Column: How American parents have been doing it all wrong

·6 min read
Author Michaeleen Doucleff with her daughter Rosy and their shepherd, Mango, at home in San Francisco.
Author Michaeleen Doucleff with her daughter, Rosy, and their dog, Mango, at home in San Francisco. (Simone Anne)

Anyone who has parented a toddler will be able to relate to the day Michaeleen Doucleff, in her own words, “hit bottom.”

She was lying in bed in San Francisco before sunrise, the house still quiet as her 3-year-old daughter and husband slept. “I was preparing for battle," she later wrote. "I was going over in my head how to handle the next encounter with the enemy. What will I do when she strikes me again? When she hits? Kicks? Or bites?”

At various points in her new book, “Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans,” Doucleff calls her child “a raging maniac,” “a mini shrew” and “the wild hyena.”

No wonder it’s a bestseller.

Doucleff, who has a doctorate in chemistry and works as a science reporter for NPR, takes a methodical approach to sussing out why Americans so often approach parenting as an emotionally fraught high-stakes championship, and why Indigenous cultures seem to raise happier, calmer kids.

She interviews all kinds of experts — anthropologists, neuroscientists, sociologists — in her quest to figure out why we parent the way we do and why it so often can be a joyless struggle.

On her quest to be a better parent, Doucleff travels with her daughter, Rosy, to three far-flung spots, where they embed with families to watch and learn. They go to a tiny Maya village in a Yucatan rainforest; an Inuit village north of the Arctic Circle; and the Tanzanian savannah, where they stay with a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Hadzabe, believed to be one of the oldest cultures on Earth.

In Mexico, Doucleff discovers the concept of acomedido, which literally means “accommodating” but refers to the way Maya kids are taught to pay attention and help out around the house without being cajoled, corrected or screamed at.

Among the Inuit, she discovers that parents do not raise their voices or, say, freak out when a kid knocks a cup of coffee onto a white rug. (“Your coffee was in the wrong place,” says an Inuit mom after such a spill.)

“Across the board,” Doucleff writes, “all the moms and dads mention one golden rule of Inuit parenting: Never yell at a child.”

“I think that’s why white children don’t listen,” a 71-year-old woman tells Doucleff. “Parents have yelled at the children too much.”

I don’t know a parent who has raised a child without yelling, especially in the last year, when we’ve all been stuck inside on top of one another. It’s the thing I hate most about my child-rearing, and I am pretty sure it’s the thing the 11-year-old hates most about me. The insane thing is that I am the one always telling her to lower her voice.

The idea that children are little manipulators who push a parent’s emotional buttons to get attention — a concept that is deeply ingrained in our culture — is unthinkable to the parents with whom Doucleff and Rosy spend time.

“Truth is,” writes Doucleff, “these ideas about children are cultural constructions. … They are folktales that we Western parents tell ourselves to help us navigate behavior we don’t understand.”

In her visits to the Arctic, Mexico and Tanzania, she writes, “I never once witness a parent argue with a child. I never see a power struggle. … Parents simply don’t argue with children. Instead, they make a request, and wait silently for the child to comply. And if the child refuses, the parents may make a comment, walk away, or turn their attention elsewhere.”

Doucleff has some choice words about “self-esteem,” a uniquely Western idea that has permeated our parenting, possibly to the detriment of our children, who seem to be suffering an epidemic of anxiety. (Maybe it’s because they don’t receive the kind of praise in the real world that we lavished upon them as kids?)

No one really knows what effect heaping on the praise and refraining from criticism actually has on children. As Doucleff notes, studies showing a link between low self-esteem and social and emotional problems are “slim, shoddy or non-existent.”

Further, in the cultures she and Rosy visited, “The children who receive little praise show more confidence and mental strength than their American counterparts, who are steeped in praise.”

Like most parents I know, I wholeheartedly embraced the concept that I was responsible for building my daughter’s self-esteem. In fact, her father and I joked about what we called “the wall of self-esteem,” on which our then-toddler daughter’s every piece of art was displayed like the "Mona Lisa." In the dining room.

A stark difference between Western and traditional Indigenous cultures is the number of toys we Westerners rain on our kids. And they all have to have some sort of educational purpose. But why?

“The answer,” writes Doucleff, “has more to do with the Industrial Revolution — and burgeoning consumerism — than it does with cognitive science or child development. … Toys, once thought to be completely unnecessary, were now deemed essential.”

So, hard as it sounds, your children may grow happier if you stop with all the praise, and get rid of half their toys (at least). Encourage them to be part of the family “team,” helping around the house as best they can, without meddling or bossing them around. In the quest to raise perfect kids, it seems, we have perfected how to sabotage their autonomy.

Doucleff embraces one practice that I found shocking, at least at first: keeping kids safe by scaring the bejesus out of them.

Inuit children are warned that a sea monster named Qalupalik might snatch them and give them to another family if they stray too close to the water. To avoid frostbite, they are warned to keep their hats on, or the Northern Lights will snatch off their heads and use them for soccer balls.

Back in San Francisco, when Rosy opens the fridge and stands in front of it for five minutes, ignoring her mother’s pleas to close it, Doucleff invents a refrigerator monster. “If he warms up,” she warns, “he’s going to get bigger and bigger and come get you.”

When Rosy refuses to change out of a favorite and now very dirty dress, her mother tells her spiders will grow in it if doesn’t get washed.

Making up monsters has become a family game; Doucleff swears bedtimes have gotten easier thanks to the Jimmy Jammy monster, who will pounce if they move too quickly or talk too loudly.

I can't undo the parenting mistakes I made with my daughter, now a thriving adult. But I can practice what I have just learned with my 11-year-old niece, who moved in with me when she was 8.

From now on, I vow to stop yelling. Pray for me.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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