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What We Can Learn from the Inuit about Creativity?

When we think about creativity and how it takes form, it’s useful to look at people, or animals, who have a lot of challenges in their lives. Any being whose life is under some kind of constant major or minor threat needs to develop ways to deal with that threat, and for that, our creative brain needs to get engaged. Necessity, as it turns out, truly is the mother of invention when any menace is present.

And so, looking at a group of people like the Inuit, who certainly have a lot of challenges to deal with in the natural world, can be a great way to measure our own creativity, and learn some valuable lessons along the way.

The Inuit (the plural form of referring to this group of people, Inuk is used for individuals) are a tribe who today primarily inhabit Alaska, Northern Canada and Greenland, and to a lesser extent, Siberia. In other words, they live in mostly inhospitable areas of the planet near or in the Arctic Circle, and have done so for centuries. Their DNA reflects that they came from a group called the Thule People, and since what is now Alaska and Russia were once thought to be connected, that’s the most likely route they took to trek from Asia to the Americas. Wherever they came from, went and lived, mother nature was inhospitable, and they had to figure out ways around that to live happy and prosperous lives.

So considering human emotions, feelings like anger not only serve no purpose in a challenging environment, but could easily put everyone’s life in danger. The Inuit have found ways to mitigate this emotion, and this peculiarity is well documented by people living with and studying the Inuit way of life. Inuit have been observed in frustrating, or even dire, situations, and no one gets excited. They simply find a way to resolve whatever the challenge may be in a measured way. This doesn’t mean they don’t feel emotions, they simply have created a specific, nonreactive way of responding to life situations.

When it comes to raising children, the Inuit had to devise ways to help children deal with frustration and anger so that they, too, would grow into level-headed adults who could function well in a tribe challenged by their natural setting.

Anyone who’s been around toddlers and young children knows that emotions for these little people can be unpredictable and sometimes out of control. The frontal lobe of the brain, the area that controls behavior, is the very last part of the brain to develop, and isn’t fully developed until after the child becomes an adult. As a result, Mother Nature gave children a great way to let off steam when they don’t understand their lives: the tantrum.

The Inuit came up with a creative answer for children’s inability to regulate their emotions: storytelling and play acting. Once the child has calmed down from a tantrum (adults do not react in any way to the emotional outburst, and there are no “time outs” in the Inuit culture) an adult will walk them through what just happened with role playing. That way, the child can see the situation with some calm perspective as the adult guides them through possible solutions.

But then how do Inuit discipline their children, so that they begin to grasp right from wrong, good behavior from bad, safe from dangerous? If they don’t yell at or punish them, how do the children know which behaviors are good for themselves and their families?

When I was a young mother, I used Western ways of disciplining my two sons. I remember one morning, I was on my way out the driveway to run, and I happened to look back and saw my youngest son, who was about three at the time, coming after me…..toward the street….in a neighborhood with no sidewalks. He had slipped past my husband, whose attention was elsewhere.

I ran back toward him, yelling, and grabbed him by the arm, propelling him back to our front door. I continued to yell, wanting him to see the full extent of my alarm, because I didn’t want him to consider trying this tactic again. We were both worked up into quite a state, and I was satisfied that he probably wouldn’t try this again any time soon.

But what a way to get my point across! I felt angry, flustered and guilty, and I’m sure my little son was scared and confused. Not optimal for ensuring everyone’s emotional health.

Inuit live in pretty extreme conditions. It’s cold, sometimes brutally so, and many times their villages and cities are near water. What they have devised is quite clever, and serves to remind children how to behave: they tell stories. If a child goes out without their hat on (which in below zero weather could be a recipe for disaster), the parents tell children that the Northern Lights will come down and take their heads for playing ball. If little ones happen to get too near the ocean, they are told there is a monster waiting who will suck them up and take them into the depths.

These are pretty extreme “fairy tales”, but maybe that’s what it takes in life threatening conditions. And, to my way of thinking, it’s a lot more civilized than screaming at your child. It also engages a child’s imagination; who wouldn’t have a pretty vivid picture in their head of what could happen if you disobey the rules?

The final way Inuit parents teach their kids good behavior is in quiet moments, ask them to misbehave deliberately, and then play act out the consequences. A parent who is working with a child who is hitting others will say, “Hit me. Hit me harder.” Then they will ask, “Don’t you like me?” or “Are you a baby?” The child has to stop and think: “Why am I hitting?” or, “Maybe hitting isn’t such a good idea if it makes me look like a baby.” These little theatrical plays continue until the child figures out that hitting has some down sides, and maybe they should stop.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could use less anger in the world, and more measured thinking. The Inuit’s creative solutions to keeping those emotions at bay, without mental health fallout, are certainly ones we can learn from and utilize in our everyday lives. As a new grandmother, I’m looking forward to seeing the real world application of these creative methods.

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