What Indigenous Families Know

In a class I was teaching, a young mother told me about this article that was on National Public Radio’s website. It is called, “How to Get Your Kids To Do Chores (Without Resenting It)”. This article strongly reinforces how important early exposure to family work is.   These budding years, when it seems the most hardest to do, are critical for shaping how our children and grandchildren can learn to love and participate in family work. From the above article:

“Back in the early 1990s, psychologist Suzanne Gaskins was living in a small Maya village near Valladolid, Yucatán, when she struck up a conversation with two sisters, ages 7 and 9.’

“The girls started telling her — with great pride — about all the chores they did after school. “I wash my own clothes,” the 7-year-old said. The older sister then one-upped her and declared, “I wash my clothes and my baby brother’s clothes.”’

“Gaskins was so impressed by the girls’ enthusiasm for helping around the house that she started to study how kids in the village spend their time. She quickly realized that the young kids not only made big contributions to household chores, but also that they often did so without being told. In fact, many times, helping out was their idea.”

“Many times the children asked to do work around the house,” Gaskins says.”

Dr. Gaskins and a few other psychologists have been studying this fascinating paradox in indigenous families in Guatemala and Mexico: small children in these native homes are unusually willing to help with the chores around the house. 

They do laundry, know how to cook a meal and clean up after without any requests from their parents. There is no cajoling, or bribing to get them to help around the house.

“For example, one mother said her 8-year-old daughter comes home from school and declares: “Mom, I’m going to help you do everything.” Then she “picks up the entire house, voluntarily,” the study reported.’

The Spanish language even has a word for jumping in and helping without being asked: acomedido

“It’s a really complex term,” says Andrew Coppens, an education researcher at the University of New Hampshire, who collaborates with Rogoff. “It’s not just doing what you’re told, and it’s not just helping out. It’s knowing the kind of help that is situationally appropriate because you’re paying attention.”

Another group of researchers interviewed indigenous mothers that had moved to Watsonville, California about this same phenomenon: helping with chores without being asked. Then they compared the results with those from middle-class families in Silicon Valley with European roots. They found a lot of differences within each group of families but a distinct difference was noted:

“The Mexican-American kids, aged 6 to 7, were doing about twice as much around the house as the middle-class European-American kids, on average,” he says. “And they were doing so, much, much more voluntarily.”

“Voluntarily” is the magic word here. Without being asked, to notice what was needed, to jump up when you see your tired mother come home from work—it seems too good to be true.

How on earth can this be possible? If anything American children as a whole are doing less than ever. These psychologists say that we need to “embrace the power of toddlers”. These indigenous families start allowing very young children to help them, just when they are the least helpful. Toddlers? 1-3 year olds? Powerful?


Part 2: Toddlers Are Born Assistants

One thought on “What Indigenous Families Know

  1. Pingback: Toddlers Are Born Assistants – "Peace Like A River…"

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