Observational vs Instructional Parenting


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.

In many groups, if someone was acting in ways that were disruptive to the success of the group, the individual was simply reminded of the value of the group by being shunned by them for a period. But it was not needed often because people rarely fell out with their group.

Most tribal cultures saw their entire community raise each child. They learned to behave in alignment with their culture not by being told how, or with threats about what would happen if they didn’t, but simply by watching other people actually living in alignment with that culture.

Europeans on the other hand had unwittingly assumed the original-sin belief into their daily life. For many people even today, the idea is that no one is born worthy and life is for earning one’s way into the afterlife.

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 gender and age. Meanwhile, native cultures focused on everyone’s cohesion. For them, the worth of anyone was never in question.


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 they do so out of love for their Sergeant. The first example is like being labelled something. Fighting for the Sergeant would be coming from within us in a more meaningful way.

The idea the natives naturally used is the one everyone’s actually using either way, whether their culture realizes it or not. Kids don’t learn by what we tell them, they learn by watching our behaviour when we forget they’re looking. And if we realized 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 no one there can cultivate food, everyone has to cultivate relationships that can lead to group dinners that ensure all are fed regardless of their individual hunt’s success. When any group can end up living in the confines of an igloo, it helps if the culture has nurtured agreeable personalities.


Similarly, many 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 inter-dependencies can be seen as a lack of freedom or control. Or, they can also be seen to create more freedom. After all, 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 agreeable people or friends?

It is notable that these cultures are both very quiet. Words are seen as less important than 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 our lessons are not as important as our examples.

Most parents I see are panicked that things are much worse than they actually are. Invariably I meet a caring, engaged parent who has the same kinds of flaws all of us have. But parents can be very hard on themselves.

Since people truly are generally good, through just living their lives the way they naturally do, they end up raising really great kids too. So no parent should worry if their 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 in-line behaviour to some external rule. It’ll be the general compassionate awareness that lives inside them as respect for their fellow human beings.

With that perspective, that can lead people 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. So if we want good kids, all anyone has to do is model the behaviour they want to see, and to do that accepting that is impossible to always do that.

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, and they will accept themselves too. But lead we must do. So here’s to a day of us each exhibiting some kind and admirable behaviour.

peace. s