Book Review: Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans by Michaeleen Doucleff
Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy Helpful Little Humans by Michaeleen Doucleff (Avid Reader, 2021) is a book I picked up on the recommendation of fellow Ronin Institute scholar Arika Virapongse. She dropped a link to a review in our slack channel. The book's anthropological and non-Western exploration of parenting practices immediately intrigued me.
Doucleff, with her 5-year-old daughter in tow, visited and interviewed Mayan, Inuit, and Hadzabe families. Her goal was simple: learn how parents in more traditional cultures manage to produce such happy, responsible, and independent children. What techniques, practices, and mindsets have people in the modern, Western world lost? The result is packed with information. Doucleff summarizes her experiences in a simple acronym: TEAM parenting, for togetherness, encouragement, autonomy, and minimal interference.
I highly recommend this book to all parents, especially if you'd like to learn from the wisdom of our elders. The advice jibes with everything I've read about motivation and drive (such as Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory), the importance of play and autonomy, excellence, learning, and how people generally work.
However, because Doucleff is parent to only one, there is little discussion of managing siblings or how to apply the ideas to a whole household of kids. Some of the strategies were time or energy intensive; it wasn't always clear how you would use them if you had multiple children who needed immediate attention. (This is a continuing pet peeve of mine: nearly every parenting book I've picked up has been written by someone with only one or two kids.)
Below, I've included detailed summaries of the parts of the book I found most interesting.
WEIRD culture and why Westerners parent like they do
Only 12% of people in the world are of European descent. The Western, European industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies are actually outliers in relation to the rest of the world, as is increasingly recognized in the field of psychology.
Because we're weird outliers, many common Western parenting practices are not present or in other cultures, or only began recently. Even the nuclear family is a non-traditional family structure, because it loses out on the multi-generational and extended family who used to participate in all aspects of childrearing and life.
One fascinating dollop of history Doucleff shared came from the book Dream Babies, written by British writer Christina Hardyment. Hardyment researched the origins of modern parenting advice. She found that most came from the 1700s and 1800s, when predominantly male doctors who worked predominantly at foundling hospitals began prescribing practices to their nurses, who generally cared for dozens or hundreds of babies at once.
Alas, the prescribed practices were counter to thousands or tens of thousands of years of maternal history of caring for babies. For instance, the advice that you ought not to rock babies to sleep, that you ought to sleep train your baby and physically separate babies from others at night, and that babies should be fed on a schedule, not on demand. All of this advice meant that,
"babies and kids no longer went to sleep when they were tired and woke up when they were rested. Instead, parents were now required to control, regulate, and time children's sleep, just like they did with a turkey roasting in the oven."
I was reminded of a joke among unschoolers: if childcare and schooling began before the age of one, we would eventually begin to think that babies cannot learn to walk without instruction! Obviously, that's ridiculous.
As Doucleff asks,
"If bedtime routines work so well, then why does my home sound like a war zone at eight p.m. each night?"
What children don't need
After discussing the downsides of modern parenting advice, Doucleff lists three practices present in most people's relationships with children that we should scrap:
- More plastic toys than anyone can count. Before the industrial revolution, kids made toys out of whatever they could find; they tinkered, tore, tied, cut, and made. Bring this back!
- An over-emphasis on schooling. You've probably seen headlines about how American kids are falling behind. Kids used to learn to read by second grade, and now that's been pushed to kindergarten, so you better start drilling preschoolers on vocabulary flashcards … never mind what is developmentally appropriate! (Why not let them read on their own schedule?)
Praise. Most of it useless praise, as Doucleff writes:
""Good job of putting that fork on the table." "You put your shoes on! Happy dance time." "You drew a heart! What an amazing artist you are!""
These examples may sound ridiculous (or maybe you think these are perfectly normal ways to talk to children). Praise is a classic example of an extrinsic motivator; extrinsic motivators can be detrimental in the long term.
Doucleff tried to rearrange her parenting to ditch these practices. She writes:
"After a week or so with no praise, I noticed my words becoming more effective. When I did give her feedback, she was more likely to listen. The constant stream of praise and feedback had been drowning out what was actually important to me. Without the extra remarks, Rosy could more easily understand when I really needed her to listen or be cooperative."
Mayan helpfulness and responsibility
Doucleff's visit to the Mayan culture on the Yucatan peninsula brought a wealth of insight into teaching responsibility and transmitting the value of helpfulness:
"they're teaching the children to pay attention to their surroundings, recognize when a specific chore needs to be done, and then do it"
The Mexican term for it is "acomedido". It's the combined skills of paying attention and acting—of noticing when people need help or when a chore needs doing, and then helping.
"It's not just doing a chore or task because someone told you to; it's knowing which kind of help is appropriate at a particular moment because you're paying attention."
This works because children are internally intrinsically motivated to help. Doucleff writes of the Mayan point of view that,
"[children] value their work and feel proud of their contributions to the household. Helping with chores is a privilege."
Sounds great—how do we do it?
First, when young children want to help, let them. Even if it makes a big mess. Toddlers love being helpful. They are intrinsically motivated to cooperate and be part of a community. (This is one of the three pillars of self-determination theory.)
"As soon as a child starts to walk, parents begin requesting their help with tiny subtasks. Over time, the child learns what needs to be done around the house. And so, the number of requests actually decreases (not increases) as the child gets older."
Doucleff useful guidance on how to teach children to do chores and the helpful behaviors you want them to show, including easy activities to start with, such as: go fetch, hold this, stir this, carry this, clean this. In many Western, materialistic, short-term-rewards-now cultures, parents don't let toddlers help. Instead, they tell their children to go play or give them a screen, which teaches that helping is not important.
The Mayans were happy to yield control of tasks to their children, letting their children practice the skills. It's a long-term investment that encourages children to see themselves as a "responsible, contributing member" of the family and community. They didn't praise their children—they simply acknowledged children's contributions to daily tasks. They let them participate (without lecturing)—and didn't stop the child from doing something, even if it was wrong! Instead, children were encouraged to redo tasks they didn't do well enough, which builds competency.
You're not the family clown
The next lesson Doucleff shares from the Mayans is to not be endlessly entertaining for your children. Instead of organizing a constant stream of child-centered activities—activities parents would not do if they had no children—Mayan parents simply involved their children in real life. Cooking, cleaning, fixing, building, raising animals, and so on.
This is a big piece of togetherness, the first element in Doucleff's TEAM parenting:
"two individuals—the caregiver and the child—are co-existing together in the same space, but not demanding attention from each other."
Furthermore, because life is simply happening, the children are free to join in, or play separately; this builds a key association between chores and fun. The chores that are part of daily life are associated with playing. Play is intrinsically motivating. Children play to keep playing—the activity itself is the reward. If you associate chores with play, then children become intrinsically motivated to do the chores.
If you're curious about motivation, Doucleff includes a whole chapter on the topic. She explains the problems with praise (such as undermining motivation and causing siblings to compete for praise), and what to do instead.
Inuit emotional control
When visiting the Inuit, Doucleff learned about methods of emotional control and teaching children anger management tools. The key seems to be in the parents: They never yell. In fact, she writes,
"Inuit view yelling at a small child of demeaning, elders tell me. The adult is basically stooping to the level of the child—or throwing a grown up version of a tantrum. The same goes for scolding or talking to children in an angry voice."
Getting angry doesn't solve the problem. Yelling only stops communication between parent and child. When a child is upset about something, it's your job as parent to figure out what's upsetting them and help them fix it, not yell at them about it.
Similarly, you should not force children to do things, because "forcing causes conflict, erodes communication, and builds anger." Doucleff writes:
"Over and over again, Inuit parents repeat the same idea, that yelling and shouting makes parenting harder because kids stop listening to you. They block you out. As seventy-one-year-old Theresa Sikkuark puts it, "I think that's why white children don't listen. Parents have yelled at the children too much.""
Not yelling isn't only about promoting listening. It's also setting an example:
"Every time you stop yourself from acting in anger, your child sees a calm way to deal with frustrations. They learn to stay composed when anger arises. So to help a child learn emotional regulation, the number one thing parents can do is learn to regulate their own emotions."
Children copy their parents. We model the behavior we want to see.
But practically… how can parents be less angry?
Two steps: (1) Stop talking. Step back as soon as you feel anger coming on. The space gives you space to choose a more skillful response.
(2) Reframe and reorient. Set your expectations about children's behavior appropriately and you'll feel calmer. Inuit parents, says Doucleff, expect children to misbehave, be rude, violent, bossy, make messes. When they are young, if they don't listen, it means they are too young to understand.
"These parents take a different view of young children's actions than we do in Western culture. Inuit parents interpret children's motivations differently. For example, in Western culture, we tend to think children are "pushing buttons" or "testing boundaries," or even being manipulative. … But what if this idea is completely wrong? …. what If we think of (children) as illogical, newbie citizens trying to figure out the proper behavior? What if we assume their motivations are kind and good, and it's just that their execution needs some improvement?"
Western culture overestimates children's emotional abilities (and underestimates physical abilities). Children need to learn anger control. The best thing we can do to teach that to them is to control our own anger. We have to model the behavior we want to see: treating anger and upset with calmness and quiet.
When one of the Inuit women dealt with Doucleff's daughter throwing a tantrum, Doucleff writes,
"She simply meets Rosie's storminess with tenderness, as if she is offering a soft blanket to a lightning bolt."
Instead of bringing firm and stern, become soft, tender, calm, relaxed, quiet. Settle yourself. Deal with emotions in a calm, productive way. Walk away if you need to; return when you are calm.
"If the child starts screaming, thrashing, crying ... They don't make threats ("If you don't stop screaming…") or sweet offerings ("What's wrong? Do you want to drink? Do you want to go to…").
Instead, the parents show the child how to be calm by being calm themselves.
Whenever children are upset—crying and screaming—the parents say very few words (words are stimulating). They make very few movements (movement is stimulating). And they show very little expression on their faces (again, emotion is stimulating). Parents aren't timid or fearful. They still have a confidence about them. But they approach the child the way you might approach a butterfly on your shoulder: gently. Slowly. Softly."
By responding to children's high energy emotion with quiet low energy, children can get themselves out of the cycle of anger. You can also offer touch, help children replace anger with awe, and take children outside.
Doucleff also explains how the Inuit parents and older siblings explain consequences rather than saying "Stop!" or "Don't!" They parent with questions, rather than commands or criticisms, because it prompts children to think about what they are doing and why. The Hadzabe
"Telling a child don't…contains very little information. Rosie already knows she's throwing, grabbing, climbing, or screaming. But she doesn't know (or realize) the consequences of these actions… When you tell a child "don't" and "stop," you assume they'll obey the command as an automaton would"
I was reminded of when my first fencing coach, George, explained how to give good advice to a fellow fencer in the midst of a bout: be positive. Use phrases like, "Keep going!" not "Don't stop!", because people only hear the word "stop!"
Misbehavior and not listening can be an indicator that a child is too young; it can also mean they need more responsibility:
"Misbehavior is a child's way of asking for more responsibility, more ways to contribute to the family, and more freedom. When a child breaks rules, acts demanding, or seems "willful," their parents need to put them to work."
Doucleff recommends toning down the words and ramping up using strong facial expressions. Ask questions and explain consequences. Give children greater responsibility. Take action yourself, and hope your children will follow suit.
Using stories to share values and lessons
When everyone is calm, tell stories to show the lessons and values you want children to learn.
Many cultures feature folklore about supernatural beings, such as fairies and monsters. One function of these beings was to keep children safe. For example, monsters that take children away if they do the wrong thing or play in the wrong place (like by a dangerous river). The point of these stories isn't to terrify children or give them nightmares; it's to help children learn the rules before they can understand the reasons for those rules.
Borrow stories, and make up your own. Tailor the stories to your kids. You want them to start thinking and to encourage certain behavior and values; you can incorporate family history, family values, and anthropomorphize things.
"If you find yourself balking at the "scare factor" of this tool, as I did, you might consider that in Western culture, we also "scare" children into behaving. Children can become afraid of their parents' anger or punishments."
Beyond stories, Inuit parents also use little dramas and role plays to help children understand the consequences of their behavior. Play helps children process experiences and practice skills.
Hadzabe confidence and independence
From the Hadzabe, Doucleff learned about raising confident, kind, and independent children. The main message is to step back, stay quiet, wait, and interfere less in what your child is doing. Give fewer commands. Watch from afar; give autonomy.
The Hadzabe are big on autonomy (another of the three pillars of self-determination theory.) Autonomy is not the same as independence. Independence is about not needing others or not being influenced by them; it's disconnected, with no obligations or expectations. Autonomy, on the other hand, is highly connected.
"In general, hunter-gatherer communities greatly value a person's right to make their own decisions—that is, they're right to self-governance. They believe it's harmful to control another person."
Children with autonomy can explore and learn for themselves. They are trusted with responsibilities. Parents will keep an eye on them from afar while staying quiet, just in case real danger gets in the way. They become the child's invisible safety net while children are busy exploring, playing, and learning.
The Hadzabe parents, like the Inuit, also use questions, consequences, and puzzles to influence their children. They change their own behavior and the environment around the child, and never attempt to control or dominate. This allows children to maintain their sense of autonomy and agency, and ultimately, leads to far fewer conflicts between parents and children.
If you're worried about what your children will do without you hovering over them, teach children early and often about how to avoid and handle potential dangers, rather than removing all of them from the child's space. Teach about hot things and sharp things. Encourage your children to watch you while you use dangerous things, so they learn safety skills and how to properly use those tools.
One example from my life: knife use. We enjoy involving our kids in food preparation. And they love being involved—sometimes actively helping, sometimes just watching. By the time they're two years old, they can use pumpkin carving knives to chop some fruits and vegetables. Our 5-year-old has since graduated to a round-tipped serrated steak knife, and occasional supervised use of other knives.
Like the Mayans, Hadzabe children are trained to contribute and have responsibility. Anytime the women in the village do a task, they're asking the children to help and contribute in some small way, at least a couple times an hour. They don't always use words; when the woman go out to look for tubers, one mom hands a child a digging stick to carry. Or they give an older child a baby to hold.
Importance of peers
Western culture has a huge problem about how we think parenting should work and how we take care of children. Our overly-isolated style is not as great for kids or parents.
Doucleff talks about how having other people help with babies and children is critical for avoiding depression and being a happy, flourishing person. Not only adults help—in some hunter-gatherer groups, children 6 to 11 years old provided up to a quarter of the care for kids aged 2 to 6.
Multi-age groups of children are incredibly important for children's social and learning development. Children a few years older than another child are some of the best teachers for that child. I read about this developmental psychology research during my PhD, but the importance of the slightly older peer didn't sink in until I watched my own kids playing with, helping, and teaching each other.
The last piece of Doucleff's TEAM parenting is minimal interference. She argues against helicopter parenting and planning non-stop activities for entertainment for kids. It's overwhelming for parents and children alike. It's not optimal for many or even all children. So why do it? Maximal interference makes your life harder. Try minimal interference and see how things change.
As an example, Doucleff discusses sleep. The way Western people sleep—on their own, with rigid bedtimes, without getting up, etc—is new. Two centuries old new. If we look at hunter-gatherer and indigenous communities, we find that human sleep patterns are far more "flexible, adaptable, and personalized" and that many people sleep, on average, 6-7 hours a night.
"We set strict schedules for ourselves and our children, which often don't comport with our basic biology. Then we expend an enormous amount of energy to follow these schedules."
This creates struggle and conflict at bedtime, instead of creating calm.
Doucleff reports on a minimal interference approach to sleep that she tried with her daughter, Rosie. She modeled how to go to bed: saying she's tired, going upstairs and getting ready for bed herself, reading a book herself. When Rosie joins her, she acknowledges her presence. She reminds Rosie with questions what a big girl might do to get ready for bed. She stays calm. She reminds Rosie that they want to be quiet and still so their bodies and minds can calm down and go to sleep.
The first night is a disaster. But after a few days, Rosie puts herself to bed when she's tired. No more warzone.