'Hunt, Gather, Parent' Offers Lessons Collected Around The World

Feb 25, 2021
Originally published on February 25, 2021 7:10 am

There are many parenting books out there. But NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff says all the parenting books that she read after becoming a mom left a lot out.

"I'm trained as a scientist. I spent seven years as a chemist and I really believed that the parenting advice we got today was backed by really stringent scientific research," she says. "And when I started looking at the studies as a scientist, I was really, really let down."

She couldn't find answers to the trouble that she was having with her young daughter, Rosy.

"She started actually, like, slapping me across the face, regularly. And I read all this stuff and nothing seemed to work," Doucleff recounts. "In fact, a lot of it made things worse for us. And then I started doing a story, actually for NPR, on parenting in the Yucatan and oh, my gosh, it just like shifted my whole sense of what parenting could be and what mothering was."

So, she decided to visit again — this time taking her daughter with her. They also traveled to the Arctic and Tanzania.

She writes about what they experienced and how to be a better parent, in her forthcoming book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach US About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans

Interview Highlights

On what she found watching moms in the Yucatan

[I] watched them with their kids and they just had this incredibly calm, relaxed confidence about them that I had never seen in my life in San Francisco and growing up, and there was no yelling or bickering or nagging and yet the kids were very kind and respectful and super helpful. And I just wondered, like, what would they do with Rosy?

On navigating her way through a street in an Arctic village while Rosy was having a meltdown

Yeah, it was it was embarrassing, to be completely honest with you. Because she was really the only kid that was acting that way. And then, also, t was just really obvious that I didn't know what to do with her. At the end of it, actually, one of the moms ... said to me, 'You know, I think you can handle her better now.' And I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, you're absolutely right. I can handle her better now.' And I'm so grateful to them for that.

On what's different about parenting in this Arctic village

One of the key, key differences is that the parents never engage with the child at like a heated level at, like, the child's level. So all the parents have this incredible calm energy that they bring to every interaction with a child. So no matter how heated the child is and upset the child is, the parent remains this incredibly calm, gentle way. ... I spent about, I say, seven or eight weeks in these places total. And I saw one mom lose her temper — and she was a very young mom, too.

On how they keep it together

So, I think a big part of it, and I talk a lot about this in the book, is they have a different perception of children and their behavior — so it's not so much that they're suppressing anger towards children or suppressing frustration, it's that they look at children in a way that allows them to have less or really no anger towards children. So, for instance, you know, we often think that children are pushing our buttons or testing boundaries or manipulating us. But actually a lot of parents don't see children that way. They see them as just really inept, illogical beings that are of course misbehaving because they haven't learned yet.

On a family in the Yucatan with children who helped without being asked

So we actually saw this on our first trip down there — the girls were on spring break. The family has three girls and we were actually getting ready to leave the house, and the 12-year-old woke up on her spring break and just started doing the dishes — nobody asked her anything. And the mom was not even surprised. She was like, well, you know, she's 12. So she knows what needs to be done if she sees it. And I was just kind of like 'what?' And actually, you know, if you look around the world [you see] this is not super uncommon — and that, in many ways, like our kids that don't want to do anything, or we have to really force them to do things, is more the exception. So in the book, you learn about all these things that parents can do to nurture this quality in children and all the things parents can do to erode this quality.

On using the acronym TEAM as a framework

I came up with this to help me remember it with my daughter. So T is togetherness, and this means doing chores and activities together. So then E, which I think is the hardest one by far, is encouraging versus forcing. So A is autonomy. What it is — it's, yes, it's the right to self-governance to make your own decisions, but you're also constantly connected to the group and you're responsible to the group. So you're wanting to help, you are required to be respectful, and you're required to share with the group. And then finally M is minimal interference. So the idea behind this, it kind of fits with autonomy, but it's like this is not free-range parenting because the parent is always kind of there — or some caretaker, you know, an older sibling, a neighbor, a friend or relative — but they're not interfering with the child's exploration. There's this idea that the child knows what they're doing, but I'm there in case they want to engage with me or they need help.

On how her relationship with Rosy has changed

It sounds almost too good. It's just, it's transformed incredibly. Like I say, like at the beginning of this, I really I dreaded my time with her. And it sounds like a horrible mom, but, you know, I was just so on edge and ... I felt so much like I didn't know what to do. And now I love being with her. I think so much of our relationship was built on tension and conflict before because I was like trying to control her and then she was trying to control me back. At least that's how I felt. And this approach is really about minimizing conflict and tension and really maximizing cooperation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff says all the parenting books she read after becoming a mom have left a whole lot out.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: I'm trained as a scientist. I spent seven years as a chemist. And I really believed that the parenting advice we got today was backed by, you know, really stringent scientific research. And when I started looking at the studies as a scientist, I was really, really let down.

MARTIN: Let down because she couldn't find answers to the problems she was having with her toddler, Rosy.

DOUCLEFF: She started actually, like, slapping me across the face, like, regularly. And I read all this stuff and nothing seemed to work. In fact, a lot of it made things worse for us. And then I started doing a story actually for NPR on parenting in the Yucatan. And, oh, my gosh, Rachel, it just, like, shifted my whole sense of what parenting could be and what mothering was.

MARTIN: So she decided to visit again, this time taking her daughter with her to the Yucatan, then the Arctic and Tanzania. She writes about what they experienced and how to be a better parent in her new book, "Hunt, Gather, Parent."

DOUCLEFF: I really wanted to see how other parents handled her. So when I went to the Yucatan, the moms that I watched - I interviewed a bunch of moms and watched them with their kids and they just had this incredibly calm, relaxed confidence about them that I had never seen in my life in San Francisco and growing up. And, you know, there was no yelling or bickering or nagging and yet the kids were very kind and respectful and super helpful. And I just wondered, like, what would they do with Rosy?

MARTIN: There's a great story that you tell in the book about landing in this Arctic village and navigating your way through the main street with Rosy in the middle of, like, a total meltdown.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. It was embarrassing, to be completely honest with you, because she was really the only kid that was acting that way.

MARTIN: What is so different about, for example, parenting in this Arctic village?

DOUCLEFF: One of the key, key differences is that the parents never engage with the child at, like, a heated level, at, like, the child's level. So all the parents have this incredible calm energy that they bring to every interaction with a child. So no matter how heated the child is and upset the child is, the parent remains this incredibly calm, gentle way.

MARTIN: Michaeleen, how is this possible? I mean, in all seriousness, this can't just be everyone, right? Like, there must be some parents in these places that lose their temper.

DOUCLEFF: OK, sure. Of course. Of course. You know, I mean, I spent about, I say, seven or eight weeks, you know, in these places total. And I saw one mom lose her temper (laughter) you know.

MARTIN: Wow.

DOUCLEFF: And she was a very young mom, too, you know...

MARTIN: Not as much experience as the other families you spent time with. How do they keep it together?

DOUCLEFF: So I think a big part of it - and I talk a lot about this in the book - is they have a different perception of children and their behavior. So it's not so much that they're suppressing anger towards children or suppressing frustration. It's that they look at children in a way that allows them to have less or really no anger towards children. So, for instance, you know, we often think that children are pushing our buttons or testing boundaries or manipulating us. But they actually - a lot of parents don't see children that way. They see them as just really inept, illogical beings that are, of course, misbehaving because they haven't learned yet.

MARTIN: In the Yucatan, you observed this family where not only did parents not yell at kids, but the children just did chores. They just did them magically. No one asked them to do them. They just saw what needed to be done and then did those things.

DOUCLEFF: So we actually saw this on our first trip down there. It was - the girls were on spring break. The family has three girls. And we were actually getting ready to leave the house. And the 12-year-old woke up on her spring break and just started doing the dishes. Like, nobody asked her or anything. And the mom was not even surprised. She was like, well, you know, she's 12, so she knows what needs to be done if she sees it. And I was just kind of like, what?

MARTIN: Like, obviously, right.

(LAUGHTER)

DOUCLEFF: And actually, you know, if you look around the world, Rachel, like, this is not super uncommon and that in many ways, like, our kids, that, you know, don't want to do anything or we have to, like, really force them to do things, is more the exception. So in the book, you learn about all these things that parents can do to nurture this quality in children and all the things parents can do to, like, erode this quality.

MARTIN: OK, so you developed a framework to think about all of this in form of an acronym - TEAM, T-E-A-M. Can you just briefly summarize what each of those letters stands for?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So I came up with this to help me remember it with my daughter. So T is togetherness, and this means doing chores and activities together. So then E, which I think is the hardest one by far, is encouraging versus forcing. So A is autonomy. What it is it's - yes, it's right to self-governance to make your own decisions, but you're also constantly connected to the group, and you're responsible to the group. So you're wanting to help, you are required to be respectful and you're required to share with the group. And then finally M is minimal interference. So the idea behind this - it kind of fits with autonomy, but it's like, this is not free-range parenting because the parent is always kind of there or some caretaker, you know, an older sibling, a neighbor, a friend, a relative. But they're not interfering with the child's exploration. There's this idea that the child knows what they're doing, but I'm there in case they want to engage with me or they need help.

MARTIN: How has your relationship with Rosy changed through all this, Michaeleen?

DOUCLEFF: Oh, my God, Rachel, I can't even like - it sounds almost too good. It's just - it's transformed incredibly. Like I say, like, at the beginning of this, I really - I dreaded my time with her. And it sounds like a horrible mom, but, you know, I was just so on edge and I didn't - I felt so much like I didn't know what to do. And now I love being with her. I think so much of our relationship was built on tension and conflict before because I was, like, trying to control her and she was trying to control me back. And at least that's how I felt. And this approach is really about minimizing conflict and tension and really maximizing cooperation.

MARTIN: The book is called "Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About The Lost Art Of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans." NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff has written this book. And we so appreciate you talking to us, Michaeleen. Thank you.

DOUCLEFF: Oh, Rachel, thank you so, so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILD NOTHING'S "REICHPOP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.