Is Our Parenting All Wrong?

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 183 · Duration: 00:20:56

Is Our Parenting All Wrong?

Do ancient cultures know more than we do about raising happy healthy kids?  We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast:  Is Our Parenting All Wrong?

Today I’d like to share with you some of what I learning from a book titled:  Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Douchleff, PhD.

I read an article in the Atlantic last month about a book titled Hunt, Gather, Parent, What Ancient Cultures Can Teach us about the lost art of raising happy, helpful little humans. I was very intrigued so I bought the book and really enjoyed it.

The author is an accomplished journalist and went to live in three different ancient culture communities with her toddler daughter.  The author describes how she and her daughter we’re constantly battling with each other and she wanted to learn about the famed parenting methods in these communities.

The author visits and spends significant time in three different communities: a Maya community in the Yucatán and Inuit community in the Arctic and the Hadzabe Community in Tanzania. None of these communities were entirely isolated and they even had access to technology, yet hunting and gathering are their way of life. 

The book is part a self-help parenting book based on what Michaeleen learned and part a non-fiction adventure story so just sharing what I learned won’t give you a reader’s experience of visiting these places with the author, so if you’re at all intrigued, grab a copy and enjoy yourself.

Now to Hunt, Gather, Parent.

All three of these communities had a lot in common that created happy and very helpful toddlers, children and adolescents. Most significant is that all three communities intentionally and strategically avoided control battles so of course I was really happy to hear that and the parents in this book are quite clear why.

When parents and kids are fighting-kids don’t listen and they don’t learn, period.Click To TweetThat’s all there is to it. So how do they avoid these seemingly inevitable control battles? Well there are a few things here worth discussing.

Understandably, we can’t live as these communities do since we don’t live off of hunting and gathering, and our culture is not homogeneous. Yet there are several key principles that we can learn from and incorporate in our parenting approach. After all, if these people don’t have control battles with their children and teenagers, well, that’s a learning opportunity we can’t afford to pass up.  I learned quite a bit myself and most significantly, I learned that they have well thought out parenting philosophies that guide them so their success is not accidental or only relevant to their culture.  I’m still thinking about and integrating what I read.  I feel changed by it and will be thinking about it and integrating it for a while I’m sure. 

A major principle that stood out for me is there aren’t toys or even specifically child-oriented activities in these cultures. Toddlers, children and teenagers all participate in adult activities. Washing, cleaning and picking up, cooking, foraging for food, even hunting are open to them and they love participating. When children get tired of what they’re doing they do something else. They may go outside and play together; teenagers may hang out together and then come back and participate with adults when they feel like it. They don’t have assigned chores; they just participate and make real contributions. Parents don’t play child oriented games with their children; they spend lots of time with their children doing adult things. It’s perfectly fine for kids to do things imperfectly and receive very little specific instructions from parents on how to do it better. Kids simply get better with practice and time.  Older kids are very involved in taking care of younger kids and there is a very strong value on sharing; often giving to others before taking something for one’s self.  Active praise is avoided.  Instead, subtle nods of approval or facial expressions of disapproval are offered.  Why do they avoid praise? Praise is more a reward from parent to child rather than an instrument of guidance.  In these communities, the belief is that control and the intention to do well is within every individual, regardless of age, so positive or negative control from the outside interferes with the development of self and self-control rather than supporting it.

Many families I’ve worked with are frustrated that their kids don’t do their chores and if they do, it’s after being reminded, scolded or threatened.  A big difference here is that the work is shared, and people are doing it together.  It isn’t a solo activity, like it’s your turn to do the dishes.  Everyone is together participating so these activities aren’t lonely activities and participating is part of belonging and a source of pride in one’s ability to do things.

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of lonely, angry, depressed kids.  They lack respect for their parents, they tell me they’re angry with their parents, and they’re hell bent on not cooperating with their parents.  I think this is because we have the notion that they’re only supposed to be doing “their responsibilities'', mostly school, sports or other extracurricular activities and then a few chores.  If a family has dinner together, that’s a lot. A large part of the parent teen interaction is parents telling their kids what to do. 

Do your homework, quit playing games, clean your bathroom, clean your room, and feed the dog.  What’s the matter with you?  

These kids don’t know they have value in their families; more that they’re objects to be managed.  You might be thinking how can my kid not know I love them; how can they not respect me?  Everything I do, I do for them.  

I totally get it. You’ve sacrificed plenty and deserve respect, appreciation and cooperation.  Yet we’ll only get the opposite when we’re in a Control Battle and these cultures know that.  They know that mental health and happiness stem from inclusion, feeling like you’re good at things, and that you are important to others. 

In all of these communities, there is a strong value on individuality.  That’s individuality within the family and community.  The idea is that the locus of control is within each person, regardless of their age.  So kids aren’t forced to do things.  But with support and subtle guidance, kids learn, grow and participate. The more able they are, the more they do. 

Another main principle is the idea of shared parenting.  In the nuclear family model we use, it’s easy for kids and parents to get on each other’s nerves. In a shared parenting model, parents can hand off to other adults and kids can simply go off and be with other adults or kids. In the nuclear family parenting model there’s a lot of pressure on parents to be everything a kid needs and that’s simply not reasonable.

Since we have the model we have, what can we do about that? We can grow and expand our community. Whatever communities there are, we can work to develop them; neighborhoods, school communities, extended families, worship communities, friendship communities, shared interest communities. These are all possibilities for groups of all age families to get together often and enrich everyone’s life.  Take someone’s kids for a while and they can take yours. However you do it, enlarging the community is a good thing to do.  If in your small family, you now have two teenagers with no younger siblings to take care of, have the neighbor come over with their younger kids to your house and be looked after and engaged with your kids.  When they look after younger kids, they’ll feel needed and better about themselves.

In all three or the ancient communities, adults remain calm and that includes when they’re irritated, or there is a major accident.  They don’t yell, scold or lecture. They don’t express anger towards the kids.  They don’t take their children’s behavior personally.  Instead they see their role as continually teaching so a problem is just another teaching opportunity. Their use of subtle facial expressions or limited specific words gets the job done. The author explains that any parent who loses their temper is guided not to do so by the other adults.  

So how do we take this information and use it productively with our internet/ gaming addicted, spoiled, avoidant/depressed isolated teenagers, or is it too late?  It’s never too soon or too late to start, so let’s get going.  

  1. Engage your teenager in the family in a more dynamic way than ever before. Ask for their help in a specific way. Click To Tweet
  2. Come give me a hand in the kitchen for a bit so I can get things cooking faster.  
  3. How about, “the house needs cleaning, please vacuum while I dust.”  Then don’t give instructions or show them what they missed.   
  4. Or if it’s their night to do the dishes, “mind if I join you?” and then use the time together to simply chat about anything. 
  5. Not “when are you going to mow the lawn?”  Instead try, “join me outside for a bit to get the yard pulled together.”  
  6. Get them involved in planning and preparing for a get together with friends, including cleaning and cooking. 
  7. Get them involved caring for younger kids or even older folks in the neighborhood.  
  8. The idea here is they matter to others and make a difference to others.  

Now what if things are so locked in that even these unthreatening attempts at engagement will be met with extreme resistance and won’t create change.  Don’t give up and call it hopeless. 

Your youth is a human being with the same needs as the kids in these other cultures. Click To Tweet Just pull out your addition of Ending the Parent Teen Control Battle and prepare for and offer up, The Talk.  It will take some thinking and preparing but it might go something like this.

Parent:  Henry, somehow things in our house have landed in an uncomfortable, stressful place.  It feels like we’re always on edge with each other that you’re mostly annoyed with me and I’m frustrated with you;  I always want you to do something and you’re always frustrated that I’m critical that you’re not doing enough.  I’m not sure how we landed here but obviously I’m doing something wrong.  The last thing I want is to criticize you and make you feel like you’re not doing enough. 

The truth is that I miss you and want more connection with you.  Not only that, but I need you.  I’m lonely for you and need your help.  I know that gaming is your way of being with your friends and you deserve that.  But I need you too, your family needs you.  So we need to figure a way for you to be the vital part of our family life that you are in my heart.  I’m concerned that Wi-Fi has stolen you from us.  So let’s talk together and come up with some ways that we can put things back on a healthy track.  I think if we talk together, listen to each other and cooperate, I won’t have to manage the Wi-Fi.  If I need to because it is simply that hard walk away from, I can do that too, but I’d rather not.  

This may feel like you’re making things worse if your youth sees this as more control but it’s just the nature of changing out of dysfunctional patterns; they often face resistance. 

A long time ago I heard an old East Indian fable from my friend Don Davies, a psychiatrist I worked with.  It must be 35 years ago that he told me this story so obviously it meant something to me. Here goes: There was a very sad girl and no one knew what bothered her or how to help her.  Everyone tried to cheer her up, but nothing ever worked. Then one day a beautiful butterfly landed on her shoulder and whispered in her ear, and from that day she became lively, happy and engaged.  The girl kept the butterfly’s words secret for many years but eventually revealed that it told her, “Everyone needs you”.  

So parents and folks who work with kids and parents, let’s get away from labeling problems or symptoms with our kids and let’s take a look at how our culture and our homes are going against human nature, human need.  Instead of sending our kids off for therapy for anxiety and depression and walking away, or admonishing them for laziness and irresponsibility, let’s engage them with us, with other adults, other children and include them as critical members of our homes and communities.  Let’s let them know they matter and we need them. 

Thanks for tuning in today, I really enjoyed talking with you and special thanks to Michaeleen for her adventuresome spirit, and for the skill and wisdom to bring the intelligence of these cultures to us.

Right now here in the US and in the UK and likely other places, we’re getting vaccinated and we’re feeling optimistic, like we can get our lives back in the near future. Unfortunately, there’s backsliding because we’ve relaxed too much too soon. If we can hang in there a while longer, and mask up, socially distance and reduce all the risks we can, we can save thousands of lives and get out of this sooner.

This is still a very stressful time, and there’s a lot of burnout in families, in fact the longevity of this has taken a huge toll and the longer it goes the worse it gets, but like I say there is an end in sight so in the meantime, please, please, take care of yourselves.  

You need it, you deserve it, and you’re worth it. Bye for now.


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