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Michaeleen Doucleff on Ancient Teachings for Modern Parenting

Sep 30, 2021 09:30AM ● By Julie Peterson
Michaeleen Doucleff petting dog with daughter embracing her from behind

photo by Simone Anne

National Public Radio (NPR) science correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff literally searched the world to learn how to be a better parent. She learned how to raise kind and helpful children, and detailed the journey in a book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans. Doucleff learned the basics of parenting from experiences gathered with her 3-year-old daughter among the Maya in the Yucatan, the Inuit above the Arctic Circle and the Hadzabe in Tanzania. The hunter-gatherer parents that she encountered convinced Doucleff that modern parenting needs to be overhauled and that there is a path to healthier families.

What is wrong with 21st-century parenting?

Western parents have, in many ways, forgotten how to relate to children in a way that’s calm, peaceful and cooperative. We don’t really know how to cooperate with them or teach them how to cooperate with us.

Instead, our relationship with kids centers around control. I think this is a major reason for the epidemic of depression and anxiety among American children. They have little autonomy, but they also feel disconnected from the parents because they don’t know how to cooperate with them. At the end of the day, kids are lonely.

For tens of thousands of years, parents learned how to be moms and dads from older people who lived in their homes or nearby. We’ve lost this social support and structure. Parents have to look for guidance from parenting “experts” online and in books. Unfortunately, these experts offer a narrow view of parenting styles, tools and methods.

What was the catalyst that led you to travel the world with a toddler to research parenting methods?

When my daughter Rosy was 2 years old, my husband and I were really struggling as parents. Rosy was having a lot of tantrums, which often included hitting and biting. I read a ton of books and blogs, and everything I tried seemed to make her tantrums worse. 

Then NPR sent me to a tiny Maya village in the Yucatan for a story about children’s attention. While I was there, the moms and dads showed me this whole other approach to parenting and relating to children, which is super gentle, calm and peaceful. There’s no yelling, arguing, bickering or even nagging. The children are respectful to their parents, kind to their siblings and very helpful. I tried out a few of the elements with Rosy and I was stunned at how well they worked. 

How did you choose the Maya, Inuit and Hadzabe communities?

In general, these three cultures excel in aspects of parenting with which Western culture really struggles. The Maya parents are incredibly skilled at raising helpful and cooperative children. Inuit parents have these wonderful and sophisticated tools for teaching children … how to control their anger and other types of emotional regulation. And the Hadzabe families are world experts at raising confident, self-sufficient kids. The childhood anxiety and depression common in the United States is essentially nonexistent in these communities.

When did you notice a positive change in your parenting and relationship with your daughter?

Many of the tips and ideas in Hunt, Gather, Parent changed Rosy and our relationship right away. For example, when I started including Rosy in household chores and cut back on the “child-centered” activities, her behavior improved essentially overnight. She needed more connection, more responsibility and more ways to contribute.

Other parts of the book involve mind shifts or changes in my own behavior. Those took longer to have an impact on Rosy. But I was the slow one. Once I changed, she immediately followed.

Why will ancient methods of parenting from hunter-gatherer families, what you coined “TEAM parenting,” work for parents everywhere? 

These methods are about the parent-child relationship, which is the same around the world, especially when children are young. The TEAM [Togetherness, Encouragement, Autonomy and Minimal interference] parenting method is a way of relating to children that’s independent of the surroundings or environment.

For example, in Tanzania, a 5-year-old girl learns to cooperate by helping her mom gather baobab pods or carrying a jug of water back from the river. In San Francisco, Rosy is learning to cooperate and be helpful in the same way by being included in household chores. She rinses dishes, scrambles the eggs, carries a small bag of groceries to the car at the supermarket. The details are different from place to place, but the concept is the same.


Julie Peterson writes about health and wellness from rural Wisconsin. Reach out at [email protected]

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