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Good Parenting Practices among Inuit

by Nicola on 2013-08-16


Setting an Example - Good Parenting Practices

among Inuit

Dr Nicola Davies

Photo courtesy of David Ho.


It is impossible to discuss good parenting within Inuit communities without taking cultural identity – or lack of it - into consideration. Since the colonisation of the Americas, a proud cultural tradition relayed through the ages via stories, songs and art, had been corroded to a point just short of extinction. Although there is a growing movement to revive Inuit traditional beliefs, the introduction of so-called Residential Schools, attended by 80% of  Inuit children between the mid-1970’s and early 1990’s, caused an irreversible corruption of the tight knit community life of the Arctic Inuit people.


The result is that the children in these communities for the most part no longer know the language of their elders. They grew up without a broader sense of belonging, on the outskirts of their cultural heritage, and subsequently suffer a sense of alienation and abandonment.   


Good parenting practices amongst Inuit would thus entail sifting out the appropriate from the inappropriate methods adopted from contemporary western society, and reintroducing tried and tested traditional parenting styles that could have a bearing on, or be comfortably adapted to, their modern lifestyles. 


“Hold them, share them, let them run free” is the opinion of Jared Diamond, who spent time with the Enu people of Papua New Guinea. Writing online for Time magazine, he holds the view that westerners could all learn valuable lessons from the way hunter-gatherer societies raise children - how they are regarded as “autonomous individuals whose desires should not be thwarted.”


Diamond highlights the “emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity and autonomy of members of small scale societies” and how the adolescent identity crisis so common amongst US and UK teenagers, is lacking in these smaller, remote communities. This he believes is the result of children in hunter-gatherer communities having a longer nursing period, with consistent security and stimulation. They sleep near or with parents for several years - “A cross-cultural sample of 90 traditional human societies identified not a single one with a mother an infant sleeping in separate rooms,” says Diamond. They also have a host of social role models readily available through so-called “allo”-parenting -regular caregivers who are not biological parents.


These aspects are also common in traditional Arctic Inuit culture, which is based on the concept of Isuma. Isuma refers to an understanding of one’s individuality and place in the world. The developing Isuma of others is considered sacrosanct - one is not to intrude on it or the process of acquiring it. The best you can do is present your own good conduct as an example and wait for it to be assimilated and accepted. In practical terms, it means there is no point in trying to force children to learn something before they are ready. If they are ripe to accept the wisdom, they will follow the right example. Ultimately, Isuma also represents both the ability and willingness to learn.


“Children are permitted to time their own social growth,” explains author Jean Briggs in her study of Inuit entitled ‘Never in Anger.’ Those who have not yet attained Isuma are thus given all the possible love, support and freedom of movement and action in Inuit communities.     


“Children should know that they are loved,” offers Uqsuralik Ottokie, an Inuit elder in ‘Interviewing Inuit Elders,’ published by  Nunavut Arctic College in Canada: “As soon as you show the child pure unconditional love, without ever raising your voice to them, without being physically abusive, they grow beautifully.”


Elsewhere in the 5-volume publication, she says: “If you discipline the child all the time, constantly, it seems that they tune you out. If they are doing something and you know nothing bad is going to happen, you should just let them be.” In ‘Never in Anger,’ Briggs relates how an older daughter in an Inuit family, not having been subjected to the consistent dos and don’ts of the average western household, “was rarely seen or heard” - she spent much of her time out visiting other families.


By the time most Inuit children are 5-6 years of age, they have attained Isuma and are considered to be an autonomous, responsible and balanced individual capable of exercising good judgment, reason and emotional control – a direct result of having excess affection and freedom in their fist few years on earth. This is also the result of being allowed to explore and learn their own lessons.


However, what to do when they seriously go astray? Although obedience was valued by Inuit in Briggs study, she explains that parents rarely made issues out of incidents by insisting on obedience. Instead, while developing Isuma, children were required to control their behavior in a degree possible for them, following their natural order.

Misdemeanors were either ignored, met with a “passing titter” or an utterance of disapproval (often an imitation of a cow mooing). According to Briggs, the parents exuded an attitude of, “the child was not reasonable, but sooner or later it will come to its senses and behave more maturely again.”


The right way to teach a child is by example. Good behaviour in Inuit communities constitutes a control of emotions, generosity, helpfulness, honesty and independence. Self-discipline and an independently developed awareness of the dangers around them is also seen as important for children to flourish. This is essential for survival in the harsh conditions of Inuit culture and other hunter-gatherer communities. Children must learn to be aware and observant, because missing important messages or warnings in their immediate environment can be disastrous for the entire clan. Rather than allowing them to perpetually be asking questions, children must therefore be encouraged to look, listen and learn.


Briggs realised it is considered bad manners to even ask questions amongst adults when her enquiry as to what work an Inuit man was doing, was scorned upon. Had she been polite, they explained, she would have waited to see what he was up to.


To hone this quality in children, they must be tested on their observational skills. On a daily basis children are asked questions such as: How shall we pass through that cliff? Where in this room is mother’s sister? A wrong answer might elicit laughter – but never a reprimand or a correct answer. Inuit children are expected to work it out for themselves.


This concept is extended further when it comes to issues of morality. Inuit children are not told directly what is morally good or unacceptable. They are instead subjected to physical endurance tests, exercises in imitating adults, and quiz games that provoke thought. The latter constitutes presenting children between the ages of 2-4 years with moral dilemmas that demand answers. Always in a playful way, caregivers will create situations that evoke feelings of anger, jealousy, envy and resentment, which they must learn to diffuse. Such enquiries can be mild, such as: “Are you a baby?” Or “Who do you belong to?” They can also be more challenging, such as: “Why don’t you hurt your brother?” or “Why don’t you steal from the shop?” Once they can no longer be drawn into the trap set for them Briggs explains, the questioning and the game ceases.


The central focus of Inuit childrearing is to encourage independent thought or an “increase in thought” - posing questions without providing answers encourages Inuit children to draw their own conclusions, make their own decisions and, ultimately, determine their own fate.


Finally, contrary to popular western beliefs, where good parenting is equated with creating boundaries and instilling discipline since birth, appropriate mentoring could well be steeped in the concept of “less is more.”

Photo Courtesy of David Ho.


Author Bio:

Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being.  Her publications can be viewed at Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:



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