What if you were able to easily incorporate parenting techniques that resulted in happy, cooperative, empathetic children — without yelling, nagging, bribing and rewarding? If you’re parenting kids of any age, this may sound impossible! However, maybe we need a new perspective and different tools for our parenting toolkit that have actually been honed and practiced successfully for thousands of years.
That’s the basic premise behind the New York Times best-selling book Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans by NPR journalist Dr. Michaeleen Doucleff. The ideas and practices in her book are easy to implement and are designed to create much calmer households.
We interviewed Doucleff to get to the heart of why ancient parenting practices can often work more effectively than our Western, modern ways of parenting.
How did you initially get interested in how other cultures parented their children, and what did you observe that resonated with you?
My husband and I were really struggling with our 2-year-old daughter, Rosy. It just always seemed like there were tantrums, big feelings and conflict between us that regardless of what parenting trick we tried, the situation didn’t improve. At that time, NPR sent me down to this little tiny village in the Yucatan, a little Mayan village, to do a different story, but the parents there completely changed everything I thought I knew about parenting.
My way of parenting was like this white knuckle ride on category five rapids — drama, screaming, tears galore. And the Mayan parents, especially the moms I was visiting with, they were on this calm, gentle river through a beautiful mountain valley. There was no yelling, no nagging, no bickering. And no resistance from the children. And yet the parenting was really effective. Kids were respectful of their parents. They were generous with each other. And they were super helpful.
I left there with an incredible amount of hope. Like I can’t even get my 2-year-old not to hit me, but I observed a Mayan mom who has five kids and she has them doing chores without even being told. It was the first inkling in my mind that maybe I’m not a bad parent, maybe my culture hasn’t taught me how to be a good parent.
As I started studying and traveling more, I realized that the approach in the Yucatan isn’t unique at all. It’s actually really common around the world. And if you look throughout human history, even in parts of Western culture today, this is the way parents have traditionally interacted with and raised children. We’ve kind of gone off path the last hundred years or so and forgotten this way of interacting with children.
What was amazing — and the reason why I really wrote this book and ended up traveling with Rosy when she was 3 back to the Yucatan, up to the Arctic and over into Tanzania — was every time I tried something that I learned or observed about using this approach, it worked really well.
When you start using this approach, it’s like magic. The kids just kind of jump on board and start interacting with you in a way that’s less resistant with less conflict, and all of that anger, all those tantrums, start to melt away.
What techniques have you incorporated from these cultures that work best with your daughter?
In the book, I go over about 25 different things that parents around the world are doing. But I really want to concentrate on two major things. One is how parents interact and communicate with their children in ways that minimize conflict and maximize cooperation. And the other thing that surprised me was how much autonomy other cultures give their children.
In communicating with kids, there are a couple things to pay special attention to. For one, parents in these other cultures don’t argue with kids. I’ve stopped arguing with Rosy, and it has made all the difference. When an argument begins, I place my hand on Rosy’s shoulder gently and say, ‘I’m not going to argue with you.’ And then I walk away.
Another important technique I learned was how to tell stories rather than use logic when trying to get your young child to do something. Sometimes these stories seemed rather scary, and that worried me at first, but then I realized the point isn’t to frighten the child but rather communicate what is important and serious. All the stories are told with a wink of the eye, and you can tailor it so the story doesn’t scare the child but rather teaches them. Plus, kids love to be a little frightened. Just think about how much Disney movies use scary stories.
For little kids, these stories turn a stressful or conflictual moment into a fun one. For instance, when Rosy would keep the refrigerator door open, I used to try logic and talk about how she was wasting energy and the food was going to spoil. Obviously, that wasn’t understandable to her, but when I said there was a monster in there and if he warmed up, he’d get really big and come and get her, she immediately slammed the door and asked me to tell her more about this monster. It is an amazing tool and we use it for all sorts of conflict situations, like coming up with stories about bedtime and putting on shoes to go outside. Rosy loves all these stories and asks for more.
When talking about autonomy, I realized that in comparison to the parents I was observing in the Yucatan, Tanzania and the Arctic, I was talking nonstop with Rosy. In fact, I recorded myself and it turns out I was giving verbal commands or cues at the rate of about 100 per hour! This might have been praise statements or ‘do this/don’t do this’ words. On average, a Tanzanian parent might give three an hour compared to my 100. Words are stimulating and often they just stir up conflict with kids. I’ve learned that it’s good to be more silent with Rosy, to let her step back and watch. Then she can learn by doing, but I’m there if she needs help. Our lives are so much more calm because of it.
I know there are so many more tips in your book but do you have one more idea you think is key that really helped you and Rosy?
We’ve kind of come to think that children need special activities — especially evenings and weekends. What that has done has separated the child world from the adult world. This has had huge effects on children. One morning, one evening, one weekend, don’t plan anything for the child; just go about your life, making breakfast, doing chores, running errands, and have the child be with you. And then give the child one or two very simple things to do with you. ‘Hey, come stir this pancake batter.’ Or, ‘Come turn on the water hose.’ Include them in your life; it will strengthen your relationship with them.
It’ll teach them to cooperate with you and how to be in the adult world. If they misbehave, you can say, ‘Look, you’re in the world right now. This is a privilege. You need to be quieter.’ Including her in my regular life has made a massive difference in our relationship.
Editor’s note: Dr. Michaeleen Doucleff is currently a correspondent for NPR’s Science Desk. In 2015, she was part of the team that earned a George Foster Peabody award for its coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Prior to joining NPR, Doucleff was an editor at the journal Cell, where she wrote about the science behind pop culture. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alpine, Texas.
This is a condensed and edited version of a MetroFamily interview with Doucleff. To hear the full interview, become a Modern Art of Parenting member for $19/month or $199/year with a 30-day money back guarantee. Enjoy access to 20 presentations by parenting experts like Doucleff, plus additional perks. Learn more at modernartofparenting.com.