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.