Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What Parents Can Learn from 4 Children Who Survived in a Jungle

How an indigenous way of parenting can lead to more competent and confident children.

Key points

  • In the modern world, we largely view children as incapable.
  • Indigenous cultures all over the world tend to view children as inherently capable.
  • They allow them much more freedom and autonomy.
  • There is much we can learn from them, if we are open to it.
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Last year, a plane crash in the Colombian jungle left only four passengers alive: four indigenous siblings aged 13, 9, 4, and an infant. What followed were 40 days of uncertainty where Colombian rescue teams searched the jungle in the hopes of finding them alive.

Any parent can probably imagine the horror the children’s family went through; not only did the children have to find drinkable water and food, and distinguish edible plants from toxic ones, but they also were in a place that is home to potential predators such as poisonous snakes.

And yet, a miracle happened. After 40 days, all four children were found together, alive. How is that possible?

The Modern View of Children

In the modern (Western) world, we tend to view children as largely incapable. We believe that children need punishment and reward to learn right from wrong, protection from risks such as using a sharp knife at a young age, and constant direction, correction, and control to learn what to say, do, or how to move their body.

Yet this idea of having to direct or control our children’s every move turns our idea about children into a self-fulfilling prophecy: It makes children in many ways incompetent.

Children learn through observation, imitation, and play. They are born with an intrinsic motivation to want to watch and imitate us. They want to help in everything we do.

This is why toddlers love to sweep when we sweep—and often get quite cranky if we don’t let them do it by themselves. It is their way of being and becoming a cooperative member of our family.

Children are born with an intrinsic motivation to learn through play. They play at everything they observe around them. A toddler that still gets breastfed, or sees a baby sibling getting breastfed, might breastfeed their doll or stuffed animal.

What's more, children make sense of the world and their role in it through us. When we don’t allow them to participate in the chores we do, we signal to them that helping is not part of their role.

When we constantly interfere and tell them how to move about in the world, they learn that someone else takes responsibility for them, and not to trust their own intuition. When we constantly reward or punish them, they learn that they are the kind of person who needs to be punished to do what is right.

When we stop them from climbing up a tree or using a sharp knife, they learn that they cannot learn to do dangerous activities safely. They slowly internalize limiting self-beliefs and become either fearful to do things or do them without intuiting their own limits in a mere attempt to rebel against our control.

The Indigenous View of Children

Indigenous communities all over the world tend to have a starkly different view of children. They view children as capable beings who deserve our respect in the same way any human being does right from the moment they are born.

They grant all children, including toddlers, full freedom and autonomy. Children aren’t constantly told what to do or say. They aren’t prevented from climbing a tree or cutting with a sharp knife.

Instead, children are immersed in the adult world. They watch their parents or other adults do chores. A 12-month-old may help her mother throw the vegetables she cut into a bowl. A 2.5-year-old may cut softer vegetables with a sharp knife.

But parents don’t just hand a knife to their child and hope for the best. They are deeply attuned. They watch their child. When they know their child is too young to use a sharp knife, they tell them to observe. And they show them that the knife can give them an injury. When they sense that the child is capable, they allow them to use it. But like a safety net, they are close by, ready to interfere if necessary. This allows children to develop confidence and competence.

Children are playing much of the time. They often do so in mixed-age play groups where younger children learn from older ones. They play at the very things that are relevant in their community. In the Amazon jungle, for example, play may center around which plants are poisonous and how to avoid or fend off predators.

Children are immersed in a community of loving adults who offer them emotional and physical closeness whenever they seek it. Babies and toddlers are in physical contact with a caring adult much of the time. Whenever they feel scared or cry, someone will pick them up or hold them. They learn, at a deep physiological level, that they are wanted and welcome. They learn to trust themselves, other people, and the world. And this, too, helped those children survive on their own.

From this perspective, the survival of these four children, while wonderful, was perhaps not a miracle.

What Can We Learn From the Indigenous Worldview?

Much more than mainstream Western culture, indigenous cultures are still in touch with what children need to thrive and become competent and confident members of their group. Perhaps it is time we stop trying to "help" indigenous communities by enforcing Western standards such as formal schooling that focuses solely on cognitive ability.

Perhaps we take a closer look at their culture and knowledge and ask ourselves if there is something we can learn from them. Perhaps we ask ourselves in what ways we can grant our children more freedom and autonomy. Perhaps we reconsider our stance on denying our children close physical contact when they seek it.

You might think that we cannot do this in the modern world—and as long as that is our belief, it will indeed be our reality. But when we look at the state of the world today, perhaps it is time we create a different reality.


Correa-Chavez, M., Rogoff, B., Mejía Arauz, R., Aceves-Azuara, I., & Elsevier All Access Books. (2015). Children learn by observing and contributing to family and community endeavors: A cultural paradigm (First ed.). Academic Press.

Gray, P., & Ebooks Corporation. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life (1st ed.). Basic Books.

Narvaez, D. & Bradshaw, G. A. (2023). The evolved nest: Nature’s way of raising children and creating connected communities. North Atlantic Books.

Pozzebon, S., Hu, C., Suarez, K., & Lau, C. (2023). Missing children found after 40 days in Amazon survived like ‘children of the jungle,’ Colombian president says. CNN. Retrieved at…

More from Anita Schmalor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Anita Schmalor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today