Last December, in search of parenting wisdom, the NPR science reporter Michaeleen Doucleff headed to the Arctic. She’d read the work of the anthropologist Jean Briggs, whose 1970 book Never in Anger described the calm – almost serene – techniques used by Inuit communities to help children learn how to manage their emotions, and wanted to discover more about the possibility of teaching young people – her own daughter included – to control their anger without resorting to it herself.
There, she discovered ‘one golden rule’ – don’t shout or yell at small children. ‘Shouting, “Think about what you just did. Go to your room!” I disagree with that.’ Goota Jaw, who teaches parenting at Nunavut Arctic College in Canada, told her. ‘That’s not how we teach our children.’
Cool-headed adults, it seemed, led to cool-headed children. Cool-headedness, in general, it seemed, was very much the norm.
Speaking over the phone about her trip, Doucleff explains the Inuit parenting style – which views shouting at a child as demeaning to the adult, and instead uses storytelling and role play to encourage young people to learn for themselves – felt at odds with what she saw in America, where ‘we constantly try and control our kids’ activities, even when it doesn’t matter’.
The impact of this approach seemed to feed into wider social life, too. ‘There’s an amazing amount of calmness there,’ she says. ‘It was the total opposite of my experience of living in San Francisco, where I’m actively being yelled at by people all the time.’
From daily rage on social media to increasingly antagonistic politics and a crisis of anxiety and mental health, our news cycle is dominated by expressions of unhappiness and frustration. We celebrate rows, rants and takedowns – and some of our best-known public figures have built entire careers through on provocation and disdain. Anger and aggression in general – offshoots of individualism and assertiveness – often seem a quicker route to the top than level-headedness or diplomacy.
But if communities such as the Inuit are able to foster a culture where anger is devalued and minimised – starting with their approach to parenting – is this kind of emotional expression an inevitability? Or should we be thinking more about whether the way we raise children and teenagers is a factor in western societies’ readiness to turn to anger in the first place?
‘We do know anger is much more prevalent in some cultures than others,’ says Prof Batja Gomes De Mesquita, the director of the Centre for Social and Cultural Psychology at the University of Leuven in Belgium. ‘The western belief is that we have these authentic emotions that should have room to be expressed and that beyond the odd situation you really you shouldn’t have to suppress it.
‘But this idea of an internal emotion that should be free to come out in any circumstance is not shared as much elsewhere.’
As part of her research, Mesquita set up an experiment in which Belgian and Japanese mothers were invited into the lab with their teenage children to discuss a conflict or area of disagreement. Afterwards, the subjects were asked to review the conflict and report their emotions.
The results for the pre-study (though preliminary) were unexpected. Mesquita thought she would find that Japanese teens reported less feelings of anger than their Belgian counterparts. In fact, they reported the same. The difference was the mothers.
‘What seemed to happen,’ says Mesquita, ‘which surprised us, is you could say that Belgian mothers maintain and cultivate the anger of their children by being angry themselves, by engaging in the conflict, whereas Japanese mothers do not – they were more concerned with their children, focusing on trying to empathise and understand.’
She adds: ‘What it also means is that the way those fights or conflicts develop will be very different. Eventually, on the whole you might find less expressions of anger in Japan.’
In her book Parenting Without Borders, Christine Gross-Loh interrogates our idea of ‘good parenting’, using different examples from around the world to unpick why American kids might lag behind in terms of wellness, happiness and academic achievement. Like Doucleff, she had firsthand experience of how these cultural differences can play out after moving from the US to Japan with her family for five years - and she continues to split her time between the two countries.
‘In the US it’s about getting your child to comply – if they hit someone, you need consequences,’ says Gross-Loh. ‘In Japan, I felt the opposite – even if there was aggression, I wouldn’t see parents jump up to intervene or to scold.’
She adds: ‘One phrase I’d hear a lot is ‘let the children work it out’. I thought it would be a recipe for disaster, but by letting the children resolve a conflict themselves, it gave them tons of experience in learning how to get along with others.’
This choice not to engage anger with more anger shares similarities with the Inuit approach documented by Briggs, where, in the case of a tantrum, parents will wait until the child has calmed down before using role play to act out the incident. For example, asking the child to hit them, playfully expressing that it hurts, then asking questions such as: ‘Why did you hit me ... don’t you like me?’
For Gross-Loh, parenting attitudes are shaped by what kind of child you feel you must raise in order for them to thrive in the society in which you live.
‘If you’re raising a child in a society where interdependence is valued – such as in Japan, or, I imagine, with Inuit communities – you’re raising a child that’s better with self-control and regulation, rather than lots of expression, particularly of high emotions. In the west, we are more individualistic. Anger, the expression of anger, comes from what is socially permissible in your culture.’
But while it is clear society, culture – and parents – play a key role in moulding the way we learn to express things like anger, there are important neurological factors that shape how and why young people – teens particularly – are so prone to high emotions in the first place.
Frances E Jensen is a professor and chair of the department of neurology at the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. She’s also raised two sons as a single parent and is co-author of The Teenage Brain: a Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, which takes a growing body of research – one that has only come about in the last 10-15 years – and turns it into an applied guide for parents.
Jensen is keen to highlight that while teenage brains still have an incredible propensity to learn and are far more emotionally stimulated than adults – other parts are less developed. ‘They’re like a Ferrari with weak brakes,’ she tells me. And much of this comes down to the frontal lobe.
The frontal lobe manages impulse control, decision-making, judgment and empathy. During adolescence, the brain is insulating the connections between its different parts to allow for superfast conduction and more complex brain processes – a process called myelination. The frontal lobe is the last part to fully connect.
‘So when your daughter comes home in tears because a friend wore the same outfit and she’s behaving like it’s an international incident ... well guess what?’ says Jensen. ‘Her brain is as active as if it was an international incident. The frontal lobe isn’t doing the job of saying: ‘This is just a sweater, don’t be ridiculous’.’ Understanding that the teenage brain is going through an important period of development, one where the more sophisticated parts of the brain are being constructed – those responsible for social function and awareness – should help inform our response as adults.
For Jensen, this means parenting with additional empathy – as well as overtly and explicitly role-modelling for them (ie not getting angry yourself).
If books like Jensen’s can help us become more sensitive to the vulnerability – and plasticity – of teenage brains to replicate our social standards, then looking to other cultures should give us some optimism that nothing – not even the way we express basic emotions – is set in stone.
Guardian News & Media