It’s a time-honored tradition for Indigenous families to follow our original instructions from the Creator. Through these instructions, our basic kinship principles have been practiced, maintained, and continuously cultivated.
Key principles embedded within the original instructions that guide Indigenous families were built around our Creation stories. They include the morals, values, virtues, and principles that past generations have built for us. These principles typically instruct us to live collectively as Indigenous nations, communities, and families.
Mentoring and Traditional Kinship Help Families Work
For our families to function as effectively as they did before colonization, older generations must continuously practice their role of mentoring younger generations and instruct them in our traditional ways of parenting. Through what present-day parenting experts would call “positive parenting,” “gentle parenting,” and the like, Indigenous children and young people are raised to show qualities including kindness, integrity, self-discipline, honesty, humility, gratitude, and more.
These qualities are instilled through mentorship and our traditional kinship structures. They are also imparted through the revitalization of our own traditional legal systems, which historically operated differently depending on which family, community, and nation one came from.
Get Back to the Fundamentals
The fundamentals of these laws are grounded in the belief that how one treats others, including plants and animals, will ultimately fall back on one’s children and grandchildren down the line. With this in mind, things like gossip, belittling and judging others, being greedy in life, and even not doing one’s part in the collective work become things of which families are more mindful.
So how else do we instill these morals, values, virtues, and principles into children and young people today? Many times, these teachings are considered old. Many people have forgotten them. Still others have forgotten how to impart them in the coming generations. Yet, a growing number of Indigenous parents are starting to return to these old ways while also navigating the influences of mainstream practices and technology on our youth today.
Monica Tsethlikai, Ph.D, and a member of the A:shiwi (Zuni) Nation, explains, “When we return to original instruction, we embrace the sacredness in our children and in ourselves.” Those original instructions are our old teachings, and how they look may differ from family to family.
What would returning to original instruction in parenting actually look like? Let’s take the example of instilling self-discipline in our children. Instead of using concepts of reward and punishment concerning children and teens, we would instead invite them to view their behaviors from the inside out. By not taking their behaviors personally and rather discovering together with our child why they may be doing what they’re doing, we help them take responsibility for their behavior. Furthermore, by recognizing that negative behaviors often come from a place of not having an emotional need met, we as parents can create a safe space for our children and teens. That safe space can lend itself to self-accountability and exploration which will lead them to seriously consider the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”
This isn’t to say that consequences aren’t in place with the outcomes of behaviors that don’t align with Indigenous morals, values, virtues, and principles. Establishing consequences becomes a team effort, and dialogue takes place. Rather than relating to children and teens in our lives based on their behaviors, we relate to them from a place of unconditional love while encouraging them to explore their identity and begin determining who they want to become. We do this through gentle response, creating safe spaces to feel, and with the understanding of consequences.
Dr. Tsethlikai emphasizes this point saying, “The best way to support our teenagers is to be there to love them and connect with them on a daily basis.” Through an Indigenous kinship lens, this looks like supporting our young people even on the hardest days, in the most challenging moments. Because it is in those moments, they need mentorship and tenderness from us the most.
Ultimately, Indigenous parenting styles focus on the larger picture of how our children and teens will serve the collective when the time comes. For example, what role will our daughters play? How will our sons serve the cause? In what way will my two-spirited/non-binary child collaborate with our nation?
When we utilize the tools of our ancestors concerning parenting, we notice the difference. Rather than creating spaces for young children and teens to avoid punishment or gain rewards in relation to how we want them to behave, we are creating spaces for them to shape their morals, values, virtues, and principles in ways that promote the well-being of our families, communities, and nations.
As part of the collective community, it’s essential not to take their behaviors personally. We must ask our tweens and teens this question: “What kind of person do you want to be in life?” As our children develop and mature, they will embrace their sacredness and ensure a connected kinship. Dr. Tsethlikai reminds us, “We want to honor their spirit. We want to honor the contributions they’re going to make to our family and to our people. And so the more people that we can involve in parenting and loving them, the better off they’re going to be.”
This piece was written by Andrea Landry, a member of the Pays Plat First Nation and part of the Anishinaabe Nation (Ojibway).