A Maya supermom’s parenting secrets revealed

Gelmy, one of the five kids in Maria de los Angeles Tun Burgosa's family, rakes the backyard of their home in Yucatán. (Photo: Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR) 
Maria de los Angeles Tun Burgos with daughters Angela, 12, and Gelmy, 9, in their family home in a Maya village in Yucatán. Photo: NPR

She’s raising five children while doing housework and chores, including preparing fresh tortillas every day made from stone-ground corn. And she helps with the family’s business in their small village about two-and-a-half hours west of Cancun.

That’s why National Public Radio has declared Maria de los Angeles Tun Burgos a “supermom.”

NPR’s “Goats and Soda” series stopped in Yucatán to observe Maya parenting in action.

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Burgos, 41, is described as cool as a cucumber as her youngest daughter, 4-year-old Alexa and 9-year-old Gelmy play and 12-year-old Angela washes dishes — without being asked.

“Do you think that being a mom is stressful?” the reporter asks.

“Stressful? What do you mean by stressful?” she responds through a Mayan translator.

“A five-minute conversation ensues between Burgos and the translator, trying to convey the idea of ‘stressful.’ There doesn’t seem to be a straight-up Mayan term, at least not pertaining to motherhood,” writes Michaeleen Doucleff, a “Science Desk” reporter.

Finally, she gets an answer.

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“There are times that I worry about my children, like when my son was 12 and only wanted to be with his friends and not study,” Burgos says. “I was worried about his future.” But once she guided him back on track, the worry went away.

“I know that raising kids is slow,” she says. “Little by little they will learn.”

Burgos learned how to be a mom through her own mother, her aunts and her neighbors.

Rather than trying to control their children, Maya parenting more often involves collaboration, says Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied Maya culture for 30 years.

“We think of obedience from a control angle. Somebody is in charge and the other one is doing what they are told because they have to,” says Rogoff.

“It’s kids and adults together accomplishing a common goal,” Rogoff says. “It’s not letting the kids do whatever they want. It’s a matter of children — and parents — being willing to be guided.”

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Even the littlest of children are treated with respect. “It’s collaborative from the get-go.”

Some Mayan languages don’t even have a word for “control” when talking about children, Rogoff says.

The reporter, who has a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, tried it.

“After visiting the Maya village this spring, I’ve been trying this approach with my 2 1/2-year-old daughter,” said Doucleff. “For instance, I often struggle to get Rosemary to put her clothes on in the morning. In the past, I would nag and yell: ‘Put your shoes on! Get your jacket!’ ”

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But under her more collaborative approach, the pitch is more like:

“Rosemary, mom, dad and Mango [our dog] are all going to the beach. If you want to go to the beach, you have to put your shoes on. Do you want to go to the beach?”

“So far it’s working,” says Doucleff.

Maya families also have a different idea about who is supposed to care for the kids. There are aunts or neighbors to watch over them.

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“One way to think of it: They don’t keep mom in a box,” concludes Doucleff.

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