We can safely assume all parents want to raise confident, empathetic, resilient kids. It’s an evolving journey, no doubt, but what if we told you that you could do it without yelling, nagging, or timeouts? Now that’s a lofty goal.
Parenting expert and New York Times bestselling author Michaeleen Doucleff, Ph.D., is up to the task: For her book, Hunt, Gather, Parent, she traveled around the world (with her 3-year-old daughter) and interviewed families from the world’s most ancient cultures on their parenting styles—sort of like the Blue Zones of parenting, if you’re familiar with the work of Dan Buettner. On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, Doucleff shares some of her astounding findings, and we grabbed some of the highlights below:
1. Don’t shoo them away while they’re interested in chores.
“One of the key things is to never shoo away a child if they’re showing interest in chores,” Doucleff declares. “Toddlers will come over and want to help with the laundry or dinner, and American parents will often tell them, ‘No, go play.'” Over time, that child will start to understand that they do not belong to this team effort, which Doucleff says actually makes them less likely to help out as they grow older. “The desire to help and be part of this team goes away in American kids by about age 6 or 7, usually,” she adds.
That said, she suggests letting your kids contribute to whatever you’re working on, no matter their age. Better yet: “Turn the chore into a social event,” Doucleff says. “Chat while you clean up, and get them involved a little bit.” And you don’t have to give them a giant task, either. The Maya moms were so good at giving the child the right amount of a task,” she says. “Just tiny little things, like stir the pot, chop the herbs, go get the vacuum… This motivates children because they see they are making a contribution. And that is way more motivating than praise.”
Research shows that children have this intrinsic motivation to help out—and extrinsic rewards actually undermine this tendency. In fact, one study shows that 20-month-olds were less likely to help a second time if they were given a toy afterward. So rather than rewards or allowances, just giving them the space to contribute can go a long way.
2. Include them in your world.
“After the first trip to the Yucatán, I noticed the parents did nothing specifically for the kids on the weekends,” says Doucleff. No activities, no birthday parties, no set play dates—the children simply helped out in the household. Of course, they also played with other kids: “They ran around the whole village by themselves,” Doucleff recounts. However, the “adult world” and the “kid world” were merged into one.
Says Doucleff, people often create worlds for their children with child-centered activities (the birthday parties, the dance classes, the activities, etc.). “Then they see that their purpose in the family is to do these other activities,” she notes. Whereas if you invite a child into your world, they will want to be part of your team. “They will want to help clean up after dinner or make the beds in the morning, because if they’re a part of your world and with you all the time when you’re doing these things, they see that as their role in the family to help.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean they can never have a play date or sign up for dance class. Doucleff just says to avoid filling their schedule up to the brim with child-centered activities and invite them into your own world every once in a while.
3. Make kids think.
When you’re talking to your child, how often are you giving commands? Don’t climb on that tree. Don’t hit your brother. Don’t play with your food. Doucleff can relate, but she says commands are actually not the best method to convince your kid to do the right thing. “The Inuit parents rarely ever say that,” she explains. “There’s a lot of tools Inuit families use to get kids to stop and think.”
For example, they would say: What do you think is going to happen if you climb on that tree? Or perhaps: If you throw those rocks, you’re going to hurt your brother. “The purpose of this is to get the child to think and make the right decision for themselves,” Doucleff adds. “It assumes the child has agency and can figure things out.” This technique is especially helpful for children who are strong-willed—they want to do the right thing, but they want to be the one to make the call. By explaining the consequences of an action rather than assuming they will do whatever you say, you’ll likely wind up with a better (read: calmer) outcome.
Overall, Doucleff advises trusting your kids and respecting their contributions. Yes, children may be tiny, growing humans, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thoughtful—they just may have a harder time expressing those thoughts, and so they may need a helpful nudge in the right direction.