Are American parents doing it wrong?

What one author learned observing parents in the oldest cultures in the world.

If you’re surprised to see an email from me in your inbox today, it’s because I’m now publishing Is My Kid the Asshole? weekly instead of bi-weekly. Woo-hoo! I’ll be alternating between my regular format — explaining and addressing challenging kid behavior — and Parent Expert Q&As with authors of new, research-based parenting books.

With this inaugural Parent Expert Q&A, I’m thrilled to have interviewed NPR science journalist Michaeleen Doucleff, the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent, which came out last month. To report the book, Doucleff and her two-year-old daughter, Rosy, spent time in a Maya village in Mexico, an Inuit village above the Arctic circle, and a Hadzabe village in Tanzania to learn how these indigenous cultures parent — and, let’s just say, their approaches couldn’t be more different from how American parents do it. I asked Doucleff more about the techniques she observed and what happened when she tried them out herself.

In the Maya village you visited, parents organized very few child-centered activities. Kids instead spent much of their free time observing and helping their parents. Kids cooked, they cleaned, they did laundry. This seems so different from what so many parents do in the U.S. — they plan child-centered activities (zoo trips, playdates, dance classes), and clean up and cook when the kids aren’t around. What are your thoughts on how they parent, versus how we do?

When we consider the way we parent, we should ask: What are we teaching kids? With so many child-centered activities, we’re definitely not teaching kids how to behave in the adult world, and the skills they need to be a functioning adult. A lot of these thoughts and insights come from the work of anthropologist Suzanne Gaskins. She talks a lot about this idea of putting kids in this bubble, where life is special. If you spent all your days at cocktail parties, and lounging on the beach, and then somebody said, ‘oh, come and do the dishes,’ you’d be like, what? I think the way we parent gives the child the wrong impression about their purpose. I think it erodes their motivation to be cooperative, and to work together with a family, as a team. Also, when the parent is really micromanaging and controlling the child’s schedule, the child cedes responsibility to the parent. The child doesn’t learn to take initiative.

I also think it’s exhausting for the parents — it’s soul-sucking and exhausting, and I think it makes parenting so hard.

So what kinds of scheduling changes have you made at home? What does a typical Saturday look like for you now?

We wake up now, we all make breakfast together, leisurely, and then we clean. The house has to be clean before we do something fun. And we all do it together, and we do laundry, we put the laundry in, hang the laundry out. And then we do an activity that we would do before Rosy was born. We hike, we go to the park. And then we go to the grocery store, and we make dinner, all together.

I was also fascinated by what you observed in the Inuit village. You noticed that parents never got angry at their kids — and realized that this approach reflects a fundamentally different understanding of children and what is expected of them. Can you talk about this?

When I first went up there, I was trying to figure out how to get Rosy to stop slapping me in the face. She was biting me, too. I said to one of the moms, “Isn’t she trying to manipulate me, or push my buttons?” And the mom — she just laughed at me, she literally laughed at me. And she was like, “She’s two. She can’t manipulate you.”

A big theme of the book is that we [Americans] often see children’s motivations in a negative way. So if a two-year-old runs over and grabs the sponge while you’re cleaning, you think “he’s interfering with me,” whereas other cultures would say, “oh, he wants to help” — they view it pro-socially.

So because Inuit parents don’t view kids as being intentionally obnoxious, they get less angry with them?

Yes. This is also in Jean Briggs’s book, Never in Anger — she talks about how in many cultures, not just Inuit, children are seen as these irrational, illogical beings that have no control over their emotions and reactions to things. And that a sign of maturity is learning to regulate these emotions, and learning to respond to problems in a calm way. And it’s a parent’s job to show them that and teach them that. When parents get mad, they are not going to be teaching kids to regulate their emotions.

Once I started viewing Rosy’s behavior as “oh, she doesn’t understand yet, she doesn’t mean anything, she just doesn’t understand how to behave or control her emotions because I really haven’t been teaching her,” then I stopped having so much anger.

This is the other piece of it: I’ve come to devalue anger. So in cultures where people don’t get angry as much — or very little — cross cultural psychologists have shown that the cultures devalue the anger. The people in these cultures don’t think that it’s productive, they think getting angry isn’t going to do any good, it’s going to do harm. And because they devalue it, they’re less likely to call on that emotion.

So I came to devalue it with my relationship with Rosy. Seeing how amazingly she behaved when people weren’t getting angry at her really motivated me. I started to say, “getting angry at her is just going to make this worse. I have to do everything that I have in me to not do it.”

How do you control your anger in the moment, when you can feel it creeping up?

I just close my eyes and press my lips — I think to myself, be a stone. Because I think you’re just trying to get it to pass, or it to at least cool down some. And it will. And I think about how the anger is going to make it worse.

The other thing I did was sometimes I’d let myself get really mad quickly. I would leave — go inside or outside and kick something, just get it out. It really helped me. I remember once at the beginning of the pandemic, I felt so trapped, and I went down to the garage, and I kicked this watering can across the garage. And I was like, “I feel better. I’m going to go back up there and be the adult.”

This is also something that’s really helped me: You’ve got to practice the other emotions when you’re not angry. So Rosy and I practice awe and gratitude every day. We see the moon or the sun, or the flowers outside, and we sit there and practice awe. We practice saying, “this is so beautiful.” And we do it together, because we both need it.

You also noticed that Inuit parents responded to tantrums very differently than American parents do. Can you talk a bit about that?

Elizabeth, the interpreter when we were up in the Arctic, did this so many times with Rosy. She was already a very calm person. But during Rosy’s tantrums, she would just become even calmer. She barely moved. Her face became really flat, and she would go near Rosy, really slowly. She knelt down on Rosy’s level and pointed to the sky, and said, in the calmest of voices, “do you see the beautiful sunset, the pink and the purple?” It was just this calm calm calm, and she was getting Rosy to replace anger with awe. Getting her to see there was something bigger than herself and something more beautiful. And just touched her shoulder, just really gentle. It was incredibly powerful.

I tried to learn to do it, and it took me about two months. It was about finding that super super calm spot — you’re trying to counteract so much of the energy that the child has. Just absorb it, or deflect it. A month or two later, Rosy’s tantrums just really stopped. They went from one or two every day to once a month. It was huge.

Psychologist and author Tina Payne Bryson talks about how, every time a child has a tantrum, it’s an opportunity to practice settling themselves down. Instead of valuing getting her to stop, I started valuing letting her do it. Instead of getting tense and anxious when tantrums happened, I started seeing it as “this is her practice, she’s learning.”

Want to read more? Buy Doucleff’s book, Hunt, Gather, Parent.

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