want to be a part of them – both the responsibilities and the benefits. This doesn’t sound as odd if you talk to the older generation. They grew up knowing they were expected to help in the family store or on the farm, not to live in a totally separate child-centered world.
So how do we inch closer to the Maya way of doing things? With young kids it’s not as hard as you think. Children want to mimic adults and help – we train them not to. Young kids want together time and don’t draw strict boundaries on what is “fun”. Invite them into a communal activity you can do with them. “Let’s fold laundry together.”
You can start with simple tasks they can handle: Hold this. Get mommy the bowl. Go grab the washcloth for daddy. Stir this. (Young kids can be surprisingly good sous-chefs.) Yes, it’s minor but you’re building the habit of helping. Then work your way up. Older kids can be given more complex tasks but again, make it communal. It’s about the connection, time together and contribution rather than isolated forced labor.
So why don’t parents do this? They get errands done faster on their own. And they’re right. That 15-minute task is now going to take 45 minutes with a toddler “helping”. But this method isn’t about getting things done efficiently — it’s about teaching kids to be cooperative. That their help is needed. That they’re responsible for things around here. The added time is an investment. Having a tiny incompetent helper now will more than be made up for by having a teenage competent helper later who does dishes without being asked.
Don’t micromanage. Children love to say, “I did it all by myself!” Initially, worry less about the task being done well than about building the skills of collaboration and responsibility. When kids are always told they’re doing things wrong, they lose motivation. Use praise sparingly and focus on celebrating the trait of helpfulness, not the specifics of the task at hand.
Yes, there may be some resistance at first. For young kids, emphasize the issue of being treated like an adult. They can “be a baby” but they don’t get to be a part of what the family is doing together. Young kids don’t want to be excluded.
For older children, emphasize reciprocity. They’re going to want things from you, whether it’s money, the car, or help. So respond with: “Did you help me with the dishes?” Teens can be selfish but they’re not stupid. And if they’re really smart, they’ll start volunteering in advance to bank goodwill. Being helpful is a skill to be learned, like reading or math.
The benefits are worth it. When the children’s world is a part of the adult world that’s one less world parents have to manage. You don’t need “chore time”, “play event manager for the kids time” and “family time.” They can all collapse into one. And this brings everyone closer.
(To learn about how to improve your relationships, check out my new bestselling book here.)
But what about making kids nicer and calmer? Conflict in family life is inevitable and sadly, sometimes frequent. Disputes can be like a “Where’s Waldo?” page that’s too easy and you always find them immediately.
For answers here we need to go to the arctic…
The Inuit never yell at children. Even if little kids hit their parents, the Inuit remain calm.
To the Inuit, emotional control is one of the strongest signs of adulthood. Getting angry with a child is stooping to the same level as them. If your kid misbehaved in the arctic and you yelled at them, the Inuit wouldn’t shame the child – they’d mock you.
Arguing with children is more strenuous than Middle East negotiations and about as productive. So the Inuit don’t do it. They believe that getting angry with kids just reduces communication. The more you shout, the less they listen.
You may think you’re going to change the child’s mind through the magic of screaming but Western scientists agree with the Inuit: Your example matters more than your words. Behavior is contagious. Kids mirror emotions and so your anger has far more impact than whatever you say. When verbal carnage is unleashed from that hole in your face, you lose it, they lose it, and the whole thing escalates.
During conflict, the goal is to bring the energy level down. Modeling a calm demeanor silently teaches children to reduce anger and control their emotions. Think about it. Your goal is to get the kid to change. Who do you pay to help you change? Therapists. And how often do therapists yell at you? Exactly.
We underestimate kids’ helpfulness but overestimate their emotional intelligence. Training them that anger is the way we respond to problems is not good for you in the short run and not good for them in the long run.
When parents ignore anger, kids start to realize this method doesn’t work. And science agrees. Batja Mesquita, a cross-cultural psychologist at the University of Leuven in Belgium, says that ignoring misbehavior dampens emotions. Yelling escalates them. Kids often do things to get attention. Anger is the most extreme form of attention. So when you get angry their brain says: This works.
Don’t suppress your anger; be less angry. It’s not as hard as you think. The secret? Change the narrative in your head. The Inuit expect kids to misbehave. We, however, are shocked – SHOCKED! – when children aren’t little angels. And so we get angry. Expecting kids to control their temper is like expecting them to know math without being taught. When we get rid of unrealistic expectations, anger is less likely to arise.
And stop assuming their tantrums are intentional. When someone is difficult and you tell yourself, “They’re out to get me!” — you’re angry. When you tell yourself, “They must be having a bad day” — you’re compassionate. It’s all about the narrative.
What’s this like in practice? Maybe your little one won’t take a bath and they’re screaming. Quite literally, you are dealing with a dirty bomb. Take a few court-mandated deep breaths and remind yourself they are not out to get you. They are a new employee who needs HR training. Tantrums are a chance to help them learn to calm down, and the best way to accomplish that is through modeling behavior, not through lectures at the top of your voice while using their middle name.
Speak less when you’re angry. Using fewer words keeps energy levels low and creates less resistance. Speak gently. Calm but confident. Your example is more powerful than your words.
You need to get their “thinky” brain back online without escalating things. How do you do that? Turn criticisms into questions: “Who made this mess?” “What are you doing to your sister?” “Why are your wielding that crossbow?” This gets your point across without a dictatorial power struggle – and it makes them think.
Keep asking questions. Again, what you want here is a thinking adult member of your family team. “Why did you hit me? Do you not like me? Are you a baby?” The more you get them thinking, the less emotional they’ll be. And more importantly, as long as you stay calm you won’t be escalating emotion.
Then you want to bring emotion back — in a positive way. Touch them. “Physical touch breaks the tension between a child and parent,” says psychologist Dr. Larry Cohen. The Inuit use touch to show kids they are safe and loved. You can hug them, nuzzle them or just put a hand on their shoulder. (Tickling is not out of the question and has incredible tension-relieving ability.)
The initial goal here is not to logically teach them why what they’re doing is wrong – it’s to make them sane again. Then, once you’ve broken the emotional spell of anger, you can rationally explain what better behavior would be in the future.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn a much, much bigger lesson about how these methods can improve your life beyond the realm of parenting…
This is how to use ancient traditions to raise awesome kids:
Let’s step away from the ancient traditions and modern science for a second. I’ve read more books on parenting than any childless guy ever. What have I learned? It’s simple:
Almost all good parenting advice is good people advice.
Or, to put it bluntly: There are no grown-ups. None. Nowhere. Ever. We’re all muddling through. Sometimes we’re all selfish, emotional and out of control. It happens. And it’s okay.
If you apply parenting advice to all your relationships, you’ll be better off. Don’t try to control people. Treat them like adults – especially if they’re not acting like one. Bribes and punishments are not as effective as encouraging cooperation and making people feel like part of a team.
Anger usually just makes things worse with people. If they’re angry, you getting angry just escalates things. To stop being angry change the story in your head: they’re usually not evil, they’re just having a bad day. Encourage their thinky brain to take charge again and focus on a warm, positive connection where they feel supported.
When you stop trying to control or win with others you can focus on getting to that thing which is worth more than anything else is the universe…
Yes, printer ink.
Okay, maybe we should focus on the second most valuable thing in the universe: love. It’s not printer ink but it’s still pretty good.