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Parenting - the Americans are crazy with child-centric rearing

CLove's picture

As a Step parent with no bios of my own, I found this EXTREMELY interesting. All the stuff that I see step parents having extreme issues with, completely laid out, but with actual solutions and reasonings. 

Here it is with the article included:

*** Begin Article ***

There’s a Better Way to Parent: Less Yelling, Less Praise

When Michaeleen Doucleff met parents from around the world, she encountered millennia-old methods of raising good kids that made American parenting seem bizarre and ineffective.
Joe Pinsker
March 2, 2021

At one point in her new book, the NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff suggests that parents consider throwing out most of the toys they’ve bought for their kids. It’s an extreme piece of advice, but the way Doucleff frames it, it seems entirely sensible: “Kids spent two hundred thousand years without these items,” she writes.

Her deeply researched book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, contains many moments like this, in which an American child-rearing strategy comes away looking at best bizarre and at worst counterproductive. “Our culture often has things backward when it comes to kids,” she writes.

Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.

She takes care to portray her subjects not as curiosities “frozen in time,” but instead as modern-day families who have held on to invaluable child-rearing techniques that likely date back tens of thousands of years. I recently spoke with Doucleff about these techniques, and our conversation, below, has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: Many American parenting strategies, you estimate, are only about 100 years old, and some of them arose more recently than that. What about American parenting sticks out to you as distinctive and particularly strange?

Michaeleen Doucleff: One of the craziest things we do is praise children constantly. When I was first working on the book, I recorded myself to see how frequently I praised my little girl, Rosy, and I noticed that I would exaggeratedly react to even her smallest accomplishments, like drawing a flower or writing a letter, with a comment like “Good job!” or “Wow! What a beautiful flower!”

This is insane if you look around the world and throughout human history. Everywhere I went, I don’t know if I ever heard a parent praise a child. Yet these kids are incredibly self-sufficient, confident, and respectful—everything we want praise to do, these kids already have it, without the praise.

It’s hard to cut back on praise, because it’s so baked in, but later on, I decided to try. It’s not that there’s no feedback, but it’s much gentler feedback—parents will smile or nod if a child is doing something they want. I started doing that, and Rosy’s behavior really improved. A lot of the attention-seeking behavior went away.

Pinsker: You visited an Inuit town in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and spent time in households where children were almost mysteriously immune to tantrums. How did the parents you met respond when kids misbehaved?

Doucleff: One night while I was there, Rosy and I were staying with a woman named Sally who was watching three of her grandchildren—so, four kids under 6 years old in this house. Sally just approached everything they did with the most calmness and composure I have ever seen. At one point, a little toddler, maybe 18 months at the time, I think he was pulling the dog's tail or something. Sally picked him up and, when she did, he scratched her face so hard that it was bleeding. I would have been irate, but Sally, I saw her kind of clench her teeth, and just say, in the calmest voice, “We don’t do this.” Then she took him and flipped him around with this playful helicopter move, and they both started laughing. Then it was over—there was no conflict around it.

If the child's energy goes high—if they get very upset—the parent’s energy goes so low. Another time on our trip, in the grocery store, Rosy started having a tantrum, and I was getting ready to yell at her to stop. But Elizabeth, our interpreter, came over to her and addressed her in the calmest voice. Immediately, Rosy just stopped—when she was around that calmness, her whole body relaxed. I was like, Okay, I’m just doing this tantrum thing completely wrong.

Read: No spanking, no time-out, no problems

Pinsker: You write about how when Sally and Elizabeth see behavior like that, they think about the causes of it differently than many American parents do. What is the narrative they have for why young kids act out?

Doucleff: Yeah, this is huge—it single-handedly changed my life, and it’s something you hear in other parts of the Arctic. In the U.S., when a child calls you a name or smacks you, many parents think that the child is pushing your buttons, that they’re testing boundaries and want to manipulate you.

The Inuit parents and elders I interviewed almost laughed when I said that. One woman said something like, “She’s a kid—she doesn’t know how to manipulate like that.” Instead, what they told me is that young children are just these illogical, irrational beings who haven’t matured enough and haven’t acquired understanding or reason yet. So there’s no reason to get upset or argue back—if you do, you’re being just like the child.

This has totally shifted the way I interact with Rosy—I have so much less anger. She’s trying her best. Maybe she’s clumsy and illogical and irrational, but in her heart, she loves me, she wants to do well, and she wants to help.

Pinsker: One interesting observation in the book is that many American parents take their whole family to spaces that are expressly designed for kids, like children’s museums and indoor play places—despite the fact that these spaces are generally not very fun for parents. How do you think about these activities?

Doucleff: I think that a lot of the time, we don’t know what to do with kids. On weekends, it was sometimes like, How do we fill this time with Rosy? But the idea that parents are responsible for entertaining a child or “keeping them busy” is not present in the vast majority of cultures around the world, and definitely not throughout human history. What some of the psychologists I interviewed told me is that in these fake, childlike worlds, the child is separated from reality in some ways—they don’t learn how to behave as an adult.

There’s a lot of good scientific evidence that children have an innate instinct to cooperate and work together with their families. And child-centered activities can kind of strip away what I call their family “membership card,” the feeling that they’re a part of the family and working together as a team—not a VIP that the parents are serving. Kids want to help us and be part of our lives, and we can take that away with constant child-centered activities.

Pinsker: So if you aren’t going to the children’s museum as a family, what are you doing instead?

Doucleff: Basically, my husband and I do things that we used to do before Rosy was born, or things that we have to do, and modify them to include her. Sometimes I have to work, and she has to entertain herself. Or we go to the beach, and I sit and read for three hours, and don’t play with her—sometimes there are friends and sometimes there are not. We’ll go hiking or work in the garden or go visit friends together. And then we do chores. We do the laundry together. We clean up together. We go to the grocery store together. We just live—without a kiddie museum.

All over the world, and throughout history, parents have gone about their lives, but they’ve welcomed the kids into it. In many cultures, parents let the kids tag along, and they let the kid do what they want to do, within the boundaries of being respectful and kind. And for kids, that’s entertainment enough.

Pinsker: In the U.S., many parents find themselves essentially on their own when making sure their kids are being looked after. Could you talk about the more communal approach to raising children that you saw with the Hadzabe, the community of hunter-gatherers you visited in Tanzania?

Doucleff: I was with a group of about 15 to 20 adults and their kids—they live in small huts and work together all day. They spend enormous amounts of time with each other, but they're not all related. And when we first got there, it was hard for me to tell which toddlers belonged to which moms and dads, because everyone was helping to take care of them. The children were comfortable with all these different women and men.

If you look around the world, you'll see that in many cultures besides Western culture, and definitely in hunter-gatherer communities, there’s an enormous amount of what’s called “alloparenting.” Allo- is derived from a Greek word meaning “other,” so it just refers to caretakers in a child’s life other than the mom or dad.

These people are deeply involved in the child’s upbringing. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, an anthropologist, has done some amazing research where she shows that young children are basically designed to be raised by a group of people, not just two—meaning sometimes a mom or a dad is on their own doing the work of several people. So of course we feel worn down and exhausted.

Pinsker: American culture generally doesn’t encourage this approach to parenting, since there’s often an emphasis on individual parents. How do you think about transporting the spirit of those models over to an American context?

Doucleff: First of all, we do way more alloparenting than we give credit for, but often, we don't value the alloparents as much as we should: Nannies, day-care providers, teachers—those are all alloparents. Personally, I’ve been trying to value those people more and show my appreciation for them.

But there are opportunities aside from that. For one thing, a lot of coparenting is done by children who are two, three, four, five years older than the child. I think we underestimate what children can do—there are children I met who were, like, 12 years old, making meals and taking care of younger children. It’s because they’re given opportunities all along to learn those skills.

Another thing is, we’ve built an “auntie-uncle network,” which is an idea I got from the psychological anthropologist Suzanne Gaskins. We have two other families who pick up the kids from school sometimes, and then I pick up the kids sometimes, and we trade off. The three kids get to have a sort of extended family. Rosy loves it, and we don’t have to pay for after-school care.

People tend to think of the nuclear family as traditional or ideal, but looking at the past 200,000 or so years of human history, what’s traditional is this communal model of working together to take care of a child. For me personally, this is reassuring, because I don’t want to be with Rosy, like, every moment. Really, that’s not natural.


CLove's picture

Well, the main ones. It doesnt talk about mini-wife syndrome or emotional incest. It also doesnt address the fact that some families give extreme preferential treatment and first family worship (toxic in-laws).

It also doesnt talk about bi-polars and narcs. So, there is a lot we can discover as solutions.

tog redux's picture

This was certainly how I was parented in the 60s and 70s. My parents never made us the center of the world, or entertained us.  They didn't praise us for everything we did, and chores were expected. We didn't get an allowance, we didn't get cars, we didn't get all the toys we wanted. We had jobs as soon as we were able. They took trips with friends and left us home, with my oldest sister babysitting, or hired a babysitter.

The current parenting is in the last 40 years or so.

caninelover's picture

It simply amazes me how kids are raised today.  They have enough toys to fill a whole room, have activities scheduled every moment of every day because god forbid the poor child has to figure out how to entertain themselves, and the entire household revolves are paying for and transporting kids to and from these activities.  Its insane.

And the constant praise for the stupidest things!  Participation trophies, etc.  It creates entitled kids who can't function in the real world which doesn't validate them every 5 seconds as they expected from their childhoods.

CLove's picture

Do you think this is part of what happened to Bratty?

caninelover's picture

When her parents were still married, they had the typical modern childhood experience - lots of activities, excessively admired and praised, basically the center of the parents world and life.

When her parents split it was the opposite experience - PAS from the biomom and increased permissiveness and adoration from SO.

All problematic.

tog redux's picture

I played softball in high school - my parents never came to one game. I didn't expect them to, honestly.  I also played violin, and they did come to orchestra events, etc, but they liked music, lol.

We knew were weren't the most important people in the house. And as for the village raising us - when I was 4 I "ran away" with the boy across the street. We wheeled our wagon down the street to the "woods" (empty lot). I asked my mother why she let me do that, and she said, "Oh everyone knew where you were. They were watching you."

I walked to school alone at age 5 - just down the street and around the corner in a very safe neighborhood, but still -  people don't even allow 5-year-olds to play outside alone now. We played outside for hours alone - but all the parents knew where we were. They watched each other's kids without asking.


futurobrillante99's picture

I'm not sure how old you are, but when I was a kid a lot more moms stayed home. There were eyes everywhere! LOL

Rumplestiltskin's picture

I'll watch others' kids up to a point, but when the tantrums or the stealing or just plain being annoying and wanting to be entertained starts - they have to go!

My parents didn't go to all my games and such either, and their parents didn't go to any of theirs. Even my dad's little league coach was just the oldest or best kid on the team. Kid stuff was kid stuff, by the kids for the kids. 

CLove's picture

This is one of my biggest things with Munchkin SD14 - she has no chores and she seems clueless about many things. She lacks that basic structure.

I saw how that parenting style played out with Feral Forger SD21 - just recently she threw up on the couch and didnt have a clue as to how to clean it - she was going to throw it away. Shes been "wharehouse-parented".

Stepdrama2020's picture

Interesting read. Although I am bioless I witnessed the child centric ways of my ex DH. The result a snotty entitled "i get my way" SD.

The article didnt focus on mini wife etc. It didnt have to. My take you raise your kids like in the olden days you get well mannered productive kids ,or the most part. I laugh when I think of that movie Meet the Parents and they were so Dang proud their kid came in 9th place they hung the ribbon on the wall LOL In real life it aint too far off reality for some, throw in divorce and Kaboom! 

tog redux's picture

The odd thing is - those of us raised in the old ways are the ones who have created the participation trophy generation. WE caused that. It's not the kids' fault, it's the Boomer/Gen X people who have caused it.

caninelover's picture

And there is a some elements of giving kids more than the parents had and there are also elements of keeping up with the Joneses, e.g. Sally is in gymnastics and volleyball and piano so Jane needs to have activities too...

Stepdrama2020's picture

Y'all Boomer/Gen X caused it. Family dynamics started to shift, divorces became a norm not a rareity. Both parents worked. These factors created guilt. Kids being raised in Day Care, after school . Things replaced time with the family. Like someone else said trying to keep up with the Jonses. If Lil Johnny gets a car at 16  my poor little Tommy needs one too. The result disconnected families with kids being showed love through shiny toys. 

Not saying Y'all are like that but society at large. Gone are the days sitting by the creek catching frogs LOL Now the lil buggers play video games

Funny enough I was just talking about this crap with a co worker. 

tog redux's picture

My mother worked when I was growing up, but she was a teacher, so she was around when I was home.  Also - fear changed everything - the media showed every horrible thing that happened to kids all over the world and parents became frightened

EveryoneLies's picture

Both of my parents worked. I guess my mom might feel guilty not being able to spend more time with us when we were younger. I was enjoying the independence I had though XD 

Coming from a culture where people are more "realistic" I didn't get that much praise growing up. I'm not bitter though, because I feel it's more helpful to prepare me when my parents told me "no one will tolerate that outside of this family." It helped me learn early that i'm only the pearl in my parents' eyes and don't ever expect others to think the same of me.

I can't understand all the praises our kids are getting for duing basic chores. We had both kids doing so little and still have to fight them over. It especially bothers me when a therapist is making this (them doing light housework) such a big deal. I'm sorry, don't they live in this house too? (eye roll) 

caninelover's picture

Just simple playtime.  Out in the yard.  Ride a bike around the neighborhood.  That stuff is practically child neglect these days.

Basically the kid has to be wrapped in bubble wrap, placed on a pedestal, and constantly entertained.  No wonder these kids grow up to be special snowflakes.

CLove's picture

He was raised in a priviledge environment, and now wants to up the ante with my nepthew and niece. The last Christmas holiday I spent with his family, the nephew piled through the huge mountain of presents and didnt even look at what was in the box. It was all about tearing through the paper. Then if someone else unwrapped a present, he would want it for himself and try to rip it out of the poor kids hands. He was 4.

Cover1W's picture

....And this is how I would have liked to approach it and naturally did from the start.

And this approach got me labeld 'authortarian', 'not a parent so I didn't understand', 'too difficult', and I didn't accept that 'they are just kids.'  FFS.

I totally agree with all of the above and STILL advocate it with DH for YSD15. 15!!  I had to tell DH just the other night to start making sure he doesn't keep doing everything FOR her. She's 15!!!!  FGS.

futurobrillante99's picture

Oh honey, my XH2 labeled me the same things and I had kids, older than his kids, who were all much more well adjusted and successful.

I was just being mean to his kids, you see.

CLove's picture

Yep, Im the meanie that is too strict. And me with no kiddos, that makes it doubly bad, because I dont know how to parent.

My expectations are too high. Im not a "real parent".

DH, with Feral Forger21, when she was a teen would "plate up" food for her. Because she couldnt do it herself. He likes the presentation aspect, but me, I started an assembly-line dinner thing. Everyone gets their plates together for themself.

caninelover's picture

'Well you don't get it because you're not a parent'

I've gotten that from SO before and I've even gotten it from some acquantainces.  Like because you popped out a kid you're not mentally capable of understanding the concept of a spoiled brat.

CLove's picture

All the support areas are getting a deluge of stressed, miserable step parents and parents who dont know how to deal with the fallout. Time outs dont quite cut it.

Stepdrama2020's picture

I am surprised time outs are even allowed. Isnt that ostrasizing and shaming a child. Rolling my eyes. 

Everyone needs a ribbon.  Actually my ex SD was an only child so after every birthday party she went to big daddy would take her to the store to buy her a gift as she sulked and cried. It just wasnt fair that a friend got all the gifts. I once said this does not help her. He bit my head off saying I hate his DD. Well I did hate her but that had nothing to do with this. LOL

secret's picture

This is how I raised my kids. Very matter of fact...even potty trained. I never praised my kids for pooping. Like congrats, you dumped a turd...welcome to being human? I never understood it. I simply started sitting then on the can and told them THIS is where THAT happens.... after a few days they got it. They were all trained at 16m, 18m, and 22m...with only occasional accidents. They were about 3 when there were no more night time accidents ever, too.

Not much different than a cat litter training her kittens.

As far as praise goes... it's not like I d9nt g8ve then any, but it's more that I treat it like a performance evaluation.... does not meet standard... progressing well... meets expectation... or exceeds expectation. You don't get praised when you meet expectation... that's the job. You're doing it. Exceeding expectations...sure, gold star. Progressing well... well I'll help and coach to get you to where you're meeting expectation.... and does not meet... figure out why and what needs to change to get you to progress.

Many parents seem to be stuck at "does not meet expectation" with their kids.... and rather than help them progress so they meet expectations, stay stagnant and lower the expectation so that they have something to "praise".

Mmkay... well if you train your Does not meet expectation kid to think they're constantly exceeding expectations, they're in for a rough ride when they're evaluated on merit in the real world, ya know, outside the house...and found to have less than the minimum requirement..  

But wait, there's more! Obviously it's not that these kids don't meet expectations... it's that everyone else's expectations are too high....right?? 

The fault is entirely the parents who set the kid up with a flawed view of their merit... and pump them full of inaccurate self worth, dooming them to a life of mediocrity or worse, because the kid will never have learned how to tackle a challenge and "do better " to at the very least, keep up with their peers.

I really don't understand why so many parents fail their kids this way.... don't they want to see success for their kid? Sure, success is different to everyone... but if they're satisfied that their kid is simply...well..alive... hey knock yourself out. They're not going to get praise from me, because as far as I'm concerned it's the parents that did not meet expectation.... and despite coaching... they're not progressing well...and so will likely never meet expectation....and will definitely never exceed it.

Unfortunately, the only scorer of merit for these parents are themselves... so they will never really understand that they're not meeting expectation... because they've lowered the standard of "good parenting" as low as it takes for them to feel even the slightest bit ok about how their kid turned themselves a score of exceeding expectation by making excuses like "at least SD isn't a drug addict, yay me!"

I can't help but pass judgement slightly on parents who consider the bare minimum of parenting to be worthy of a fucking parent of the year trophy.... we can never be friends. Lol

Off my soapbox.

Jake's picture

Thanks so much. The article was quie eye opening for me.

I was raised in home full of Love and respect my mothers manra.

She rareley lost perspective in any situation. She would say We are  "our sur name "we do not do that !

I  am a bio child free man. Who became a step parent at 26. I lacked paitents but no shortage of love.

At 62 I have the paitence just lacking the love. I no longer need to be loved by my step kids. I give what I get now.

Great reading I see so many mistakes in my step childrens, childrens lifes. My step kids Parenting styles are entertain the kids at all cost. If that fails buy them something or better yet take them away for the weekend. They  would not know how to entertain themselves.. lol. Thanks again Jake

bananaseedo's picture

Great article, agree with it!  I was raised in a different country add time and my raising was VERY different then todays world.  Defiantely raised in a village environment where all other moms/neighbors were watching every move of every kid.   There were also moms at home TO watch the kids.  Salaries were enough for one parent to work while one stayed home (mom or dad, though let's be realistic, it was mostly mom back then).  Parents only came to the BIG recitals, etc, maybe once a year....none of this bs about every weekend soccer game and 3 times a week practice, with a full family posse on both sides (ESPECIALLY if divorced) to witness and scream nonstop streaming encouragement and praise for just running.   

Parents today ughhhh - I mean it starts in utero with parents killing themselves and burning down their cities just to announce a gender, no wonder kids have no chance of being normaly in todays world.