What Parents in Ancient Cultures Can Teach Their Western Equivalents

Michaeleen Doucleff, a science reporter who lives in California, was at her wit’s end. Despite her best efforts to employ all the proper parenting tools she’d learned from “Dr. Google,” as she puts it in her new book “Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful, Little Humans,” she and her three-year-old daughter continued to butt heads. The tantrums and persistent resistance made motherhood “like a white-knuckled ride on Class 5 rapids”—tumultuous, stressful, and loud, what with all the screaming. She wondered if Western parents had been misinformed about how to do their jobs. And so, along with her young child, she traveled to three indigenous communities around the globe to learn how families in these cultures rear their children.

But why look for guidance among these communities? The cultures she visited—Maya, Inuit and the Hadzabe in Tanzania—have long-established methods for rearing their kids that have likely endured for thousands of years; some approaches grounded in children’s innate biology. “A lot of what we’re doing goes against their instincts,” Doucleff told me.

The contrasting styles between the Doucleff family and those in hunter-gatherer communities was immediately apparent. In these cultures, she found peacefulness within families—no protracted negotiations over screen time, no Q & As about preferred meals, no nagging or yelling of any kind. Without prodding, the young stepped up to help. And nowhere did children’s wants dictate the terms of the family agenda.

Doucleff saw right away what the cultures value: In all three cultures, parents emphasize connection, encouraging their children to think about the collective duty owed to their loved ones; they respect children’s autonomy and oppose coercion or force; and they look to instill a sense of competency in the young. “Kids are taught to help family and friends,” Doucleff said, “it’s not just what the kids want.” For their part, the Inuit in the Arctic are skilled at developing their kids’ emotional intelligence, especially in defusing anger. And the Hadzabe parents carry out traditions that fortify kids’ confidence.

The staggering rates of mental health troubles among American youth suggests other cultures have much to teach us. “Kids here feel they’re not in control of their lives,” Doucleff said, noting that her own childhood centered on grades and competition. For despite American parents’ extravagant efforts to help their children succeed—with educational toys, enrichment activities, iPads and tutors and T-ball—kids aren’t thriving. And exasperated parents, especially those trying to hold down jobs and manage their children’s through “distance learning,” are exhausted from the incessant power struggles.

Doucleff is a veteran of those battles. Here’s a glimpse of what she recommends to mothers and fathers, gleaned from her research.

Shrink child-centered activities. Kiddie birthday parties, special play dates, “Mommy and Me” events and their ilk erode a child’s place in the family. “In human history, parents have never created these activities designed specifically for children,” Doucleff said. These undertakings are a “huge disservice” to kids, she added, because they define the child as special and exempt him family duties. What normal six-year-old will be eager to take out the trash or help with laundry if she’s spent half her day in a “magical kiddie world”? “They’re not learning about life,” Doucleff said, and kids don’t need them.

Set your own agenda. Parent’s lives shouldn’t revolve around kids’ activities. Instead, mothers and fathers should carry on with their own business and invite their kids to follow along if they please. Engage in the whole-family activities—hikes, yardwork, chores—and encourage children’s participation, but don’t force them if they resist.

Try not to intervene. It’s healthier for kids if they are allowed to do their own work, play their own games, and do their part at home—however sloppy or imperfect—without Mom or Dad stepping in to offer suggestions or fix things. “They are more adept at figuring out what to do than we give them credit for,” Doucleff said. Giving children the freedom to plot their own course will give them a sense of competency and autonomy. And when parents manage to hold back on the instructing and correcting, friction at home will shrivel. 

Encourage, don’t force. Compelling children to do what they’re dead set against may damage parent/child relationship and thwart intrinsic motivation. Instead, speak calmly and treat children like responsible little people whose contributions are needed.

But ease up on the praise. Frequently celebrating a child’s routine activities does not help them develop a sense of competence. And often, praise inflation has the effect of spurring conflicts among siblings who feel wounded by their relative deprivation. Instead of praising them, acknowledge the child’s effort with few words, such as “that’s helpful.”

Practice being quiet. It’s not uncommon, when wandering into coffee shops or grocery stores, to spot parents engaging in nonstop patter with their children. It’s OK to be quiet with them, and to take time out during the day to practice being silent. Quiet calms everyone down.

After Doucleff returned from her journey, she found an ideal opportunity to compare the Western approach to child-rearing with those she had just seen. She went with her family to a sprawling agricultural fair and came upon a kids’ table festooned with flowers and cardboard, where children were invited to make their own crowns. Doucleff watched while mothers and daughters tackled the exercise. One mother said hold on, let’s wait for the instructor—we mustn’t start until the teacher arrives. Another stood over her child’s shoulder and instructed the girl in how to build a proper crown—put the red petal on this side, white on the other. And a third bypassed the child entirely and built the crown herself: perfect! Doucleff imagined how a Maya mother might approach this craft and tried to do the same: she stood back, helped locate the tape when her daughter asked for it, and kept quiet. “I was her sous chef,” Doucleff told me—and at the end of it, her daughter showed off her handiwork, created without conflict and wholly her own.

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