I’m not a yeller by nature, so the first time I really screamed at my daughter, it caught not only her attention, but also the attention of the two friends we were with.
She was maybe 2 years old and had yanked away from me to run out into the street. My reaction was primal, the yell that emanated from me almost guttural. Everything in me vibrated as I raised my voice and yanked my girl out of the street.
“Whoa,” one of my best friends said moments later. “I’ve never heard you do that. I didn’t even know you had it in you.”
It turned out, I did. But I thought it was only because I’d been sure my child was in immediate danger.
My daughter is adopted, a little Alaska Native child with Inuit blood coursing through her veins. It was perhaps because of that background that a recent NPR piece titled “How Inuit Parents Teach Kids to Control Their Anger” first jumped out at me.
As I read the piece, which detailed how Inuit parents almost never lose their tempers, I found myself feeling increasingly inadequate.
Because while that day in that street may have been the first time I yelled at my child, it certainly wasn’t the last.
In fact, with a little girl who is now 6 years old and full of constant sass, I’m repeatedly surprised by how often motherhood pushes me to that edge of boiling tempers and angry words.
Nevertheless, the NPR piece I read highlighted the story of Jean Briggs, an anthropologist who spent more than 30 years with Inuit tribes.
According to Briggs, the families she stayed with never acted angrily toward her, even though she was sure she’d made them angry a number of times.
They also never reacted with anger toward their children, choosing instead to maintain calm tones and avoiding even the slightest displays of frustration or irritation.
Those displays were considered weak and childlike, according to Briggs.
In this way, she explained, they taught their children to control their own tempers.
It appeared there was a lot I could learn from the Inuit way of parenting. I decided to do some digging and see what more I could find.
I learned the Inuit parenting style is one the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) supports, according to Robert Sege, AAP spokesperson and pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
“I think what they are doing is all the things that I and other pediatricians have been advocating for a while,” he told Healthline.
Sege talked about how the Inuit families described in the NPR piece were using positive reinforcement, teaching their children what they were expected to do, rather than scolding them for not doing it.
“It sounds wonderful,” he said enthusiastically. “The only thing I can think of as a negative is that it’s slower, and I’m not even sure that’s really a negative unless the child is actively headed into danger.”
The AAP has long held that spanking is detrimental to child development. But what about yelling?
It turns out the AAP’s policy statement on effective discipline actually does address yelling. It states, “Aversive disciplinary strategies, including all forms of corporal punishment and yelling at or shaming children, are minimally effective in the short-term and not effective in the long-term.”
They then go on to cite several research studies with data that support this point.
So, what does effective discipline look like?
Well, according to Sege, it’s a lot like what the Inuits are doing. Modeling desired behaviors, talking to kids at an age-appropriate level, redirecting, and using stories to promote what you’d like your kids to do (or what you’d like them to avoid doing).
“It’s not necessary to insert fear and pain into the most loving relationships any of us have, the relationship between parents and kids,” he explained. “The bottom line of the AAP’s policy statement is, ‘We can do better.’”
Nancy Molitor, PhD, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, agrees that modeling is an important place to start parenting.
“Children don’t come into the world understanding feelings,” she told Healthline. “We’re hardwired to feel, but not necessarily to name and deal with those feelings appropriately.”
She says it’s incredibly important for parents to model appropriate expressions of both positive and negative emotions.
“Parents need to understand that children are watching them from day one, and they are learning how to handle their own complicated feelings from you,” she said.
In that sense, the Inuit way of brushing aside anger makes a lot of sense. But is it necessarily healthy for people to diminish their own natural desire to react? Could there potentially be something kids might be able to learn from seeing their parents reach a boiling point?
Molitor said there’s potentially some beneficial aspect to what follows a parental meltdown, but only if the parent is willing to acknowledge they lost their temper and talk to their child about better ways they could have handled their own frustration.
Most people lose their tempers from time to time, after all, but that doesn’t make those intense reactions right.
She also said she wouldn’t suggest doing so intentionally or looking at it as a learning experience for them more than for yourself.
Another effective thing Inuit families do, according to the NPR piece, is devise creative, sometimes frightening stories to steer a child’s behavior.
So, in order to keep children away from the water, for instance, they might tell them there’s a sea monster lurking beneath the depths waiting to pounce on children who get too close.
If you’re concerned about the ethics of employing such a tactic, Sege pointed out that storytelling as a behavior modification tool is something in which many parents engage to some extent.
He brought up the dark plotlines of many of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, saying, “I think there’s a long tradition of doing that. It’s not exactly my philosophy, but I don’t think it’s particularly harmful. And I say that because a lot of cultures have been doing this for a long time.”
However, Molitor was a little more hesitant about this parenting tactic.
She spoke of a story her grandmother had told her as a child to keep her out of the pantry, about a monster who would lay in wait for anyone who might dare try to sneak a snack.
“I was a fearful kid, very controlled by that story,” she explained. “It worked, I never went into the pantry, but it gave me nightmares and I used to tiptoe around the house at night. Even now, I’ll have this weird feeling if I’m home alone and it’s dark.”
So, storytelling as a disciplinary tactic could have some unintended side effects, particularly for sensitive children.
However, Molitor acknowledged most of us have similar stories we were told and now tell our own children, and that even the fairy tales we share usually have some sort of moral message.
Therefore, depending on how it’s used, storytelling can be an effective tool for parents to shape the behavior of their kids.
I leaned the Inuit people have a way of raising and guiding children in which there are no time-outs and no outbursts of anger. Instead, there are a lot of stories told and a lot of redirection.
It’s a slower parenting style, but according to Sege, it’s an approach to parenting that’s both effective and healthy.
“Overall, what [the Inuit] are doing is using the child’s natural learning style through telling stories. It’s fascinating. I’m impressed,” he said.
After researching more about the Inuit approach to parenting, I must admit I’m not only impressed, but inspired.
As a mom who sometimes loses her temper and yells, I now understand how effective doing the exact opposite can be. It’s an approach to parenting I intend to make an effort to begin practicing, which will be better for both my daughter and me.