Three years ago, I sat at the Cancun airport in a state of paralysis. I stared outside, trying to figure out if what I had just witnessed could possibly be true. Could parenting be that effective? Could children be that helpful and respectful? More to the point: Has Western culture forgotten the best way to parent?
The day before, I had been visiting with families in a Maya village, nestled in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Yucatec Maya are indigenous people in the region. I spent hours, talking to moms about how they raise their children—and watching their skills in action.
What I saw shifted my whole sense of how parenting could work. The moms related to children in a way that parents, all over the world, have turned to for thousands of years—a way that parents in Western culture once embraced, as well. I believe this approach may just be the lifeline parents need right now as we enter the second year of the pandemic.
I call it TEAM parenting, for its four main elements: togetherness, encouragement, autonomy and minimal interference. In combination, these elements minimize conflict and foster cooperation—two things I sorely needed to do with my hot-tempered, fire-in-belly 2-year-old, named Rosy, who was waiting for me back home.
At the time, my parenting style was like a white-knuckled ride on Cat-5 rapids, filled with screaming and tears galore. In contrast, the Maya moms’ style felt like flowing down a wide river, meandering through a mountain valley—calm, gentle, and effective. There was no yelling, no bickering and very little resistance (in either direction).
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But what really stood out was the children’s helpfulness. One morning, I watched a preteen girl, wake up during her spring break and immediately begin washing the dishes from breakfast. No one had to ask her. The family didn’t have a chore chart on the kitchen wall. “Does she volunteer help often?” I asked her mother. “If she sees there is something to be done, she doesn’t wait,” her mother told me. “One time, I took her younger sister to the clinic, and when I came back, she had cleaned the whole house.”
At the time, I thought perhaps the Maya families had some parenting skills that Western parents, such as myself, didn’t know. But I was wrong. The Maya parents aren’t the exception or even rare.
Traveling with Rosy in tow, I saw the TEAM parenting approach with Inuit families above the Arctic circle, who hunt seals and caribou for a living. I saw it again, 6,000 miles away, on the dry Tanzania savanna with Hadzabe families, who forage for tubers and baobab seeds. And I’ve spent the last four years, reading about the approach in more than a hundred scientific studies and talking about it with psychologists, anthropologists, and parents.
Given how pervasive this method is around the globe—and among hunter-gatherer communities—biologists can make a convincing argument that the parent-child relationship evolved to work this way.
And yet, Western parents have forgotten key elements of this approach. We’ve forgotten how to motivate kids to do chores without nagging or bribing, how to discipline without yelling or time-outs, and how to relate to children in a way that builds confidence and self-sufficiency.
Many of our cornerstone practices—the practices we think we have to do to be good parents—go directly against TEAM parenting. These practices make our lives harder and our kids anxious because they go against children’s innate instincts to work collaboratively with people they love and to learn through autonomous exploration, anthropologist David Lancy, at Utah State University, writes in Child Helpers. “Thwarted in their desire to pitch-in, [Western children] seem readily adapt to a lifestyle where they are wholly the beneficiaries of others’ good works, with little or no obligation to reciprocate.”
Instead of separating children from the adult activities, Maya parents go about their regular lives—with chores, hobbies, work, and social outings—and allow kids to tag along. Every once in a while, parents request help from the child. The tasks are small, such as “Go fetch some herbs from the garden,” or “Put the plates on the dinner table.” But they are genuine contributions, says psychologist Lucia Alcala at the California State University, Fullerton.
In Maya communities, everyone is expected to pitch in with activities, even toddlers. “In a study, one Maya mother told us, ‘As early as they can walk, you can start asking them to help, for example, to bring you this or that,’” Alcala adds. As the child grows up, the tasks become more complicated. Instead of just fetching the herbs, they’re making a whole dish. Instead of only setting the plates, they’re clearing the table and washing the dishes.
Over time, the child learns useful life skills, but they also learn something critical to a peaceful home: how to work together with their family. How to collaborate. Cleaning up after dinner is a shared responsibility that everyone one in the home does together, Alcala tells me. By the time kids are age 9 or 10, they are competent contributors, helping their family on their own initiative. Parents don’t need to nag or bribe them to do it.
And what does the Maya parent do when a child refuses to help. Well, I’ll tell you one thing they don’t do. They don’t start a big argument with the child, Alcala says.
Arguing and negotiating with children is so common in my home, that I thought it was a universal practice worldwide. But that idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
While staying with an Inuit family in a village above the Arctic Circle, I never once saw an adult argue with a child. Moms and dads used all these other tools to encourage proper behavior, but they never yelled, nagged, or even negotiated (even in the grocery store). “When a child mistreats you, you don’t fight back with a young child,” Sidonie Nirlungayuk, age 74, told me one afternoon while eating Arctic char in her living room.
Many Inuit parents see arguing with children as silly and a waste of time, interpreter Elizabeth Tegumiar explained further. When a parent argues with a child, the parent stoops to the child’s level. The child simply learns to argue and to value arguing.
“Your [American] toddler probably gets a lot of attention when they’re angry, or they misbehave,” says cross-cultural psychologist Batja Mesquita at the University of Leuven, Belgium. “But there are a lot of parents in the world who just completely ignore a child’s anger and misbehavior.” Then over time, she says, the child learns that anger doesn’t work. And they stop doing it. It dies out.
So next time your child misbehaves, think of Elizabeth Tegumiar and simply walk away. Turn your back and walk away. Same goes for arguments and power struggles. If one starts to brew, close your mouth and walk away. You don’t have to go far, maybe just to the other room, or even just a few feet away. Your silence and distancing will calmly communicate to the child that their behavior is unacceptable.
To be honest, that advice is much harder to implement than it sounds, at least for this Western mom writing this essay. When my daughter disobeys me, every cell in my body wants to yell or argue. That’s how I was raised. But once I learned this new parenting skill, my 3-year-old’s executive functions quickly improved, and conflict in our home decreased dramatically.
Our lives improved even further, when I stopped executing the third major pitfall of Western parenting. That is, when I stopped being a bossy pants.
If we want our kids to be confident—and we want to protect them from anxiety and stress—we need to curb the commands, instructions, and lectures (yes, even the praise), neuropsychologist William Stixrud and educator Ned Johnson write in their book, The Self-Driven Child.
I realized just how bossy I am as a parent, when my daughter and I visited Hadzabe families in Tanzania. Like many hunter-gatherer communities, Hadzabe greatly value a person’s right to make their own decisions. They value the right to autonomy. And this view extends to children, even toddlers. As a result, parents don’t feel this ubiquitous urgency to “fix” or “manage” a child’s behavior.
In one study with BaYaka hunter-gatherers in Central Africa, anthropologist Sheina Lew-Levy counted how many times an adult verbally instructed a child or told them what to do. Guess how many commands parents issued per hour, on average? Three. I ran this same experiment with myself, and after 15 minutes, I clocked in at more than 60 commands per hour.
In many hunter-gatherer communities, parents go to great lengths not to tell children (or adults) what to do, Lew-Levy says. This restrained style doesn’t mean that parents don’t pay attention, or don’t care what children do. A caretaker is definitely watching to be sure kids are safe. But parents have confidence that children know how to learn and grow, without adults constant meddling. Anything a parent says—the vast majority of the time—will only get in the child’s way and generate conflict. So parents interfere minimally.
This no-bossing policy is likely hundreds of thousands of years old. And it has oodles of psychological benefits for children (and their parents). Studies have linked autonomy with confidence and better executive function in children. As they grow up, autonomy is connected to better performance in school and increased chance of career success, Stixrud and Johnson write.
On the flipside, when parents constantly manage a child’s behavior and schedule, they can feel powerless over their lives, Stixrud and Johnson write. “Many [American] kids feel that way all the time.” That feeling causes stress, and over time, that stress can turn into anxiety and depression.
Three years ago, sitting at the Cancun airport, I felt lost as a mom. My relationship with my daughter was filled with tension and conflict. I dreaded the time I spent with her. But as I slowly added these universal parenting practices into our lives, Rosy went from being my “enemy” to becoming my teammate—perhaps even my most favorite person in the world.
Adapted from HUNT, GATHER, PARENT, by Michaeleen Doucleff. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.