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A Global Guide For Parents: How Your Kids Can Have Fun Without Stressing You Out

Angela Hsieh for NPR

Admitting this makes me feel like a bad mom, but it's the truth: I don't enjoy "kid-friendly" places. At birthday parties, zoos and play areas, I'm either completely bored or utterly overstimulated. The noise, the lights, the chaos! After an hour or two, I'd leave, say, the children's science museum exhausted, on edge and feeling like a small piece of my soul had died back at the snack bar after spending $10 on a slice of cheese pizza.

Nevertheless, I packed my daughter's schedule with these activities, and I told myself: This is what a good mother does. This is optimal. I have to sacrifice what I want to do on the weekends for her.

But what if that's all baloney? What if that thinking is needlessly making my life more stressful and hectic?

About four years ago, I began to report on parenting around the world for Goats and Soda. I looked into why Cameroon kids crushed the marshmallow test (which tests whether or not a kid can wait to eat a marshmallow in hopes of receiving two marshmallows), why Maya children wanted to help around the house and why many kids up in the Arctic seem to have better control over their anger than I do.

Through this research, I started to see my own culture with fresh eyes. I begin to see that Western culture has several deeply entrenched myths about parenting. Myths about what "good" parents do and what children need to grow up healthy, confident and — this is a big one — helpful. Myths that you don't really find in any other culture around the world.

Problem is, many of the practices that stem from these myths are time-consuming, expensive and exhausting — for both kids and parents. For many kids, these practices can backfire. They can make children less well-behaved and less likely to cooperate, says anthropologist David Lancy at Utah State University, who has studied parenting around the world for more than 40 years. And they can erode a child's sense of purpose.

"We're making some really bad assumptions about what's essential and what children need to thrive," says Lancy. "A lot of our cardinal principles turn out not to be nearly as critical as we believe."

As parents start to transition back to the office — and kids return to school — maybe it's time to draw inspiration from other cultures around the world, throw out a few myths and embrace a parenting style that's less exhausting and possibly more effective. Maybe it's time to take a few tips from parents around the world.

Myth #1: Kids need toys

A century and half ago, all kids in the U.S. — across all races and economic levels — didn't have store-bought toys. They did what kids have done for 200,000 years: they created their own toys.

"A lack of store-bought toys was no disadvantage," historian Howard Chudacoff explained in his book Children at Play: An American History. "Even in wealthy families, informal playthings seemed more important than formal toys," he wrote.

Kids created toys from objects left over from adult activities or ones they found outside. They made dolls and kites from old adult clothing, boats from discarded wood or sticks, sleds from planks of wood — and invented an endless number of games with stones.

Today, in many cultures, kids still do the same. For example, up in the Arctic town of Kugaaruk, Canada, summertime is all about honing hunting skills through play. For hours at night, boys use old shipping crates and left over fishing equipment to practice "harpooning whales" in a stream that runs through the town.

Reset toys: If you're tired of picking up legos and toy cars every night, consider donating (nearly) all your toys to charity. Keep around a few tools for drawing, writing and coloring (e.g pencils, markers, and paper). Have kids pick out one or two special toys to keep in a designated spot.

All kids really need are what's around the house, Lancy says, such as boxes from deliveries, equipment from the kitchen, and pillows — lots and lots of pillows. "They're just so many things you do with pillows, including the ones that make up the couch. You can have pillow fights, build forts and tunnels. And parents don't have to buy anything extra."

With fewer toys to keep track of, your home will be less cluttered and look less juvenile, but it will also be easier for kids to manage the cleanup and organization of their toys.

Myth #2: Kids need their own "special" activities on the weekends, such as kiddie birthday parties, kiddies museums and playdates.

Anthropological psychologist Suzanne Gaskins calls these activities "child-centered" because parents participate in these activities only because they have children.

Turns out, "child-centered" activities are virtually nonexistent outside Western culture,. They're not only completely unnecessary for kids to grow and develop, Gaskins says, but in the long run, they do children a disservice. Why? Because they exclude kids from the adult world.

"In the United States, we don't let our children into the adult world," says Gaskins, who has studied parenting in Maya communities for more than 30 years. That exclusion denies kids the opportunities to learn all sorts of important skills, such as how to do chores around the house, how to cooperate with your family and how to behave appropriately in the adult world.

"When you give children the opportunity to assume responsibilities, they will take it," Gaskins says.

Reset weekends: Do chores, errands, hobbies, and social activities, and then bring the kids along. These regular activities are more than enough "enrichment" for kids, says psychologistRebeca Mejía-Arauz at ITESO University in Guadalajara. "Parents don't need to know how to play with kids. If we get kids involved in adult activities, that's play for kids."

Kids, who aren't accustomed to being in the adult world, might not behave properly in these situations, at first, says Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "They need to learn how to be a part of things."

So be a little patient. Slowly introduce a child to new experiences, such as waiting patiently at a parent's doctor's appointment, joining mom or dad at work for an afternoon or sitting quietly in a religious service. "If they're included, they'll learn," Rogoff says. "Kids are really good at distinguishing between this is the way you act in one place and this is the way you act in another place."

Myth #3: Kids need bribes, allowances and punishments to do chores.

In many cultures around the world, kids help around the house and with family chores voluntarily. For example, one morning in Tanzania, I saw a 5-year-old girl run up a hill and start collecting baobab pods from underneath a tree — without anyone asking her. She collected enough pods for an entire lunch, not just for her family but for several families.

A wide-ranging evidence — from psychology, evolutionary biology and anthropology-- suggests that children have an innate desire to help others and have responsibilities. No chore chart or allowances needed.

In a new study published in July, researchers asked Maya kids in the Yucatan why they voluntarily do chores around the house. In general, the kids said they like to help their families. "They help at home because they're part of the family. It's a shared responsibility. You know, 'We're all in this together,' " says Lucia Alcala, a psychologist at the California State University, Fullerton, who led the study. Pitching in gave the kids a sense of belonging,

Reset chores: To help tap into a child's innate drive to help their family (and decrease resistance to help), parents can organize chores in two key ways.

First off, focus on doing the chores as a family instead of individual tasks. For example, if you're doing laundry, everyone folds everyone's clothes. Or if you're making beds, parents and kids help with all the beds. And everyone cleans up the dinner table.

Second, be sure kids are making genuine contributions to the group task. The tasks can be super small (e.g. go grab the vacuum ) and quick (e.g., put the forks on the table), but they should be real. So, for example, don't wipe down the table and then hand the kid the cloth and tell them to wipe down the table. They'll know you're not allowing them to make real contributions.]

When children work together with the family to accomplish real tasks, Alcala says, they feel that they are real contributors to the family, that they are part of something bigger than themselves. This feeling motivates children to continue helping.

Myth #4: Kids learn best when their schedules are packed with extracurricular activities, organized and managed by adults.

In 2014, Alcala and her colleague published a study to support a growing idea in psychology: free time can increase a child's interest in school.

In the study, Alcala interviewed 33 mothers in and around Guadalajara, Mexico, whose kids were between ages 6 to 8. The researchers asked the moms about their kids' schedules after school, including who scheduled the activities (parent or child?) and what were the activities like (structured or free play?).

Kids who organized their own schedules after school were not only more likely to help around the house voluntarily, the researchers reported, but they were also more likely to do something else voluntarily: their homework.

When kids have plenty of time to decide what to do and manage their own activities, they learn a lifelong skill: how to take initiative, says psychologist Barbara Rogoff, who contributed to the study. "Trying to control children gets in the way of children developing initiative and autonomy,"

Having plenty of downtime can also reduce children's stress, says psychological anthropologist Suzanne Gaskins. "When kids decide what to learn and are doing it on the basis of their own interests, there's no source of stress other than their own frustration," she says. If they can't master something right away, then there's no pressure to figure it out faster.

Reset schedules: Instead of signing up a child for a bunch of activities, wait for them to ask to participate or to show a genuine interest in that activity. For young kids, being with you while doing chores or hobbies is more than enough entertainment — and teaches them how to be a good family member.

For older kids, teach them to manage their own activities and schedules. Show them how to sign up for classes and sports teams. And work together to find ways for them to travel to and from these activities without assistance from you. For example, teach them to walk there on their own, ride a bike, take public transit or find out about car pools.

As Suzanne Gaskins points out, when kids manage and execute their own activities, parents are freed up to focus on their own hobbies. "The whole system is notched down in stress."

Boy, was that true for my family! Once I scrapped the kiddie birthday parties on the weekends and dance classes during the week, I finally had time for my own "extracurricular activities." My husband and I started hiking again on Saturdays (with Rosy in tow), and we had time to read in the evenings after dinner (while Rosy managed her own activities).

But perhaps, more surprisingly, once we gave Rosy a chance to be a part of our world — and a chance to make real contributions to the family — something almost magical happened: She started helping around the house. Just yesterday, I was in the living room working, and guess what the little 5-year-old was doing in the kitchen all by herself? Washing the dishes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.