Summary: Spending time outdoors and helping to control fears can help children process their negative emotions.
Source: North Carolina State University
A recent study of indigenous people in southern Chile challenges some Western assumptions about children’s emotional capabilities and highlights the potential value of spending time outdoors to help children regulate their emotions.
“I think many people, particularly in Western cultures, think children are less capable than they actually are,” says Amy Halberstadt, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and corresponding author of a paper on the work. “Our study shows that this is not universal.
“For example, our work with the Mapuche people makes clear that they have different expectations about their children’s ability to manage fear. And the role they feel nature plays in helping children maintain their emotional equilibrium is also distinct.”
For the study, researchers conducted a survey of 271 parents and teachers in southern Chile. One hundred six of the study participants were Mapuche, an indigenous people of the region. The remaining 165 were non-Mapuche.
Survey questions were developed based on interviews and focus groups. The questions were aimed at gaining a better understanding of cultural differences regarding the beliefs that adults have about children and children’s emotions.
One finding was that Mapuche parents and teachers were significantly more likely than non-Mapuche to expect their children to be able to control fear.
“To be clear, we’re not talking about children being stoic about their fear,” Halberstadt says. “We’re talking about an expectation that children understand a situation and either take action or accept the situation without becoming afraid.”
“The Mapuche believe that part of growing up is learning not to be afraid, and this is something that is actively fostered,” says Dejah Oertwig, co-author of the paper and a Ph.D. student at NC State. “Mapuche parents support the development of emotional skills like this one through the way they help children interpret the world around them.”
The study found that Mapuche also place a great deal of value on a child’s relationship with nature.
“The Mapuche believe children should respect, but not fear, nature,” Halberstadt says. “They also believe nature can help children become calm, cope with sadness in a positive way and otherwise regulate negative emotions.
“Parents here in the U.S. may want to view these approaches as possible strategies they can use at home,” Halberstadt says. “I don’t think there are necessarily prescriptions for success in any one approach, but broadening our appreciation of what’s possible for kids could yield positive outcomes for young people. It might be a good idea to see if spending more time outside, and respecting and appreciating nature, do help us regulate our own emotions or help our children find balance.”
Funding: The work was done with support from Chile’s FONDECYT, under grant number 1191956.
To learn more about Chilean emotional beliefs related to emotion development, 271 Mapuche and non-Mapuche parents and teachers in urban and rural settings reported their emotion beliefs using a questionnaire invariant in the Chilean context (Riquelme et al., in press). Included are six beliefs previously found to resonate across three United States cultures (i.e., beliefs about the value and cost of certain emotions; control of emotion; knowledge of children’s emotion; manipulation of emotion; and emotional autonomy), and five others distinctive to the indigenous people of this region (i.e., value of being calm; controlling fear specifically; interpersonality of emotion; learning about emotion from adults; and regulation through nature). MANOVAs were conducted to examine these beliefs across culture (Mapuche, non-Mapuche), role (parent, teacher), and geographical location (rural, urban). For United States-derived beliefs, there were no main effects, although two interactions with culture by role and location were significant. For all five Mapuche-generated beliefs, there were significant main effects for culture, role, and location. Results highlight both similarities and differences in beliefs across cultures, roles, and geographical location. Implications for the Chilean context include the importance of non-Mapuche teachers’ sensitivity to the values and emotion-related beliefs of Mapuche families. Implications for the global context include an expanded view of emotion-related beliefs, including beliefs that children can control fear and be calm, that emotion-related values include attending to the needs of others, and that two ways of controlling emotion are through learning by listening to/watching elders, and by being in nature.