Storytelling Instead Of Scolding: Inuit Say It Makes Their Children More Cool-Headed

Mar 4, 2019
Originally published on March 4, 2019 8:24 pm
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In northern Canada, just below the Arctic Circle, anger can be dangerous. The Inuit have lived off the land there for thousands of years. To help them survive, they develop the ability to control their anger. As part of our month-long exploration of this emotion, NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports on the way the Inuit pass this skill from parent to child and what we can learn from it.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: It's lunchtime in the small town of Iqaluit. I'm at the elders center, and elders in their 80s and 90s are settling into their comfy chairs with rainbow quilts. The cook is just starting to bring out the food.

UNIDENTIFIED COOK: This is your meat to cut up, ringed seal.

DOUCLEFF: Ringed seal.

Next to the seal is beluga whale.

UNIDENTIFIED COOK: Frozen char.

DOUCLEFF: And a chunk of raw caribou glistening with blood.

LISA IPEELIE: And he's having the cartilage...

DOUCLEFF: OK.

IPEELIE: ...Which is still good to eat.

DOUCLEFF: That's Lisa Ipeelie. She's our interpreter. She hands me a fork with a chunk of stewed seal on it.

It's really good.

IPEELIE: Tastes like...

DOUCLEFF: ...Beef with a sea flavor.

IPEELIE: Beef with seaweed.

DOUCLEFF: This type of food right here, this wild game, this is what sustained the Inuit civilization in one of the harshest places on earth. And to get this food wasn't easy. You had to make tools, hunt, butcher the meat and then make clothes from the skins. All of this took an enormous amount of skill and time.

MARTHA TIKIVIK: (Speaking Inuktitut).

DOUCLEFF: Martha Tikivik is 83 and was born in an igloo. She says Inuits didn't have time to be angry. It just got in their way.

TIKIVIK: (Through interpreter) Anger's not going to solve your problem. It's just going to stop you from doing something that you need to get done.

DOUCLEFF: She says that since ancient times, Inuit have seen anger as unproductive.

TIKIVIK: (Through interpreter). Anger has no purpose.

DOUCLEFF: In fact, anthropologists have documented consistent cool-headedness in everyday Inuit life. In one instance, a fishing line which had taken days to make breaks on the first use. Nobody changes their expression. Someone just says calmly, go sew it back together. Elders I spoke with say intense colonization over the past century is damaging their traditions, including how they raise their kids. And so the community is working hard to keep traditions intact.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Inuktitut).

DOUCLEFF: There's a class at the local college that teaches traditional Inuit parenting.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Inuktitut).

DOUCLEFF: This class is led by Goota Jaw.

GOOTA JAW: (Speaking Inuktitut).

DOUCLEFF: Right off the bat, she wants to make something clear about Inuit parenting versus the American style.

JAW: I could say we do parenting totally different.

DOUCLEFF: Totally different.

JAW: Yep.

DOUCLEFF: In particular, she says, the No. 1 rule in Inuit parenting is never yell or shout at a small child. Her husband is Caucasian.

JAW: He's the one that was shouting, like, you know, think about what you just did. Go to your room. All this stuff, and I disagree with that.

DOUCLEFF: This gentle approach, this no-yelling policy, is key to how the Inuits raised cool-headed kids. So then how do Inuits get kids to listen without scolding?

JAW: We go by storytelling.

DOUCLEFF: Oh, so discipline is done mostly through the stories.

JAW: Yes.

DOUCLEFF: These are oral stories handed down from one generation to the next. And they're designed to sculpt kids' behavior to get them to act a certain way right now, sometimes even save their lives. For example, in the Arctic, the ocean is a dangerous place for kids.

JAW: We are afraid of children drowning, getting in the water.

DOUCLEFF: So instead of yelling at kids, don't go near the water, Inuit parents take a preemptive approach and tell kids a special story about what's inside the water.

JAW: Qalupalik (ph), it's the sea monster.

DOUCLEFF: The sea monster. If a child walks too close to the water or goes in, the monster appears and...

JAW: They're going to put you in their big pouch, and they're going to drag you with them down to the ocean.

DOUCLEFF: So then you don't need to yell at the child.

JAW: Yes because the child is already getting the message.

DOUCLEFF: Another story helps kids learn to keep their hats on in the winter. Myna Ishulutak is a former teacher at the parenting class. She says for that they use the northern lights.

MYNA ISHULUTAK: If you go out without no hat, the northern light going to take your head off and use it as a soccer ball.

DOUCLEFF: And, boy, did this story work.

ISHULUTAK: We used to be so scared. They were going to take my head off, you know (laughter).

DOUCLEFF: Now, the point is not to scare the pants off kids but rather to intrigue them, make them think. The right amount of scariness will vary from kid to kid and age to age. For example, I don't feel like I have time for anger in my life either. So I brought monsters to our house. They are fun monsters with a dash of scariness. We have a sharing monster that makes sure kids are sharing. And to help our 3-year-old, Rosy, put her shoes on more quickly in the morning, we have...

ROSY: The shoe monster.

DOUCLEFF: The shoe monster, what does he do?

ROSY: He watches girls who are not putting their shoes on.

DOUCLEFF: He looks to see if girls are not putting their shoes on? And what if they don't put their shoes on?

ROSY: He comes and takes them down in the hole right there.

DOUCLEFF: He takes them and puts them in a hole? What's better, stories or me yelling and telling you what to do?

ROSY: Stories.

DOUCLEFF: Rosy can't get enough of these stories. Deena Weisberg at Villanova says that's not surprising. She's a psychologist who studies how kids interpret stories and says across cultures, stories have long been a potent way to communicate because we are built to learn through narrative.

DEENA WEISBERG: We learn best through things that are interesting to us. And stories, by their nature, can have lots of things in them that are much more interesting or can tie things together into a narrative arc in a way that, you know, just bare statements don't.

DOUCLEFF: Rosy, do you like the stories?

ROSY: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: You like them? Do you love the stories?

ROSY: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: You love them?

ROSY: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: Stories that decrease anger, decrease shouting and make discipline fun. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.