Imagine what your kid would do in this experiment: two school age children are brought into a lab and one is told to sit and wait while the other is taught to assemble a toy. Researchers assure the waiting child that after they finish, they will teach him or her something cool too. Does the waiting kid pay attention or goof off?

If your family is anything like mine, you're no doubt imaging the harrumphing, airplane arms, flying toys, and general chaos that would happen if your kid was asked to sit and wait. And if you're living a busy, modern life, your mental image is probably correct. According to study results, middle class American kids generally zone out or act up.

But when researchers tested indigenous Maya kids from small villages in Guatemala, they found a very different result. "Some of them sat perfectly still in the chair, staring at the instructor. The Maya kids showed sustained attention about two-thirds of the time," reports NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff.

Given the growing concern about ADHD and our screen addled kids' general ability to pay attention, that quiet concentration is a remarkable feat of parenting. How did Maya parents manage it, and can we steal their secrets?

Master motivators in action

That's the subject of Doucleff's remarkable recent article for NPR. Her deep dive into the relevant science is well worth a read in full, but the essence of the piece is that Maya mothers are "master motivators." Unlike many urban parents they intuitively understand what science has proven: attention is as much about motivation as it is about brain wiring.

"One of the things we've realized is that it's hard to separate motivation from sustained attention," cognitive neuroscientist Joe DeGutis tells Doucleff. If you want to motivate people to pay attention, you have to make sure they actually want to pay attention to whatever you're putting in front of them. And that means letting them freely choose what's worth paying attention to.

Doucleff travels down to rural Guatemala and quickly spots the differences between childhood there and in many parts of America. "I realize what these kids have that many American kids miss out on: an enormous amount of freedom. The freedom to largely choose what they do, where they go, whom they do it with. That means, they also have the freedom to control what they pay attention to. Even the little 4-year-old has the freedom to leave the house by herself," she reports.

Our helicopter parenting and the resultant lack of autonomy for kids has been implicated in everything from their stumbling, hapless transition to adulthood to comparative lack of creativity, and even depression. Apparently, it also makes them worse at paying attention.  

Autonomy can be compatible with modern life.

Letting your kids run free sounds lovely, but perhaps not wildly practical. In a small village, the worst a wandering four-year-old will run into is an escaped chicken or temptingly high tree to climb. In an urban environment, the hazards are far more terrifying. Plus, your kid probably needs to learn how to do algebra, whether he or she presently wants to pay attention to it or not.

Still, Doucleff insists it is possible to steal some of the secrets of Maya moms to help your kids pay attention. First, cognitive psychologist Mike Esterman suggests, ask your kids, "What would you do if you didn't have to do anything else?" Then, make space in their schedules for whatever they find inherently motivating.

"Because when a kid has a passion," Doucleff explains. "It's golden for the child. It's something that will bring them joy ... and hone their ability to pay attention."

You might even find that following your kid's interests leads to more useful behavior than a lot of video games. In a separate article on chores,  Doucleff notes that Maya moms manage to get their kids to do housework this same way -- by leveraging toddlers' natural desire to help out.

"Western moms tell the toddlers to go and play while they do the chores," scientists who study these cultures tell Doucleff. "Moms with indigenous heritage often do the exact opposite. First, they give toddlers the opportunity to watch the chores as often as possible... Then if the child wants to participate, 'they are welcome.'... even if it means going more slowly or if the mom has to redo the task," she writes.  

Because chores aren't about parental control, but instead about supporting the child's autonomous interest, the work gets done without nagging.

The common thread between both the chores and attention article is that motivating kids -- whether to pay attention or wash the dishes -- comes down to them understanding why they're doing something. Take the time to make sure your child actually wants to do something because they see the value in doing it, and your problems with attention should largely disappear (though, sorry, I can offer no guarantees about that algebra). That's true whether you live in the Yucatan or New York.