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Parenting Myths And Facts


OK, parents and grandparents out there. Listen up. We want to dispel some of the biggest myths about parenting. NPR is kicking off a series today called How To Raise A Human. Over the next month, we're going to take a close look at the advice parents are given. And we'll look around the world for ideas to make parenting easier. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff is here to tell us more about the series.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm very excited about this series, you know? When I had my daughter, I bought parenting books. I even, like, paid a subscription for a bunch of YouTube videos. It was supposed to interpret the sounds that your child gives you, so you can understand if they wanted food, or they wanted to sleep. I'm sure you're here to tell me that I wasted my money.



DOUCLEFF: I mean, first off, a lot of these books and videos, you know, really claim to be based on science. But a lot of that is pretty much baloney, I have to say.


DOUCLEFF: But we all need advice, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We all do need advice. And, obviously, you're so vulnerable when you have a kid. You're scared. You don't know what to do. So what is this stuff based on?

DOUCLEFF: You know, it's based on people's experiences. But some of it is actually really based on old, old advice. So if you look at the history of parenting books, you can see that advice is kind of recycled over and over again, tweaked a little bit for the fashion of the time. So, for instance, this idea that babies need to feed at a certain time - that's from the 1700s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, OK. So this is old advice that keeps on getting recycled through the ages. But is it necessarily bad advice?

DOUCLEFF: No, it's not - I'm not here to say that it's bad advice. But there's a big hole in these parenting books and from the experts. And that's that this advice is almost solely based on the Western experience, the Western culture. And if you look around the world, there's so many other ways to do things.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I certainly know that, having lived in other places and experienced other cultures. And as one of the things that really surprised me - that there are so many ways of doing this. And there's really great ways of doing it. So give us an example.

DOUCLEFF: So, for instance, in our culture, there's really this idea right now that parenting is stressful, and we're all stressed out. Turns out not all mothers in every culture feel this way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Convince me.

DOUCLEFF: OK. So a group of researchers have been studying Mayan families for decades because they've been really intrigued by this idea that the kids are so helpful around the house. And they wanted to figure out what the parents were doing to get the kids to be so helpful.

So for one of the stories in this series, I went down to the Yucatan and spent some time with some Mayan families. And right away, I was amazed by these moms. So a lot of them are raising four or five children. They're doing all the housework. They help out with the business, so they're doing work, too. And they totally didn't seem stressed. And I actually asked them, do you think being a mother is stressful? And the first woman, like, looked at me like I was an alien. She was like, what? Why would mothering be stressful? And I was like, oh, my gosh. Tell me your secrets (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how do they manage that? What were their secrets?

DOUCLEFF: Well, you know, clearly a very different culture. But some of the anthropologists point to a couple of things. So first of all, they have a really different view about children and what the purpose of parenting is. So in our culture, we think a lot of it is about control. Either we're controlling the kids, or the kids are controlling us. But the Mayans see it in a totally different way. They see parenting as this partnership and a collaboration so that they're working together with the child to meet some goal. So let me give you an example. So I have a little 2-year-old, Rosemary (ph), and I have a really hard time getting her to put on her clothes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A very common problem.

DOUCLEFF: Yes. I tend to, like, yell at her about it. Put your shoes on. We have to get out of the house. But the Mayan mom would come at it from more of a cooperative angle. So, like, hey, we're going to the beach. Do you want to come? If you want to come, you need to put on your clothes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what if Rosemary then says, as happens with my daughter, I'm just not going to do that, Mom?

DOUCLEFF: Yes. Well, the Mayan mom would then just drop the kid off with the neighbor or the aunt and say, fine. I'm going to spend the day at the beach by myself. No worries (laughter). This actually brings up a second thing about the Mayan parenting style that's really different from us. And that's this idea that the Mayan mom is not stuck in a box.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not stuck in a box. What does that mean?

DOUCLEFF: So in our culture, there's this idea that the ideal thing for kids is, like, a stay-at-home mom who focuses her attention on the children. That ends up in practice being is that you have Mom stuck in a box, an apartment in the city, a big house in the suburbs. But if you look around the world, this is not how the parent-child relationship evolved at all or how kids have been raised for hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, the kids are raised by a whole slew of people - grandmas, aunts, nosy neighbors. And so what we do is actually really strange and maybe, arguably, one of the most untraditional family forms that has existed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. So I guess the takeaway for this Mother's Day is...

DOUCLEFF: Get out of the box.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Get out of the box. That's NPR science correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff. We look forward to hearing your other stories.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.