Need Parenting Help, Will Travel

Michaeleen Doucleff Book

In her new book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, Michaeleen Doucleff recounts the day she “hit rock bottom as a mom.” The correspondent for NPR’s Science Desk, who has a doctorate in chemistry, writes that she was at a loss for how to handle her spirited daughter, Rosy, then 3. Every day was full of anger, power struggles, and tantrums. Doucleff had had enough.

Feeling desperate for help, Doucleff packed her bags—and Rosy, too—and headed to a Mayan village in the Yucatán, where she had witnessed the kind of parenting she wanted to master on a previous reporting trip. They also visited with Inuit families in a freezing Arctic village and Hadzabe families in Tanzania. The trip changed everything about how Doucleff interacted with her daughter, resulting in a calmer, happier home and a less stressed relationship.

As the mother of a spirited child or three myself, I was fascinated with this book and wanted to learn more about the parenting secrets Doucleff learned around the world. (I also appreciate the way she weaves in interviews with and research by psychologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and sociologists in the book and explains how the strategies she learned can impact children’s mental health and development.) I was thrilled that she was willing to share more about her book with our community. 

Keep reading for some of the secrets she learned from parents in other areas of the world, including three things you can implement today. And then let me know in the comments: What’s your best parenting tip?

One of the first things you talk about in the book is that parenting was never meant to just be partners or a single parent and their child. Parents in other cultures have the help of grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. That made me think about how much help so many of us have lost during the pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, it was just me and my husband. And sometimes just me [due to a family emergency.] We lost our childcare and all of our friends, who were locked up themselves. It was super hard. As the pandemic continued, and we figured out what was safe and not safe, I started adding back in a few things, including forming a pod with two other families. We became Alloparents, like I talk about in a book. These few people became so important in my life and Rosy’s life. She created these very deep relationships with the parents and the kids—as I did—over the last year. Deep relationships have an incredible benefit to people, for our hearts, our minds, our immune systems. Research shows, even just one extra adult in a child’s life is huge to protect them against anxiety and depression. I hope to hang onto this pod after the pandemic is over.

You mention the acronym TEAM. Can you talk about that?

This book is really about how to collaborate and cooperate with kids as opposed to controlling them. So one way to remember that is that everyone is on the same TEAM: 

Togetherness: This is the idea that kids need to be really involved and we should all work together. In America, we value independence, but being together is a natural instinct of kids. But this doesn’t mean just parents. It can be siblings, a neighbor kid, grandpa, friend. 

Encouraging: One thing we’ve lost in our parenting is trying to encourage kids vs. forcing them, which creates resistance. There’s a whole section in the book about tools to encourage your children to do something without negotiations or bribes.

Autonomy: There is so much psychological research on autonomy. This is about making your own decisions while also looking out for others around you. It’s independence and freedom with responsibility.

Minimal Interference: Kids don’t need us to tell them constantly what to do. We swing from helicoptering to free range parenting, but there is a middle ground. Minimal interference means to step in to help only when they really need it or something is unsafe.  

What is the biggest difference you saw between American parenting and parenting in the communities you visited?

The parents are incredibly calm, in every moment. And the calmness had a confidence to it. When the child goes high energy or is tantruming or screaming, the parent becomes even calmer. This is magic on kids. Even now, if things are getting hot, I become very calm and stop talking. Words are stimulating. Neuroscientists and psychologists told me that kids’ energy and emotions mirror the parents’ energy. It’s the most powerful tool we have to teach them emotional regulation. 

I also suggest taking out the phone and recording yourself with your kids for an hour or 30 mins, and then listen to it. I did this by accident, and I listened back and realized I wasn’t listening to Rosy at all. She was trying to tell me things, and I already thought I had an answer. I also realized how bossy I am. If someone did that to me, I would hate them.

There has been some controversy around your book, including that you and other white people have gone to these indigenous communities asking for help, because these “ancient” women of color are more natural mothers than “modern” white women. 

I think that that history in our country is horrible. It needs to be acknowledged and talked about. But I don’t think that’s what this book is about. I’m not talking about natural parenting. I’m talking about a way of parenting that is a shared history of many parents all around the world, who have done this for probably thousands of years. And the core elements, as I describe in the book, are part of our Western history as well. 

What are one or two things that parents can implement that make the biggest difference?

I think welcoming children into their life a little bit more. If you’re making dinner, say, “Hey, come help me make dinner.” Take them to the grocery store or post office with you. 

Also, stop arguing with your kids. Don’t negotiate with them. Once I stopped arguing with Rosy, things were so much better. We were locked in power struggles all the time. Now, I just walk away—though sometimes she chases me. All we are doing is teaching them to argue and negotiate. 

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  • Libby

    This is interesting. One thing take away points I have would be the reminder that many of our “must do this way or that” are no must haves. If it’s not going to do bodily damage then we can take the time to evaluate our choices. All of those countries will provide the rules for acceptance in their culture. That takes pressure off the “getting it right” mindset of parenting.
    My daughter is 28 now so I’m past many of these decisions but it gives me the results of many of my choices. According to my daughter, one of the best things I did was try to teach her how to fail. As parents we want to protect them from any pain . That’s not our job. Our job is to teach them how to deal with pain while still living in a safe, supportive family.
    Thank you for sharing your parenting journey. I would have loved having this support when I was a young mom.

  • Teri Y Diggs

    I can’t wait to read this book. Are there any other books you’d recommend along the same line as this one? I read ‘The Birth Order Book’ by Kevin Leman in college and it was fascinating! Highly recommended it (and all his books). My son is a very (VERY) strong-willed child, coupled with him being an only child, and it is sometimes a hard battle in our house. I am happy he is independent and smart because it will definitely help him in the long run, but he also needs remember that he’s only 10, he still has a lot to learn, and he needs to have respect for others.

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