Michaeleen Doucleff is the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans.
At 6:45 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning, I woke to a gremlin whispering in my ear.
“Don’t get up, Mama. Don’t get up,” my five-year-old daughter, Rosy, said. “Stay in bed.”
My knee-jerk reaction was to say, “Hey, don’t boss me around.” But I stayed quiet and stayed in the bed. Then the little half-pint ran downstairs and did something I didn’t even think was possible for a five year old – something she actually learned because of the pandemic.
I’m not going to sugar-coat our lives. At the beginning of the pandemic, lockdown with Rosy was brutal. Rosy is a great kid. She’s smart and witty. But she’s also a firecracker, with a hot temper. She’s quick to yell, demand and resort to emotional outbursts. By 10 each morning, we were both doing all three. I would be screaming something ridiculous like, “Rosy, stop screaming at me!”
I needed a better approach to parenting, and I needed it badly. Luckily, I had one at my fingertips.
For the past four years, I’ve been learning about how cultures around the world raise kind, helpful children. Kids who wake up in the morning and immediately start doing the dishes. Kids who come home from the grocery store and immediately share a candy bar with their little sister or brother. I’m talking about kids who want to help their family, no allowance or chore chart needed.
I’ve read hundreds of studies, talked with more than a hundred researchers, and with Rosy in tow, travelled to three of the world’s most revered cultures – Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula, Inuit in Nunavut and Hadzabe in Tanzania. I interviewed moms, dads, grandparents and great-grandparents there. Together they showed me how to tame Rosy’s tantrums, motivate her to be helpful, and build up her confidence and self-sufficiency.
During the lockdown, the tools and advice I learned became a lifeline for our family. They saved both my and Rosy’s mental health, but they also taught Rosy an important life skill: how to co-operate with her family.
Here are the four rules that helped our family the most.
Rule No. 1: Never argue with a child
In many cultures, parents simply don’t argue with young kids. They don’t bicker, nag or even negotiate. While Rosy and I visited with an Inuit family in Kugaaruk, Nunavut, I never once saw a parent argue or even yell at a child over the two-week period (I never saw an adult yell at anyone).
“When a child mistreats you, you don’t fight back with a young child,” Sidonie Nirlungayuk, 74, told me one afternoon. Arguing with children only teaches them to argue with you, several psychologists have told me.
So what do I do if an argument is brewing between us? I point out the problem (e.g., “That’s not helpful” or “That’s disrespectful”). Then I simply walk away. I turn my back and walk away.
Rule No. 2: Reduce your commands to three an hour
Try this experiment. Take out your phone and set the timer for 15 minutes. Now count how many commands or instructions you give a child.
I ran this experiment with Rosy, and I was clocking in more than 100 commands an hour. While visiting with Hadzabe families in Tanzania, I noticed that parents issued far fewer commands, only about one or two an hour to kids. Even then, the commands were often requests for help.
In many hunter-gatherer communities around the world, adults greatly value autonomy, or a person’s right to make their own decisions. They extend this right to young children, even toddlers. So parents aren’t constantly telling children what to do. Instead, they watch children closely and jump in only when needed to keep a child safe. Psychologists at Simon Fraser University recently documented this practice with BaYaka foragers in the Congo Basin.
When I try this approach with Rosy – that is, when I reduce my commands down to three or fewer an hour – something magical happens: We get along. Conflict all but ceases.
Rule No. 3: Stop feeling the need to ‘keep them busy’
As a mom, I often feel this burden to give Rosy a constant stream of toys, screens, lessons or instructions. It’s hard to imagine that she could spend a few hours each day deciding what to do for herself, with no input from me.
But in the vast majority of cultures (and throughout human history) that’s just what kids do every day! Parents go about their daily lives and let kids tag along. When a child shows interests in a task, the parent finds a way to include them. But otherwise, the child decides what to do with their time and attention.
Entertaining kids – or simply just “keeping them busy” – is exhausting. During lockdown, I couldn’t keep it up for nine hours a day and still finish the book I was writing. So I stopped. I told Rosy, “It is time to work on the book. We all need to be quiet. We cannot interrupt each other until we’re finished.” At first Rosy was upset with this new arrangement. But she quickly learned to entertain herself – and to take care of herself. She even started to make her own lunches and prepare her own snacks.
Rule No. 4: Request (tiny) help from children
While researching the book I started to see that all around the world, from the Kalahari Desert to the Yucatan Peninsula, parents use one key tool to teach children to be helpful: They give children subtasks of chores they’re already doing.
When a mom or dad is cleaning, cooking, gardening or taking care of another child, they ask the child to help. These aren’t big requests, like “Go clean the living room.” These are often tiny, tiny requests, such as “Turn the hose on,” “Dry this plate,” or “Crack these eggs.”
Over time, the child learns to co-operate with their parents. They learn to look out for ways they can help around the house. And they learn something invaluable: how to do chores! They learn how to do the laundry, wash the dishes and even make breakfast – just for their parents.
Yes, that’s what the little gremlin was up to on Sunday morning, when she told me to stay in bed. She went into the kitchen, made me a cup of tea and started to make oatmeal for the whole family.
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