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.

Parenting German Style

Well, more specifically, Berlin-style. TIME offers a glimpse at how parents in the cosmopolitan capital of one of the world’s most progressive countries treat their children. I know there is no shortage of pieces exploring the wide variety of parenting styles in the world, but this one seems well worth considering.

Don’t push reading. Berlin’s kindergartens or “kitas” don’t emphasize academics. In fact, teachers and other parents discouraged me from teaching my children to read. I was told it was something special the kids learn together when they start grade school. Kindergarten was a time for play and social learning. But even in first grade, academics aren’t pushed very hard. Our grade school provides a half-day of instruction interrupted by two (two!) outdoor recesses. But don’t think this relaxed approach means a poor education: According to a 2012 assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, German 15-year-olds perform well above the international average when it comes to reading, math and science while their more pressured American counterparts lag behind.

Encourage kids to play with fire. A note came home from school along with my excited second grader. They were doing a project on fire. Would I let her light candles and perform experiments with matches? Together we lit candles and burned things, safely. It was brilliant. Still, she was the only kid whose parent didn’t allow her to shoot off heavy duty fireworks on New Year’s Eve.

Let children go almost everywhere alone. Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone. German parents are concerned about safety, of course, but they usually focus on traffic, not abductions.

The facts seem to be on the Germans’ side. Stranger abductions are extremely rare; there were only 115 a year in all of America, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice study. And walking around without parental supervision, or “independent mobility” as the researchers call it, is good for kids.

Party when school starts. One of my Berlin friends once told me that the three biggest life events are Einschulung (starting first grade), Jugendweihe (becoming a young adult) and getting married.

In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

Jugendweihe happens when a child turns 14. It involves a similar ceremony, party, and gifts, marking the next stage of growing up. With all the negativity heaped on adolescents, there’s something to be said for this way of celebrating young adulthood.

Take the kids outside everyday. According to a German saying “there is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. The value of outside time is promoted in the schools, hence the “garten” in Kindergarten. It’s also obvious on Berlin’s numerous playgrounds. No matter how cold and grey it gets, and in Berlin it gets pretty cold, parents still bundle their kids up and take them to the park, or send them out on their own.

So basically, Berliners cultivate a lot of freedom and independence in their children, while also allowing them to have a lot more unbridled fun in their youth; even their institutions and infrastructure are geared towards this approach. This seems to be the right way to raise a child, especially as it makes the most out of these relatively easy and innocent — and formative — years.

What are your thoughts?

Parenting Habits From Around The World

Globalization has allowed us to discover and learn more about all sorts of previously unknown ideas and concepts, and parenting is certainly no exception. Cultures across the planet have wildly different approaches to raising or education children, some of which may shock Americans — although the feeling is often mutual.

NPR has gathered an interesting collection of general parenting trends from around the world, some of which may catch on here, while others would be unthinkable. It is interesting to consider how and why certain societies adopt the parenting norms that they do. How each generation is raised has a tremendous impact on overall values and attitudes, and those parenting methods are in turn influenced by all sorts of other external factors (climate, geographic, prevailing economic conditions, etc).

Ponder this while taking a look at the following.

1. In Norway, kids nap outside even in subzero temperatures

In Norway, childhood is very institutionalized. When a kid turns one year old, he or she starts going to Barnehage (Norwegian for “children’s garden”), which is basically state-subsidized day care.

Parents pay a few hundred dollars a month and their kids are taken care of from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Toddlers spend a ton of time outside at Barnehage, even in extremely cold temperatures. It’s not uncommon to see kids bundled up outside during a Scandinavian winter, taking a nap in their strollers.

Even with the obvious benefits provided by the government in Norway, some parents complain about the lack of creativity in people’s approaches to parenting.

One American mother adjusting to raising kids in Norway wrote:

“There’s a sense that there’s just one right way to do things. And everyone does it that way. In America there are different parenting styles — co-sleeping, attachment parenting, etc. Here there is just one way, more or less: all kids go to bed at 7, all attend the same style of preschool, all wear boots, all eat the same lunch … that’s the Norwegian way.”

2. Vietnamese moms train their babies to pee on command

Here’s a good one. In Vietnam, parents train their babies to pee on command. Kind of like Pavlov with his salivating dogs. Except this is moms with peeing babies. The Chinese do it too, apparently. Parents start by noticing when their baby starts peeing and making a little whistle sound. Soon enough, the baby starts to associate the whistle with peeing and voila!

Think this sounds a little odd? Or a little like someone is conflating a kid with a pet schnauzer? Well, researchers say Vietnamese babies are usually out of diapers by 9 months. What do you think now?

3. Traditionally, Kisii people in Kenya avoid looking their babies in the eye

Kisii, or Gussii, moms in Kenya carry their babies everywhere, but they don’t indulge a baby’s cooing. Rather, when their babies start babbling, moms avert their eyes.

It’s likely to sound harsh to a Western sensibility, but within the context of Kisii culture, it makes more sense. Eye contact is an act bestowed with a lot of power. It’s like saying, “You’re in charge,” which isn’t the message parents want to send their kids. Researchers say Kisii kids are less attention-seeking as a result.

4. Danish parents leave their kids on the curb while they go shopping

In Denmark, writes Mei-Ling Hopgood in How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, “children are frequently left outside to get frisk luft, or fresh air — something parents think is essential for health and hearty development — while caregivers dine and shop.”

As you might imagine, this idea sends shivers down the spines of many parents in the United States. In New York, a couple (one of whom was Danish) was arrested for leaving their child outside a BBQ restaurant while they went inside to eat.

“I was just in Denmark and that’s exactly what they do,” Mariom Adler, a New Yorker out walking with her 2-year-old son, told the New York Times. “We would see babies all over unattended. We were stunned, frankly. But Denmark also struck us as exceptionally civilized.”

5. In the Polynesian Islands, children take care of children

We’re not talking any old big brother baby-sitting little sister here. We’re talking organized kid collective.

Hopgood writes in her book that adults take the lead in caring for babies in Polynesia, but as soon as a child can walk, he or she is turned over to the care of other children.

“Preschool-aged children learned to calm babies,” she wrote, “and toddlers became self-reliant because they were taught that that was the only way they could hang out with the big kids.”

Jane and James Ritchie, a husband-and-wife anthropology team, observed a similar phenomenon over decades in New Zealand and the Polynesian Islands. But they don’t think it would fly in the United States.

“Indeed in Western societies, the degree of child caretaking that seems to apply in most of Polynesia would probably be regarded as child neglect and viewed with some horror,” they wrote in Growing Up in Polynesia.

6. Japanese parents let their kids go out by themselves

Parents in Japan allow their kids a lot of independence after a certain age. It isn’t uncommon for 7-year-olds and even 4-year-olds to ride the subway by themselves.

Christine Gross-Loh, author of Parenting Without Borders, lives in Japan for part of each year, and when she’s there she lets her kids run errands without her, taking the subway and wandering around town as they may. But she wouldn’t dare do the same back in the United States.

“If I let them out on their own like that in the U.S., I wouldn’t just get strange looks,” she told TED. “Somebody would call Child Protective Services.”

7. Spanish kids stay up late!

Spanish families are focused on the social and interpersonal aspects of child development, according to Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.

The idea of a child going to bed at 6:30 p.m. is totally alien to Spanish parents, Harkness told TED.

“They were horrified at the concept,” she said. “Their kids were going to bed at 10 p.m.” so they could participate in family life in the evenings. The same is true in Argentina, according to Hopgood.

8. Aka pygmy fathers win the award

For the Aka people in central Africa, the male and female roles are virtually interchangeable. While the women hunt, the men mind the children. And vice versa.

Therein lies the rub, according to professor Barry Hewlett, an American anthropologist. “There’s a level of flexibility that’s virtually unknown in our society,” Hewlett told The Guardian. “Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status — there’s no stigma involved in the different jobs.”

This flexibility, apparently, extends to men suckling their children. Ever wonder why men have nipples? That’s why.

9. French kids eat everything

Set mealtimes; no snacking whatsoever; the expectation that if you try something enough times, you’ll like it. These are among the “food rules” in France that are taken as given. The result is French kids who eat what adults eat, from foie gras to stinky cheese. Tell that to my nephew.

Of course, it goes without saying that most of these are just generalizations: not every Argentinian parent lets their kids stay up very late, nor do all French parents have such a liberal attitude towards what their children eat. Individual and subcultural nuances doubtless exist.

But perhaps like many other globalizing trends, we may start to see the development of trans-cultural approaches and standards. Just as cuisines, art styles, and consumer trends have emerged across the planet, so too will certain parenting ideas.

Then again, as I noted earlier, child rearing is a fundamental characteristic of a given society, and thus not something that can be transcribed nor altered so easily. Granted, the pace of globalization continues to accelerate, challenging all sorts of established cultural norms and concepts. Only time will tell, but in the meantime it is interesting to learn about — and learn from — how our fellow humans practice this vital social institution.