Child development expert Lucia Alcalá said the COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to examine how families from different cultures have adjusted their parenting techniques to adapt to new environments.
In a recent studyCal State Fullerton, associate professor of psychology and her research team found that certain Indigenous parenting techniques enhanced children’s emotional development, which appeared to minimize stress while coping with isolation and quarantine.
In fall 2020, her team analyzed parenting practices from contrasting social backgrounds, interviewing 18 rural Mayan women from Yucatec, Mexico and 13 middle-class European American women in Southern California.
“The way the daily activities of the Mayan children are organized and designed, these spaces were more appropriate for dealing with the pandemic, compared to the daily activities here in Southern California,” Alcalá said.
Planning of schedules and activities
Parents in Southern California who participated in the study said they had difficulty meeting their children’s academic and emotional needs due to the quarantine restrictions.
“A lot of the attendees were also working from home, so they had multiple demands,” Alcalá said. “It was a source of stress for them not knowing what to do with their children at home.”
Mayan children in communities in Mexico often organize their own daily activities, according to the study. Their parents encourage this autonomy, valuing the independence and autonomy of the children. Children are expected to make their own decisions about schoolwork, games and household chores.
Alcalá said middle-class American families view childhood as a time of leisure and happiness. The study noted how participants in Southern California invested economic resources in the interests and perceived needs of their children. Over time, children have learned to rely on their parents to plan and structure school and leisure activities.
“We have created even more responsibility for the emotional development, well-being and happiness of our children in general, making them more dependent on the support of adults,” said Alcalá.
Social development through the family
The study noted that being away from their peers proved difficult for many American children during the pandemic. Aside from parents and siblings, peers are seen as a source of socialization and belonging for American children.
In response, American mothers have increased the time they spend with their children, making more activities available to them, Alcalá said.
“Rather than trusting children to make their own decisions, to find activities that they like to do, their mother had to become their playmate,” said Alcalá.
For Mayan children, socialization and belonging are rooted in the family. Alcalá said time spent between children and their classmates was a concern mentioned by some, but not all, Mayan mothers in the study.
“They were always playing with close friends and extended family,” Alcalá said. “They usually have family members living in the same complex.”
Adjust expectations and be flexible
For the Yucatec Maya families, economic uncertainty and limited resources have caused distress during the pandemic. However, Mayan children already participate in household chores on a regular basis, making the transition to quarantine easier.
“The integration of Mayan children into household activities has been smooth,” said Alcalá. “The Mayan children would help more now that they were spending more time at home. They would go to the cornfield to make the traditional milpa (a traditional gardening method for corn, beans, and squash), help their mothers in their communal gardens, or take care of animals at home.
Study participants from the United States did not see helping children with household chores as an essential contribution as the Mayan participants did, Alcalá said. Parents in Southern California created chores for their children to keep them busy at home, but these parents also complained about having more chores to do overall.
Alcalá, who is a mother of three, says there is no better way to raise children and suggests that parents consider several ways to organize activities that might work for their household.
“Learning to do things in multiple ways is always an advantage,” said Alcalá. “When the context changes and we are not ready for it, we have to be flexible.
“We really need to adopt other forms of educating our children that are more in line with the challenges we face. We can learn from other communities, like the Mayan community, where parents demonstrate strength and resilience in their child rearing practices.