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.
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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.