When I learned I was going to be a father, first I celebrated with my wife, then beelined for the bookstore.
There had to be a right way to parent—and I was sure that if I found the perfect book, I’d be prepared. I thumbed through guides that argued passionately for swaddling or co-sleeping, getting babies on a schedule or letting them feed on demand.
As I stood there, dwarfed by rows of books promising evidence-based approaches, I realized something was missing. There’s a whole world of wisdom that doesn’t make it into the mainstream parenting canon, which is based only on Western notions of childhood.
Every culture has something to offer in the quest to raise happy, resilient children. Care-givers can tap into these practices if we broaden our perspectives.
The power of storytelling
Inuit tradition teaches parents a guiding rule: never get angry with your children.
How does a frustrated dad discipline without scolding? He looks to custom to harness the power of storytelling. A spirited tale about an ocean monster—with an age-appropriate amount of danger to hold attention—will ensure young children stay away from open water more than rules ever could.
And if kids go too far, say by hitting their siblings, tradition dictates that Inuit parents shouldn’t raise their voice. Instead, they put on a play, acting out the pain caused by the kid’s actions so they come to their own conclusions about consequences.
Collaborative, not controlling
Drop in on a village along Ecuador’s Napo River and you’ll likely see something unusual: teenagers helping around the home, performing chores without complaint—and without being asked—but with pride.
While North Americans tend to think of parents as the ones in control, parents in Quichua culture work with their children to accomplish a goal. The key is to get children involved right from the start, having toddlers watch chores and participate in housework. Collaborating with a two-year-old to wash dishes may make more of a mess, but get them started young and soon they’ll take pride in their contribution.
It takes two
More dads are taking active roles in their children’s lives. But it will be another 75 years, according to a recent study of parents in 45 countries, before mothers and fathers are truly equal partners in child-care. This imbalance isn’t inevitable. The semi nomadic Aka people of central Africa can prove it.
Aka fathers are within arms-reach of their children nearly 12 hours a day, building remarkably strong, trusting bonds. All of this is possible because of their culture’s approach to gender roles, which are entirely interchangeable with no loss of status. Women and men hunt, and mothers and fathers tend to children. Aka dads are even known to let their babies suckle to placate them when mom’s out providing.
My son, Hilson, is nearly two, and I’ve learned there is no right way to parent. There is only you and your child, figuring it out together. By looking beyond a single culture and the how-to section, we can learn lessons from parents around the world.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.