Child(ish) Reads: Hunt, Gather, Parent

Our last few Child(ish) Reads have been centered on mindfulness and the neuroscience of child development. So when Hunt, Gather, Parent popped up on my forthcoming parenting books alert, I was excited to dive in.

Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans
by Michaeleen Doucleff

I was able to borrow the audiobook from the library and listened for three straight hours, uninterrupted, on a flight earlier this spring. I was buzzing, taking notes on my phone with all the quotes and points I wanted to share for this post.

In Hunt, Gather, Parent, NPR correspondent Dr. Michaeleen Doucleff visits three Hunter Gather communities (Mayan, Inuit, and Hunzabe/Tanzania) to see how they handle child-rearing versus what we’ve come to know as Westernized parenting. Doucleff also brings her 3-year-old daughter Rosie with her on these trips, so Rosie can be exposed to different types of families and caregivers.

Disclaimer: These are modern families. There’s plumbing, cell phones, and TV. The kids go to school every day. So, get the image of ancient grass huts out of your mind.

Here are my top takeaways:

  • “Never before had I felt that I was doing so bad at something I longed to be good at.”

This isn’t a true piece of advice, but I’ve shared this quote multiple times since starting the book. It speaks to modern parenting and what I’m sure all parents feel on more than one occasion.

While Western parenting has evolved in the last 50 years, that doesn’t mean it’s gotten easier. We all want to be good parents, but there is no real immersive way to prepare for parenthood. The parent shaming, competition, and 24/7 work culture bring us further away from what we’re trying to accomplish.

So, give yourself a little slack and open up your mind. You might find one or two things that make your parenting routine just a bit smoother. In reality, parenting is a learned skill, not an instinct (Doucleff 2021).

  • “Authoritative parenting failed me because I couldn’t control my anger and tantrums went nuclear.”

This also echoes back to our posts on parenting and mindfulness. No matter what your parenting “type” is, it means nothing unless you are able to control yourself.

There are times when I find my girls are completely irrational, unfocused, impatient, and nothing I say is going to get through that wall. It’s frustrating and I can feel my voice rising, my control slipping, and then expletives…. And I’m supposed to be the role-model my children?

When Doucleff was observing an Inuit family in the Arctic, she learns that Inuit families never yell at their kids. Instead, they say “Is this worth the conflict?”.

“Western Americanized parenting shifted from building autonomy to building control, exacerbating the instances of loneliness and anxiety with each generation. This sets parents up for power struggles with kids.“

Science cannot solve every question about parenting. You are asking too much if you want data to support a fool-proof way to stop tantrums or throwing food or sleeping problems. Only about 20% of child data studies are reproducible. That is if you were to conduct a study with one group of kids, you will would have completely different results for another group of kids. So, get it out of your head that you can parent “by the book” and have perfect kids (Doucleff 2021).

The best thing you can do for your kids (besides love them unconditionally) is to learn how to control your emotions so that they may learn how to model after you.

  • Hunter Gatherer parenting is up to 100,000 years old and there are pockets of this style throughout the globe. In fact, compared to other cultures, western parenting does at least 40-50 things differently.

So yes, when you’re about to explode dealing with tantrums and meltdowns, there is another way. It might be a weird punchline now, but…it takes a village. And sadly, our society in the US is not structured this way.

Humans are a social group, so all three cultures that Doucleff researched all have some sort of collaborative parenting. In addition to the “nuclear” family, there is extended family, neighbors, older siblings, all helping out raising the young. In some scenarios, groups watch the kids in shifts.

From a podcast with Doucleff, each adult in these Hunter Gather communities ends up spending about 20% of their waking time with the kids. This is about the same amount of time when your kids go to school or daycare. Compare that to the 60-70%+ of time that Stay-at-Home parents are with their kids. That’s a recipe for burnout, especially for families with multiple children. Studies show that children need and are designed to be raised by about 4-5 very close caretakers.

This doesn’t mean that Hunter Gather parents love their kids less or are less dedicated. But it does mean that they have space and time to do their work and daily tasks, and the kids have plenty of exposure to other adult caregivers and kids of varying ages, enhancing their social skills and autonomy. This builds community.

  • Acomedido

The concept of acomedido showed up in the Mayan groups. Doucleff stays with a family in the Yucatán and on the first morning, she sees the eldest daughter wake up and start washing dishes. She then helps her little sister get ready for school. How does a teen girl not only put her family’s need ahead of her own, but do it gladly without being told?

Doucleff explains that acomedido is anticipating and doing things for the good of the home. We’re all in this together. The more we all do together, the smoother the home runs. So not only are you teaching your kids how to do housework from a young age, you impress up them that this is their home and they play a crucial role.

Think about pretend play, but nixing the pretend part. You can introduce chores like washing dishes and cleaning up at an early age, 1-2. Start super, super small and as they get older, you add to that skillset. They go from helping unload the dishwasher, to helping clear plates, to drying dishes, to helping scrub, etc. Eventually by 7-8, they can be doing chores autonomously.

And why do we ask them to do chores? We don’t.
They aren’t doing chores as a punishment or because it’s their responsibility or because allowance is an incentive. We engage them to do chores because they genuinely want to help out and feel like an important part of the family. It’s a subtle difference, but this motivation and thoughtfulness can be instilled at a young age.

On the flip side, the parents in these households don’t shower their kids with praise. A simple “thank you for your contribution” is enough. The “super tools” of Hunter Gather parenting are cooperation, trust, and personalized needs.

  • T.E.A.M.

From her research, Doucleff was able to synthesize four clear elements to provide the foundation for the parent/child relationship. This creates a more collaborative way of parenting, instead of the usual power struggle.

Togetherness – Togetherness cannot be forced; it’s just about having your child present. Don’t fight them wanting to be around you.

Encouragement – Again this is very different than using excessive praise or guilt.

Autonomy – Doucleff explains that Hunter Gather parenting teaches kids to be autonomous, not necessarily independent. A child definitely does not reach full independence until young adulthood, but you can teach them to be able to observe situations, make thoughtful choices, and carry out tasks without guidance; and without worry or 24/7 supervision on your part. Everyone can do what they want, but they have to help, share and be kind.

Minimal interference – Allow them room and time to figure it out at their own speed, instead of demanding independence. Just step back for two minutes, before you try to instruct or correct your child.

So many things in this book stuck with me. As a Millennial parent, I don’t want to fall into the mindset of “This is best. This what we’ve always done. You need to do this or else.” Every child is different. Every family is different. It’s not a hard thing to believe that there are different ways to parent and they can be just as successful, if not better. Some of the concepts aren’t even that much of stretch. All three Hunter Gather communities have their own versions of gentle parenting, mindfulness, and team parenting.

Doucleff herself saw a huge change in her relationship with her daughter after this project. Rosie went from having multiple tantrums per week, to a more sustainable, calm daily routine.

I really enjoyed this book. It will probably not give your parenting life a full 180. Even one of the Inuit moms told Michaeleen that she will probably revert back to her usual Westernized view of parenting. But, even the smallest adaptations will make a difference in your day-to-day.

If anything, this book takes a ton of pressure off of us parents who constantly find ourselves in the vicious cycle of stressed-out parenting. Highly recommended!

Related posts:
What is Self- Regulation?
Cleaning Up: Introducing Your Kids to Chores
Parents and Play

3 thoughts on “Child(ish) Reads: Hunt, Gather, Parent

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