A mother and son playing in a lake.


What Four Directions Parenting Means to Me

May 23, 2018

When you think of how your cultural traditions and beliefs have impacted your parenting, what comes to mind?

Has the influence been strong and dynamic? Through my children I am trying to heal from my own experiences. To evolve. I never want them to feel displaced, deceived or traumatized about their identity like I did. I want to enrich their lives with the blessings and the solidarity that comes from Indigenous practices and traditions. That’s the crux of defining what four directions parenting is to me. It’s about the appreciation of how positively my own parenting has been impacted and how much I’ve learned by opening up my mind to the teachings and perspectives of Indigenous peoples hailing from from all ‘four directions,’ or perhaps terminology non-Indigenous readers may be more familiar with: the four primary, cardinal directions — north, east, south and west.

What I’m really describing is the cultural influence and intrinsic value of tapping into Indigenous traditions and belief systems that literally come from all four directions.

There is a resurgence of knowledge happening in our world today, as we heal from the colonial impact on generations of parents — past and present — who had their children stolen and were forbidden from practicing and learning from our cultural traditions, languages and belief systems. My own life has been enriched and I feel more empowered, prepared and knowledgeable than I ever have been before because of this resurgence. So, when I talk about four directions parenting, what I’m really describing is the cultural influence and intrinsic value of tapping into Indigenous traditions and belief systems that literally come from all four directions, enriching my life and helping me grow to be a better parent.

To be clear, four directions parenting is not an “official” term or academic-type theory. It’s definitely not a label to attach to how all Indigenous parents might do their parenting thang. It’s a style of parenting that’s evolved naturally for me, as I’ve described above, and centralized around the 7 grandfather teachings — which is a part of four directions teachings — and the resurgence of Indigenous kinship in parenting practices. We choose and abide by what works for our multiculturally blended, mixed-root family.

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Four directions parenting upholds the sacred teachings of the medicine wheel, which are vast and I’m not going to do justice by sharing here — nor am I equipped as an elder to do so — but what I can say is that the medicine wheel is a tool for connection to harmony, balance and respect for everything that is needed to sustain life. The medicine wheel teachings are represented by the colours red (south), white (north), yellow (east) and black (west) and animals, values, seasons, stages of life and plant medicines are attached to each direction. If you want to learn more about elder-consulted four directions teachings from multiple nations, this is a great resource.

I see the relationship between parent and child to be based on the same connections held up in the medicine wheel: a parent-child relationship based in equality, not hierarchy. This is a kind of parenting where the matriarchal bond between parent and child is deeply respected, as is the role that community plays in helping to raise our children. Often, in Indigenous kinship style of parenting, for example, children are given the power to make their own decisions, even if it means making a mistake, getting dirty or getting hurt. To let them get all of their emotions out, even when it’s ‘inconvenient’ instead of shushing them. And it’s the land — a respect and connection for my first mother and all of creation — that lies at the core foundation of four directions parenting. Passing on that respect and deep connection to my children is what makes me a mother. Providing space for them to learn from their community and their elders is what makes me a parent.

From all four directions across Turtle Island, we are all going through something when it comes to parenting.

The concept that children should be seen and not heard, or rewarding “good” behaviour with treats and bad behaviour with punishment is a teaching that I myself have struggled with. It’s hard to move past colonial ways as being upheld as ‘the better way.’ But when I provide a space for my kids to manage their own emotions and guide them towards taking responsibility for their own behaviour, I see them shine far past any of the treats and consequences I used to dole out. 

I’m tackling some big topics here, impossible to unpack in one short essay. Because, we (Indigenous nations) are diverse. As diverse as my non-visibly Indigenous skin next to the glowing brown skin of my chosen family. As diverse as the resurgence of hundreds of Indigenous languages. As diverse as the practices and ceremonies that are distinct, nation-to-nation. Regardless, I have to believe that we can live on different parts of the spectrum but still learn from one another and what we’re going through, as parents. Because you know we’re all just trying to do the best we can! From all four directions across Turtle Island, we are all going through something when it comes to parenting. 

I think it’s so important to share how our culture impacts our parenting, because so many of us are going through it, and it’s rough! Becoming a mother has called for me to expand in ways I never imagined possible. When I first became a mother, I HAD NO IDEA. It takes generations of child-rearing practices, stories (the good, the bad and the ugly) and kinship practices to raise healthy, kind children. And that's something we can all aspire to.



Article Author Selena Mills
Selena Mills

Read more from Selena here

A multidisciplinary creative professional and artisan, Selena has over 10 years of experience writing and editing for acclaimed publications, B2B content creation, social management, brand building, design and VA services. Passionate about elevating Indigenous and FNMI stories, perspectives and voices in digital media, she strives to build bridges renegade style. When the chaos permits, Selena is an avid four-seasons permaculture gardener and a hobby “chef” who looks for other parents to revel (and or kvetch) in motherhood with. Clearly, she doesn’t like rules, most visionaries don’t.

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