Mayan Supermoms

Like most aspiring parents, I think a lot about how I will raise my children. Obviously, I am not alone in these concerns, since raising another human being is one of the most consequential things one can do.

That is why parenting advice is a dime a dozen, and why there has been so much interest and discussion around parenting styles from Asia or France. People everywhere share the same understandable need to learn the best way to shape their children in ways that will help them flourish.

One approach that has received far less attention is Mayan parenting, which challenges many of the assumptions that underpin parenting across the world. NPR has a great piece about it, and I recommend reading the whole thing. Here are some choice excerpts highlighting the life and philosophies of a Mayan mom:

Burgos is constantly on parental duty. She often tosses off little warnings about safety: “Watch out for the fire” or “Don’t play around the construction area.” But her tone is calm. Her body is relaxed. There’s no sense of urgency or anxiety.

In return, the children offer minimal resistance to their mother’s advice. There’s little whining, little crying and basically no yelling or bickering.

In general, Burgos makes the whole parenting thing look — dare, I say it — easy. So I ask her: “Do you think that being a mom is stressful?”

Burgos looks at me as if I’m from Mars. “Stressful? What do you mean by stressful?” she responds through a Mayan interpreter.

A five-minute conversation ensues between Burgos and the interpreter, trying to convey the idea of “stressful.” There doesn’t seem to be a straight-up Mayan term, at least not pertaining to motherhood.

But finally, after much debate, the translator seems to have found a way to explain what I mean, and Burgos answers.

“There are times that I worry about my children, like when my son was 12 and only wanted to be with his friends and not study,” Burgos says. “I was worried about his future.” But once she guided him back on track, the worry went away.

In general, she shows no sense of chronic worry or stress.

“I know that raising kids is slow,” she says. “Little by little they will learn.”

I would love to channel that delicate balance of stoicism and paternalism, somewhere between “helicopter” and “free-range” parenting.

Families In A Maya Village In Mexico May Have The Secret To Getting Kids To  Do Chores : Goats and Soda : NPR
Credit: Adriana Zehbrauskas / NPR

As it turns out, the Mayan approach reflects a fundamentally different paradigm to parenting. Whereas most Western cultures frame parenting as a matter of control—be it less or more, or over some things but not others—the Maya do not even have a word for control as it relates to children.

“We think of obedience from a control angle. Somebody is in charge and the other one is doing what they are told because they have to,” says Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the Maya culture for 30 years.

And if you pay attention to the way parents interact with children in our society, the idea is blazingly obvious. We tend to boss them around. “Put your shoes on!” or “Eat your sandwich!”

“People think either the adult is in control or the child is in control,” Rogoff says.

But what if there is another way to interact with kids that removes control from the equation, almost altogether?

That’s exactly what the Maya — and several other indigenous cultures — do. Instead of trying to control children, Rogoff says, parents aim to collaborate with them.

“It’s kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal,” Rogoff says. “It’s not letting the kids do whatever they wantIt’s a matter of children — and parents — being willing to be guided.”

In the Maya culture, even the littlest of children are treated with this respect. “It’s collaborative from the get-go.”

No doubt this collaborative and egalitarian approach would be alien to most American parents (among others I’m sure). So would the Mayan idea of what is called “alloparenting”:

Human children didn’t evolve in a nuclear family. Instead, for hundreds of thousands of years, kids have been brought up with a slew of people — grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, the neighbors, Lancy writes. It’s not that you need a whole village, as the saying goes, but rather an extended family — which could include biological relatives but also neighbors, close friends or paid help.

Throughout human history, motherhood has been seen as a set of tasks that can be accomplished by many types of people, like relatives and neighbors, the historian John R. Gillis writes in The World Of Their Own Making. Anthropologists call them “alloparents” — “allo” simply means “other.”

Across the globe, cultures consider alloparents key to raising children, Lancy writes.

The Maya moms value and embrace alloparents. Their homes are porous structures and all sorts of “allomoms” flow in and out. When a woman has a baby, other mothers work together to make sure she can take a break each day to take a shower and eat meals, without having to hold the baby. (How civilized is that!)

In one household with four kids that I visited, the aunt dropped off food, the grandma stopped by to help with a neighbor’s baby and, all the while, the oldest daughter looked after the toddler — while the mom fed the livestock and started to make lunch. But in Western culture, over the past few centuries, we have pushed alloparents to the periphery of the parenting landscape, Gillis writes. They aren’t as valued and sometimes even denigrated as a means for working mothers to outsource parenting duties.

It is a stark contrast to the stereotypical—and still widespread—notion of the “mom in a box”: A mother stuck at home with the kids and responsible for virtually every domestic task in addition to nearly all parental duties. Learning on dads, relatives, or close friends is more common—if only by necessity—but is still treated as a last resort or otherwise unusual.

Mayan Civilization Continues to Amaze

I have been listening to this lecture series about the colonization of the Americas, and how the Mayans were unprecedented for being able to carve out an advanced civilization in an inhospitable, under-resourced jungle without the benefit of the wheel, plow, and draft animals (the lack of the latter is why the wheel never came to use as a tool to begin with).

Now, scientists using advance laser technology have revealed the incredible extent of the Mayans’ achievements: sophisticated urban complexes spanning tens of thousands of structures deep in the jungle. As IFLS reports:

Archaeologists first discovered the vast metropolis in February, National Geographic reported, led by Guatemalan science nonprofit group the PACUNAM Foundation. Publishing their work in Science over six months later, the team confirms the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids.

LiDAR pierces through the thick forest canopy to reveal changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.

Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement.

In all, more than 61,000 ancient structures have been accounted for in the surveyed region, indicating that up to 7 to 11 million people were present at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. These populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization and were spread out over more than 1,200 square kilometers (810 square miles). This land was modified in some way for the intensive agricultural production needed to support the massive population for hundreds of years.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Maya archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

Whether or not these structures existed at the same time, or represents different periods of development, it is still amazing that such large and well organized societies could have sustained themselves in environments that even today are challenging to settle and develop.