When European settlers first came to North America one of the first clashes of culture existed in the realm of parenting. Corporal punishment was generally not used in the native cultures because they did not believe in corrective behaviour from an authority figure. Like most tribal cultures, they believed an entire community raised a child and that children learned to behave in alignment with their culture not by being told how, but rather by watching other people actually living in alignment with that culture.
Europeans on the other hand had unwittingly assumed the Christian original-sin belief into their daily life and so the idea was that no one was born worthy and rather one earned one’s worth. In the native cultures the worth of anyone was never in question. The European system lead to a top-down almost military style with the father in command, his wife second and then the children by order of age and gender. Meanwhile there weren’t even things like lineups for native cultures, so therefore there were also no need to “order” people or things.
As well-intentioned as it is, the European model is based on a hierarchy rather than mutual respect. Being bound to someone by words and ideas is one thing, but caring about someone enough to make sacrifices for them is a much different thing. This is like the difference between a soldier fighting because he was told to by someone he doesn’t respect, versus he does so out of love for his leader.
The idea the natives naturally used is the one everyone’s actually using either way, whether their culture realises it or not. Kids don’t learn by what you tell them, it’s how we act. And if we realised that more consciously we would literally change the world.
The northernmost tribes in Canada, from the Gwich’in in the West all the way through all of the Inuit cultures and all the way East past the Innu to the Beothuk, the cold and barren surroundings and limited food sources have meant over time that patience, tolerance, cooperation and generosity are excellent strategies for staying alive. Since you couldn’t and can’t cultivate food you have to cultivate relationships that can lead to group dinners that ensure all are fed regardless of their individual hunt’s success. When you can end up living in the confines of an igloo it helps if you have an agreeable personality.
Similarly the Japanese and other Asian cultures learned to cultivate a courteous, respectful manner with others because the hydraulics of the terraced rice paddies meant that your neighbour had to choose to let you have the water next. These interdependencies can be seen as a lack of freedom, but they can also be seen to create more freedom. What is the point of any amount of freedom if it is primarily spent in a state of worry or fear when it could be spent cooperating with friends?
It is notable that these cultures are both very quiet. Words are seen as less important than the control of behaviour. This isn’t done in a subservient way; it’s done for the greater good of all. But for that to happen we first have to believe that a) we ourselves are capable of good behaviour, b) that our children are capable and naturally inclined to want to learn, and c) that lessons are not as important as examples.
Most parents I see are panicked that things are much worse than they are. Invariably I meet a caring, engaged parent who has the same kinds of flaws all of us have. Because people are generally good, just by living their lives the way they naturally do they end up raising really great kids too. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t follow every order exactly right. That won’t be what makes good character.
What’ll make a good fellow tribesman won’t be precise behaviour, it’ll be the general compassionate awarenesses that would lead them to do things like notice an older person struggling behind them, leading them to hold that door open a little longer for that fellow tribesman. What’ll make a good tribesman is not asking for apologies, but giving them. Then giving them will be natural to a child, just like they learn to avoid giving them. And forgive yourself for when they learn the bits about you you wish they wouldn’t. You’re worth those bits anyway.
Believe in yourself. Believe in the children around you. They’re all just waiting to sprout into something amazing if they just get the rest of us doing a bit of cultivating of ourselves. If we accept ourselves while we strive to grow, from there the kids will just naturally follow our lead, but lead we must do. Here’s to you exhibiting a great day of admirable behaviour.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organisations locally and around the world.