This story was originally published in May 2018.
There’s no other way to put it: Maria de los Angeles Tun Burgos is a supermom.
She’s raising five children, does housework and chores — we’re talking about fresh tortillas every day made from stone-ground corn — and she helps with the family’s business in their small village about 2 1/2 hours west of Cancún on the Yucatán Peninsula.
Sitting on a rainbow-colored hammock inside her home, Burgos, 41, is cool as a cucumber. It’s morning, after breakfast. Her youngest daughter, 4-year-old Alexa, sits on her knee, clearly trying to get her attention by hitting a teddy bear on her mom’s leg. The middle daughter, 9-year-old Gelmy, is running around with neighborhood kids — climbing trees, chasing chickens — and her oldest daughter, 12-year-old Angela, has just woken up and started doing the dishes, without being asked. The older kids aren’t in school because it’s spring break.
Burgos is constantly on parental duty. She often tosses off little warnings about safety: “Watch out for the fire” or “Don’t play around the construction area.” But her tone is calm. Her body is relaxed. There’s no sense of urgency or anxiety.
In return, the children offer minimal resistance to their mother’s advice. There’s little whining, little crying and basically no yelling or bickering.
In general, Burgos makes the whole parenting thing look — dare, I say it — easy. So I ask her: “Do you think that being a mom is stressful?”
Burgos looks at me as if I’m from Mars. “Stressful? What do you mean by stressful?” she responds through a Mayan interpreter.
A five-minute conversation ensues between Burgos and the interpreter, trying to convey the idea of “stressful.” There doesn’t seem to be a straight-up Mayan term, at least not pertaining to motherhood.
But finally, after much debate, the translator seems to have found a way to explain what I mean, and Burgos answers.
“There are times that I worry about my children, like when my son was 12 and only wanted to be with his friends and not study,” Burgos says. “I was worried about his future.” But once she guided him back on track, the worry went away.
In general, she shows no sense of chronic worry or stress.
“I know that raising kids is slow,” she says. “Little by little they will learn.”
Breast, formula or goat?
Burgos learned how to be a mom by watching — and helping — her own mom, her aunts and her neighbors raise many children. Throughout her childhood, she was training to be a mom.
Here in the U.S., many parents don’t have this firsthand experience before having children themselves. Instead, we often learn about burping, potty training and tantrum control through parenting books, Google searches and YouTube videos. But this information comes with two big caveats, which aren’t always divulged.
For starters, parenting advice can give the impression that the recommendations are based on science. But a deep look at some studies reveals that the science is more like smoke and mirrors. Sometimes the studies don’t even test what the parenting expert is purporting they do.
Take for instance a study often cited as evidence that the “cry it out” method of sleep training is effective. The method claims that if babies are left to cry themselves to sleep, eventually they will learn to fall asleep on their own without crying, and sleep through the night.
But what the study actually tests is a gentler regime, in which babies were left to cry for only a short amount of time before being comforted. And the parents were supported by a hefty amount of personalized counseling on their babies’ sleep and eating habits. The babies who made progress also did not retain the ability to put themselves to sleep and stay asleep over the long term.
As psychologist Ben Bradley argues in his book Vision of Infancy, a Critical Introduction to Psychology: “Scientific observations about babies are more like mirrors which reflect back the preoccupations and visions of those who study them than like windows opening directly on the foundations of the mind.”
And sometimes the data supporting the recommendation are so flimsy that another study in a few years will come along and not only overturn the first study but completely flip the advice 180 degrees.
This is exactly what happened last year with peanuts. Back in 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents not to give babies peanut butter because one study suggested early exposure would increase the risk of developing an allergy. But last year, the medical community made a complete about-face on the advice and now says “Let them eat peanut butter!” Early peanut exposure actually prevents allergies, follow-up studies have found.
So if science isn’t the secret sauce to parenting books, what is? To answer that, we have to go back in time.
In the early 1980s, the British writer Christina Hardyment began reviewing more than 650 parenting books and manuals, dating all the way to the mid-1700s when advice publications started appearing in hospitals. The result is an illuminating book, called Dream Babies, which traces the history of parenting advice from 17th century English physician and philosopher John Locke to the modern-day medical couple Bill and Martha Sears.
The conclusions from the book are as clear as your baby’s tears: Advice in parenting books is typically based not on rigorous scientific studies as is at times claimed but on the opinions and experiences of the authors and on theories from past parenting manuals — sometimes as long as the 18th century.
Then there’s the matter of consistency — or lack thereof. Since the late 1700s, “experts” have flip-flopped recommendations over and over, from advising strict routines and discipline to a more permissive, laissez-faire approach and back again.
“While babies and parents remain constants, advice on the former to the latter veers with the winds of social, philosophical and psychological change,” Hardyment writes. “There is no such thing as a generally applicable blueprint for perfect parenting.”
Take, for instance, the idea that babies need to feed on a particular schedule. According to Hardyment’s research, that advice first appears in a London hospital pamphlet in 1748. Sleep schedules for babies start coming into fashion in the early 1900s. And sleep training? That idea was proposed by a British surgeon-turned-sports writer in 1873. If babies “are left to go to sleep in their cots, and allowed to find out that they do not get their way by crying, they at once become reconciled, and after a short time will go to bed even more readily in the cot than on the lap,” John Henry Walsh wrote in his Manual of Domestic Economy.
Even the heated debate about breastfeeding has been simmering, and flaring up, for at least 250 years, Hardyment shows. In the 18th century, mothers didn’t have high-tech formula but had many recommendations about what was best for the baby and the family. Should a mother send the baby off to a wet nurse’s home, so her husband won’t be offended by the sight of a baby suckling? And if the family couldn’t afford a wet nurse, there was specially treated cow’s milk available or even better, the baby could be nursed by a goat, 18th century parenting books advised. (If you’re wondering how moms accomplished such a feat, Hardyment includes an 18th century drawing of a young mom pushing a swaddled newborn underneath a goat’s udder.)
Goat udders aside, perhaps the bigger issue with parenting books and advice on the Web is what they aren’t telling you. And boy, is there a large hole.
These sources ignore most of the world and come almost entirely from the experience of Western culture. But when it comes to understanding what a baby needs, how kids work and what to do when your toddler is lying on the sidewalk (just asking for a friend), Western society might not be the best place to focus.
‘WEIRD,’ stressed-out parents equal anxious kids?
In 2010, three scientists at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, rocked the psychology world.
They published a 23-page paper titled “The weirdest people in the world?” And in it, uncovered a major limitation with many psychological studies, especially those claiming to address questions of “human nature.”
First, the team noted that the vast majority of studies in psychology, cognitive science and economics — about 96 percent — have been performed on people with European backgrounds. And yet, when scientists perform some of these experiments in other cultures the results often don’t match up. Westerners stick out as outliers on the spectrum of behavior, while people from indigenous cultures tend to clump together, more in the middle.
Even in experiments that appear to test basic brain function, like visual perception, Westerners can act strangely. Take one of the most famous optical illusions — the Muller-Lyer illusion, from 1889.
Americans often believe the second line is about 20 percent longer than the first, even though the two lines are exactly the same length. But when scientists gave the test to 14 indigenous cultures, none of them were tricked to the same degree as Westerners. Some cultures, such as the San foragers in southern Africa’s Kalahari desert, knew the two lines were equal length.
The conclusion from these analyses was startling: People from Western society, “including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans,” Joseph Heinrich and his colleagues wrote. The researchers even came up with a catchy acronym to describe the phenomenon. They called our culture WEIRD, for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies.
With that paper, the ethnocentric view of psychology cracked. It wasn’t so much that the emperor of psychology had no clothes. It was more that he was dancing around in Western garb pretending to represent all humanity.
A few years later, an anthropologist from Utah State University, David Lancy, performed a similar analysis on parenting. The conclusion was just as clear-cut: When you look around the world and throughout human history, the Western style of parenting is WEIRD. We are outliers.
In many instances, what we think is “necessary” or “critical” for childhood is actually not present in any other cultures around the world or throughout time.
“The list of differences is really, really long,” says Lancy, who summarizes them in the second edition of his landmark book, The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings. “There may be 40 to 50 things that we do that you don’t see in indigenous cultures.”
Perhaps most striking is how Western society segregates children from adults. We have created two worlds: the kid world and the adult world. And we go through great pains to keep them apart. Kids have their own special foods, their own times to go to sleep, their own activities on the weekends. Kids go to school. Parents go to work. “Much of the adult culture … is restricted [for kids],” Lancy writes. “Children are perceived as too young, uneducated, or burdensome to be readily admitted to the adult sphere.”
But in many indigenous cultures, children are immersed in the adult world early on, and they acquire great skills from the experience. They learn to socialize, to do household chores, cook food and master a family’s business, Lancy writes.
Western culture is also a relative newcomer to parenting. Hunter-gatherers and other indigenous cultures have had tens of thousands of years to hone their strategies, not to mention that the parent-child relationship actually evolved in these contexts.
Of course, just because a practice is ancient, “natural” or universal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better, especially given that Western kids eventually have to live — and hopefully succeed — in a WEIRD society. But widening the parenting lens, even just a smidgen, has a practical purpose: It gives parents options.
“When you look at the whole world and see the diversity out there, parents can start to imagine other ways of doing things,” says Suzanne Gaskins, a developmental psychologist at Northeastern Illinois University, who for 40 years has been studying how Maya moms in the Yucatan raise helpful kids.
“Some of the approaches families use in other cultures might fit an American child’s needs better than the advice they are given in books or from the pediatricians,” she adds.
Who’s in charge?
So what kind of different philosophies are out there?
When I spent time with Maya families that Gaskins has studied, I saw a very different approach to control.
In Western culture, parenting is often about control.
“We think of obedience from a control angle. Somebody is in charge and the other one is doing what they are told because they have to,” says Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied the Maya culture for 30 years.
And if you pay attention to the way parents interact with children in our society, the idea is blazingly obvious. We tend to boss them around. “Put your shoes on!” or “Eat your sandwich!”
“People think either the adult is in control or the child is in control,” Rogoff says.
But what if there is another way to interact with kids that removes control from the equation, almost altogether?
That’s exactly what the Maya — and several other indigenous cultures — do. Instead of trying to control children, Rogoff says, parents aim to collaborate with them.
“It’s kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal,” Rogoff says. “It’s not letting the kids do whatever they want. It’s a matter of children — and parents — being willing to be guided.”
In the Maya culture, even the littlest of children are treated with this respect. “It’s collaborative from the get-go.”
The idea is so strong that some Mayan languages don’t even have a word for “control” when talking about children, Rogoff says.
After visiting the Maya village this spring, I’ve been trying this approach with my 2 1/2-year-old daughter. For instance, I often struggle to get Rosemary to put her clothes on the morning. In the past, I would nag and yell: “Put your shoes on! Get your jacket!”
But now I try a more collaborative approach. “Rosemary, Mom, Dad and Mango [our dog] are all going to the beach,” I explain. “If you want to go to the beach, you have to put your shoes on. Do you want to go to the beach?” So far it’s working.
And if Rosemary says she doesn’t want to go to the beach? What would a Maya mom do? She would drop her off at an aunt’s or neighbor’s house and spend an afternoon without her. Because Maya families also have a different idea about who is supposed to care for the kids. One way to think of it: They don’t keep mom in a box.
Get Mom out of the box
In our culture there’s a lingering belief that the ideal family structure for kids is a stay-at-home mom who devotes her full attention to the kids. That may sound like a relic from the past. But even just 10 years ago, 41 percent of people thought moms working outside was harmful to society, Pew research found. The result is a mom stuck in an apartment or a single-family home — which are both essentially boxes — raising children, alone.
But if you look around the world and throughout human history, this parenting approach is arguably one of the most nontraditional out there. The notion that the mom is responsible for raising the children, alone, is even strange within Western culture. Up until about 150 years ago, households were much larger and included extended family members and sometimes paid help, historian Stephanie Coontz documents in The Way We Never Were. And women were expected to earn some income for the family. “Women not only brought home half the bacon, they often raised and butchered the pig,” Coontz says.
Anthropologist Lancy compares the “mom in the box” approach to parenting to what happens with an Inuit family in the Arctic, when inclement weather isolates a mother and her child in an igloo and forces the mother to be the only playmate for the children. Most of the burden of parenting is placed on the mother. “There is every reason to believe that modern living conditions in which infants and toddlers are isolated from peers in single-parent or nuclear households produce a parallel effect,” Lancy writes: a mom left to a perform a role typically performed by children — that is, siblings, cousins, neighborhood kids and whoever else is hanging around a home.
Human children didn’t evolve in a nuclear family. Instead, for hundreds of thousands of years, kids have been brought up with a slew of people — grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, the neighbors, Lancy writes. It’s not that you need a whole village, as the saying goes, but rather an extended family — which could include biological relatives but also neighbors, close friends or paid help.
Throughout human history, motherhood has been seen as a set of tasks that can be accomplished by many types of people, like relatives and neighbors, the historian John R. Gillis writes in The World Of Their Own Making. Anthropologists call them “alloparents” — “allo” simply means “other.”
Across the globe, cultures consider alloparents key to raising children, Lancy writes.
The Maya moms value and embrace alloparents. Their homes are porous structures and all sorts of “allomoms” flow in and out. When a woman has a baby, other mothers work together to make sure she can take a break each day to take a shower and eat meals, without having to hold the baby. (How civilized is that!)
In one household with four kids that I visited, the aunt dropped off food, the grandma stopped by to help with a neighbor’s baby and, all the while, the oldest daughter looked after the toddler — while the mom fed the livestock and started to make lunch. But in Western culture, over the past few centuries, we have pushed alloparents to the periphery of the parenting landscape, Gillis writes. They aren’t as valued and sometimes even denigrated as a means for working mothers to outsource parenting duties.
In the past few generations, fathers have stepped up and started helping with a big chunk of parenting duties. Since 1965, American dads have more than doubled the number of hours they spend each week on child care, PEW research found. But mothers still carry most of the load. They spend, on average, 14 hours each week on child care while fathers spend about seven.
The result is something unique in human history: A mom stuck in a box, often alone, doing the job typically performed by a handful of people. As Gillis writes, “Never have mothers been so burdened by motherhood.”
NPR Researcher Katie Daugert contributed to this report.