At one point in her new book, the NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff suggests that parents consider throwing out most of the toys they’ve bought for their kids. It’s an extreme piece of advice, but the way Doucleff frames it, it seems entirely sensible: “Kids spent two hundred thousand years without these items,” she writes.
Her deeply researched book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, contains many moments like this, in which an American child-rearing strategy comes away looking at best bizarre and at worst counterproductive. “Our culture often has things backward when it comes to kids,” she writes.
Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.
She takes care to portray her subjects not as curiosities “frozen in time,” but instead as modern-day families who have held on to invaluable child-rearing techniques that likely date back tens of thousands of years. I recently spoke with Doucleff about these techniques, and our conversation, below, has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: Many American parenting strategies, you estimate, are only about 100 years old, and some of them arose more recently than that. What about American parenting sticks out to you as distinctive and particularly strange?
Michaeleen Doucleff: One of the craziest things we do is praise children constantly. When I was first working on the book, I recorded myself to see how frequently I praised my little girl, Rosy, and I noticed that I would exaggeratedly react to even her smallest accomplishments, like drawing a flower or writing a letter, with a comment like “Good job!” or “Wow! What a beautiful flower!”
This is insane if you look around the world and throughout human history. Everywhere I went, I don’t know if I ever heard a parent praise a child. Yet these kids are incredibly self-sufficient, confident, and respectful—everything we want praise to do, these kids already have it, without the praise.
It’s hard to cut back on praise, because it’s so baked in, but later on, I decided to try. It’s not that there’s no feedback, but it’s much gentler feedback—parents will smile or nod if a child is doing something they want. I started doing that, and Rosy’s behavior really improved. A lot of the attention-seeking behavior went away.
Pinsker: You visited an Inuit town in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and spent time in households where children were almost mysteriously immune to tantrums. How did the parents you met respond when kids misbehaved?
Doucleff: One night while I was there, Rosy and I were staying with a woman named Sally who was watching three of her grandchildren—so, four kids under 6 years old in this house. Sally just approached everything they did with the most calmness and composure I have ever seen. At one point, a little toddler, maybe 18 months at the time, I think he was pulling the dog's tail or something. Sally picked him up and, when she did, he scratched her face so hard that it was bleeding. I would have been irate, but Sally, I saw her kind of clench her teeth, and just say, in the calmest voice, “We don’t do this.” Then she took him and flipped him around with this playful helicopter move, and they both started laughing. Then it was over—there was no conflict around it.
If the child's energy goes high—if they get very upset—the parent’s energy goes so low. Another time on our trip, in the grocery store, Rosy started having a tantrum, and I was getting ready to yell at her to stop. But Elizabeth, our interpreter, came over to her and addressed her in the calmest voice. Immediately, Rosy just stopped—when she was around that calmness, her whole body relaxed. I was like, Okay, I’m just doing this tantrum thing completely wrong.
Pinsker: You write about how when Sally and Elizabeth see behavior like that, they think about the causes of it differently than many American parents do. What is the narrative they have for why young kids act out?
Doucleff: Yeah, this is huge—it single-handedly changed my life, and it’s something you hear in other parts of the Arctic. In the U.S., when a child calls you a name or smacks you, many parents think that the child is pushing your buttons, that they’re testing boundaries and want to manipulate you.
The Inuit parents and elders I interviewed almost laughed when I said that. One woman said something like, “She’s a kid—she doesn’t know how to manipulate like that.” Instead, what they told me is that young children are just these illogical, irrational beings who haven’t matured enough and haven’t acquired understanding or reason yet. So there’s no reason to get upset or argue back—if you do, you’re being just like the child.
This has totally shifted the way I interact with Rosy—I have so much less anger. She’s trying her best. Maybe she’s clumsy and illogical and irrational, but in her heart, she loves me, she wants to do well, and she wants to help.
Pinsker: One interesting observation in the book is that many American parents take their whole family to spaces that are expressly designed for kids, like children’s museums and indoor play places—despite the fact that these spaces are generally not very fun for parents. How do you think about these activities?
Doucleff: I think that a lot of the time, we don’t know what to do with kids. On weekends, it was sometimes like, How do we fill this time with Rosy? But the idea that parents are responsible for entertaining a child or “keeping them busy” is not present in the vast majority of cultures around the world, and definitely not throughout human history. What some of the psychologists I interviewed told me is that in these fake, childlike worlds, the child is separated from reality in some ways—they don’t learn how to behave as an adult.
There’s a lot of good scientific evidence that children have an innate instinct to cooperate and work together with their families. And child-centered activities can kind of strip away what I call their family “membership card,” the feeling that they’re a part of the family and working together as a team—not a VIP that the parents are serving. Kids want to help us and be part of our lives, and we can take that away with constant child-centered activities.
Pinsker: So if you aren’t going to the children’s museum as a family, what are you doing instead?
Doucleff: Basically, my husband and I do things that we used to do before Rosy was born, or things that we have to do, and modify them to include her. Sometimes I have to work, and she has to entertain herself. Or we go to the beach, and I sit and read for three hours, and don’t play with her—sometimes there are friends and sometimes there are not. We’ll go hiking or work in the garden or go visit friends together. And then we do chores. We do the laundry together. We clean up together. We go to the grocery store together. We just live—without a kiddie museum.
All over the world, and throughout history, parents have gone about their lives, but they’ve welcomed the kids into it. In many cultures, parents let the kids tag along, and they let the kid do what they want to do, within the boundaries of being respectful and kind. And for kids, that’s entertainment enough.
Pinsker: In the U.S., many parents find themselves essentially on their own when making sure their kids are being looked after. Could you talk about the more communal approach to raising children that you saw with the Hadzabe, the community of hunter-gatherers you visited in Tanzania?
Doucleff: I was with a group of about 15 to 20 adults and their kids—they live in small huts and work together all day. They spend enormous amounts of time with each other, but they're not all related. And when we first got there, it was hard for me to tell which toddlers belonged to which moms and dads, because everyone was helping to take care of them. The children were comfortable with all these different women and men.
If you look around the world, you'll see that in many cultures besides Western culture, and definitely in hunter-gatherer communities, there’s an enormous amount of what’s called “alloparenting.” Allo- is derived from a Greek word meaning “other,” so it just refers to caretakers in a child’s life other than the mom or dad.
These people are deeply involved in the child’s upbringing. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist, has done some amazing research where she shows that young children are basically designed to be raised by a group of people, not just two—meaning sometimes a mom or a dad is on their own doing the work of several people. So of course we feel worn down and exhausted.
Pinsker: American culture generally doesn’t encourage this approach to parenting, since there’s often an emphasis on individual parents. How do you think about transporting the spirit of those models over to an American context?
Doucleff: First of all, we do way more alloparenting than we give credit for, but often, we don't value the alloparents as much as we should: Nannies, day-care providers, teachers—those are all alloparents. Personally, I’ve been trying to value those people more and show my appreciation for them.
But there are opportunities aside from that. For one thing, a lot of alloparenting is done by children who are two, three, four, five years older than the child. I think we underestimate what children can do—there are children I met who were, like, 12 years old, making meals and taking care of younger children. It’s because they’re given opportunities all along to learn those skills.
Another thing is, we’ve built an “auntie-uncle network,” which is an idea I got from the psychological anthropologist Suzanne Gaskins. We have two other families who pick up the kids from school sometimes, and then I pick up the kids sometimes, and we trade off. The three kids get to have a sort of extended family. Rosy loves it, and we don’t have to pay for after-school care.
People tend to think of the nuclear family as traditional or ideal, but looking at the past 200,000 or so years of human history, what’s traditional is this communal model of working together to take care of a child. For me personally, this is reassuring, because I don’t want to be with Rosy, like, every moment. Really, that’s not natural.