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” — a book about what harried Western mothers can learn from their supposedly serene Indigenous counterparts — opens in the style of an addiction memoir.
Michaeleen Doucleff, an NPR science reporter living in San Francisco with her husband and fiery 3-year-old, Rosy, has just “hit rock bottom as a mom.”
Rosy, though “whip smart” and “wildly courageous,” has frequent tantrums in which she slaps, bites, overturns furniture or won’t put on shoes. Doucleff yearns for the holy grail of new motherhood: a shower.
She has read the extant parenting literature, and even obeyed the pediatrician who told her to speak to Rosy constantly. But nothing helped, and the 40-something Doucleff, who has a doctorate in chemistry, finds herself kneeling in the kitchen shouting her frustration into a cupboard. “Never before had I been so bad at something that I wanted to be good at,” she writes.
Then she remembers that, while in Liberia covering an Ebola outbreak, and in the Arctic reporting on climate change, the children seemed sweet, helpful and compliant. Maybe Doucleff isn’t to blame for her failures — Western parenting culture is.
Thus begins another addition to the now extensive literature, mostly written for Americans by Americans, about the sensible, calmer ways that people in other countries raise kids. (I’m guilty of adding to the pile.) These books are in response to the rising and sometimes ridiculous demands of modern American parenting, which is practiced in weaker form in many other countries, too.
Doucleff’s instructive book follows her as she takes her daughter to rural villages in Mexico, Canada and Tanzania, to discern the local child-rearing techniques, and try them out on the tempestuous Rosy.
She claims to discover methods that are “tens of thousands of years” old and practiced around the world, yet missing from other parenting books. In a Maya village in the Yucatán, she meets children who not only do chores voluntarily but also watch to see which chores need to be done, a blend of awareness and action that Mexicans call acomedido. (A chore chart, by contrast, makes a child think he needs to set the table only on Tuesdays.)
Maya parents — really it seems to be mothers, grandmothers and big sisters — encourage acomedido by letting even toddlers pitch in on everyday tasks, from making tortillas to digging fields. Caregivers keep close watch, without offering much correction or praise. The kids eventually develop truly useful skills. Later, they pitch in naturally, because they feel like part of the family enterprise.
Doucleff realizes that she’d been underestimating Rosy’s abilities. Toddlers are “born assistants” for whom helping with grown-up tasks is a form of learning and play.
Western parents think they’re saving time by plopping a child down with a screen while they cook dinner. In fact, they’re signaling to her that she’s not part of the team, so these tasks aren’t her job. Parents needlessly exhaust themselves creating separate activities for kids, whereas in fact, they “can lead their normal lives — working or relaxing — while kids follow along, learning as they go.”
The lessons continue in a freezing Arctic village, where Doucleff observes parents who remain placid when their children misbehave. She realizes that, as a Westerner, she assumed that Rosy was challenging her authority, so a loud, angry battle of wills ensued.
However, Inuit parents view kids as “illogical, newbie citizens trying to figure out the proper behavior,” so their parents don’t take misbehavior personally. They certainly don’t shout, she says, since that would just teach kids to shout too. Instead, they either go silent and observe the child, or walk away.
“Hunt, Gather, Parent” is full of smart ideas that I immediately wanted to force on my own kids. (I wish I’d read it at the start of the pandemic, when I made their chore charts.) Doucleff is a dogged reporter who’s good at observing families and breaking down what they’re doing.
Not all her findings are groundbreaking. Plenty of other books also warn that yelling begets yelling, that too much praise demotivates and that today’s youth must learn “the blessing of a skinned knee.”
But given the cultural pressure to micromanage and cordon off kids, these messages bear repeating, and Doucleff’s versions are promising. She eventually extinguishes Rosy’s tantrums with radical, Inuit-style calm (“think lying-facedown-on-a-massage-table calmness”). And paradoxically, their family life improves after she ditches most toys, play dates and kids’ birthday parties.
The book works better as parenting guide than anthropology. Some of Doucleff’s interviewees come off as noble savages brimming with nothing but kindness. I cringed when, upon entering the Mexican village, she describes a “warm, wondrous feeling that everyone around you is family — everyone has your back.” I couldn’t help wondering whether Maya women would choose to lead gaggles of kids in housework if elective abortion were legal in the Yucatán.
And Doucleff underemphasizes the fact that Indigenous cultures evolve too. Not even the Inuit all do proper Inuit parenting anymore. And don’t they have Canadian health care?
Also, where are all the dads? Doucleff’s German shepherd appears about as often as her husband. She suggests recruiting “alloparents” to help with child care, but doesn’t mention that America lacks not just universal health care, but national paid maternity leave, day care and preschool. Sure, we need our kids (and spouses) to be acomedido. But to become truly nonanxious parents, we need the government to help more, too.