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"Kahoho kuhuma madzi is the Giriama/Kenyan name for toddler. It means 'a youngster who can be sent to fetch a cup of water.'"
—David F. Lancy, Child Helpers: A Multidisciplinary Perspective

As a struggling new mother, Michaellen Doucleff was frustrated that her two-year-old was slapping her. Doing research for a story on parenting in the Yucatan gave her tools that helped transform their lives. Inspired to learn more about parenting in indigenous cultures, Doucleff traveled to the Arctic and Tanzania.

Her new book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, validates many Montessori practices, including encouraging very young children to participate fully in family life—cooking, laundry, etc. While not romanticizing indigenous cultures, there is much we can learn from them.

Maya Mothers

Child Slicing BreadDoucleff describes Maya mothers as the calmest parents she'd ever met. She was astonished that Maya children and teenagers did chores without being reminded. Noticing that she rushed to do housework while her toddler napped, Doucleff changed.

"Now I relax, read and enjoy myself while she's sleeping and save all the chores to do with Rosie. This makes Rosie feel like a full-fledged, contributing member of the family. And to be honest, it's way more rewarding... I relish a relaxed pace. If I rush, Rosemary has a hard time participating...The Maya moms made me realize that toddlers get excitement and great pride from the smallest contributions to housework."

Toddlers want to participate! Recent research in the USA shows that preschool-age children overwhelmingly preferred real activities to their pretend equivalents (cutting real fruit, feeding a real baby, etc.). (Child Helpers: A Multidisciplinary Perspective)

The Youngest Helpers

Child Cutting Carrots"The tiniest little staggerer has tasks to perform – to carry water, to borrow fire brands, to fetch leaves to stuff the pig." (Margaret Mead, On Samoan Communities, 1928)

Nearly every cultural anthropologist since Margaret Mead has documented that in indigenous societies, toddlers' eagerness to help is encouraged. They're given tools, including sharp knives, while adults supervise calmly. Yet until recently, there wasn't much scholarly research about this "helper stage" of child development.

If toddlers' eagerness to help is skillfully fostered, children become important contributors to family life. Without being reminded, many indigenous children and teenagers help out in a myriad of responsible ways, including gathering food and firewood and taking care of younger children. The failure to welcome toddlers' attempts to be helpful can result in older children being less interested in being helpful.

In one study, mothers from the Andean Kichwa society were found to be more skillful in supporting their children's efforts to be helpful than mothers from Münster, Germany. The "indigenous children helped more often, helped in a more spontaneous way, and helped in more complex and risky tasks (implying more skillful participation) than Münster children." (Giner Torréns, Coppens, & Kärtner, 2019, cited in Child Helpers: A Multidisciplinary Perspective)

Praise and Rewards Are Unnecessary

Child SweepingIn one study, toddlers made choices, including navigating an obstacle course to help someone. The authors concluded, "Toddlers are instinctively altruistic and providing them with extrinsic rewards for their assistance actually diminishes their ardor." (Warneken & Tomasello, 2009, cited in Child Helpers: A Multidisciplinary Perspective)

Some parents in Mexico quietly acknowledge when a young child is "keenly observing ongoing activities and knowing when and how to pitch in." (Child Helpers: A Multidisciplinary Perspective) Praise and rewards are rare in many indigenous cultures. A parental nod or smile are often enough.

"Among the Runa, forager/farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon, children unanimously emphasized how accomplishing a task felt good because that caused someone else to [enjoy the benefit]. One boy described how he felt happy to have successfully hunted a tapir because that meant his mother would no longer be hungry...." (Child Helpers: A Multidisciplinary Perspective)

Remain Calm

Anthropologists who have spent months with the Inuit are often astonished that Inuit parents consider it childish to express anger and rarely get angry with anyone, including their children. Doucleff explains, "...we often think that children are pushing our buttons or testing boundaries or manipulating us. But actually a lot of [Inuit] parents don't see children that way. They see them as... illogical beings that are, of course, misbehaving because they haven't learned yet."

Martha Tikivik, 83, was born in an igloo and has six children. She told Doucleff, "There was no yelling at kids [in traditional Inuit culture]. Anger has no purpose.... It only stops communication between the child and the mom."

89-year-old Eenoapik Sageatook continued, "You have to remain calm and wait for the child to calm down. Then you can teach the child." (Quoted by Michaeleen Doucleff in the article "Can Inuit Moms Help Me Tame My 3-Year-Old's Anger?")

Discipline through Storytelling

Psychologist Deena Weisberg told Doucleff, "We learn best through things that are interesting to us... Stories with a dash of danger pull in kids like magnets."

Rather than nagging or giving lengthy explanations, Doucleff learned that Inuit parents often use stories, passed down through generations, to teach their children. In sub-zero Arctic weather, not wearing a hat can be life-threatening. Inuit parents tell children that the Northern Lights watch for hatless children, take their heads and play soccer with them! Children keep their hats on!

"Hit Me"

The Inuit approach to handling children's anger is creative and thought-provoking. Mothers wait until the child who has been hitting is calm, then use dramatic play to teach about the consequences of hitting others. The mother invites her child to hit her or throw a pebble at her. Then she'll cry out, "Ouch! That hurt!" In a light-hearted way (no guilt invoked) she'll ask, "Don't you like me?"

Doucleff tried this approach with her three-year-old. After a month, Rosie refused her mother's invitation to "Go ahead, hit me." Rosie learned how hitting affected others and practiced making choices. She stopped hitting, even when angry.

Psychologist Laura Markham explained to Doucleff, "This emotional practice may be even more important for children because kids' brains are still developing the circuitry needed for self-control." (Quoted by Michaeleen Doucleff in the article "How Inuit Parents Teach Kids To Control Their Anger")

Ancient cultures can offer creative, even surprising strategies to teach children how to control their anger and how to avoid danger. Indigenous parenting validates the importance of encouraging young children's eagerness to help, fostering confident, helpful children and calm, harmonious families who work together.

"If the adult, through a fatal misunderstanding, instead of helping the child to do things for himself, substitutes himself for the child, then that adult becomes the blindest and most powerful obstacle to the development of the child's psychic life... and perhaps the origin of all the dramas and struggles of mankind."
—Maria Montessori, The Secret of Childhood

—by Irene Baker, MEd, Montessori Educational Consultant at Montessori Services. She holds both primary (ages 3-6) and elementary (ages 6-12) Montessori certifications and has taught at all three levels. For over 20 years, she has served as a Montessori consultant and teacher-trainer for primary and elementary levels, and has presented workshops for teachers at schools and AMS conferences. Her work with students and teachers is infused with her passions: storytelling, history, social justice, non-violent (compassionate) communication, poetry, meditation, music, and the natural world.

—Originally Published 2022