A Critique of Modern Parenting: Hunt, Gather, Parent
As parents, we are both blessed and cursed to be alive at a time when such a large amount of knowledge is available to us, quite literally at our fingertips. It's crazy how we are able to access information as quickly and efficiently as we are. This quick access to information also means that we will inevitably be exposed to loads of information that is either untrue or potentially harmful.
Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff (2021) explores how parents can use lessons from traditional cultures to raise resilient, self-sufficient children. The book challenges parts of the modern parenting approach and emphasizes creating a healthy family dynamic. In previous blogs, I have referenced this book. It is filled with great knowledge and some really good tips on how to parent in a way that helps our children be more helpful, resourceful and independent. If you want to know what parts I think are useful, check out some of my other parenting blogs here.
A quick search brings up some of the common criticisms of this book- like that it oversimplifies and romanticizes other cultures and that it doesn't really consider what it's like to live in those cultures and the struggles that come along with it. Some say the author comes from a very "privileged" perspective. As a therapist and someone who is passionate about parenting techniques, I want to focus in on some problematic parenting advice I noticed while reading.
1. Throw your kids toys away
Please don't do this. In the book, Doucleff (2021) suggests threatening your child to throw away their toys when they won't clean them up, and, actually throwing them away if they don't clean up. She also talks about not buying your kids toys and about how more is less- this part is totally true. Living in a more minimalist way is really very good for our mental health. But, throwing away our children's belongings is problematic for a few different reasons:
You are showing them that you are incapable of effectively communicating, with words, in a way that gets your end goal met. You know, that thing that we are always wanting our kids to do? Use their words? Yeah, this is poor modeling.
You are showing them that this is an appropriate behavior to accept from others and that it's okay to cross this boundary.
Let's talk about #2 a little further. I sometimes like to think of parenting in terms of adult relationships. What I mean by this is that I approach my children with the same level of respect that I approach other adults. I model kindness and fairness to them, in hopes that they learn this is how others should treat them and that they in turn treat others the same way. When you are kind and respectful to your child, they will expect the same from other people in their life and they will be far less likely to accept abusive behavior from others. They will also develop the same respect for you. When I read about this toy suggestion- I thought to myself: "If my husband told me he was going to throw away my things that created clutter in my home, how would I feel about that? Would I still respect him?"
2. Say "No" to child-centered activities
Doucleff (2021) puts a huge emphasis on this one, stating that if we as parents don't want to play with our child or take them to a child-centered place (playgrounds, museums, kid zones, birthday parties, playdates, etc), that we simply shouldn't. She goes so far as to suggest that we never do these things.
Ok, I have to admit. This one triggered me a bit and caused me to take a pause while reading. The message I got from her is that she doesn't really like being a parent and didn't really want to spend time with her child in a way that was focused on her child's development. She states that engaging in hobbies with your child that are things you are interested in, is different. I had to really set aside my triggered feeling and see her point and what she was really trying to say here: It's not good for our kids to constantly usher them from one kid activity to the next. They should be exposed to real life. And I agree with this. Having free play time, having time to be bored, these are all valuable. It is also valuable to have a stronger emphasis on family-centered activities- things that everyone can enjoy- like hiking for example.
My biggest criticism of this is that I believe the biggest part of effective parenting and discipline is connection. I think one of the simplest ways to connect with our children is to play with them, even if it's only for 20 minutes a day. They deserve to feel like they are special enough that we are setting aside intentional quality time with them, to do whatever they want to do. Yes, your child can feel loved even if you don't play with them or take them to cool places, but, there is something about them having a memory of time that they were made to feel like the most important family member for an activity. My suggestion is to approach this topic with balance. Should you have a class or child activity scheduled for your child everyday of the week? No, that's too much for you and likely for them as well. But, you should spend at least 10-20 minutes a day having quality time with them. Play is important, and so is the bonding that happens when we do so with our children.
3. Ignore your kids tantrums
I was honestly surprised to see this in a modern day parenting book, because I thought it was now common knowledge that we shouldn't do this. Ignoring your child is never going to be productive. Unless we are talking about inconsequential misbehaviors- I would say, always ignore those. Paying more attention to those behaviors will likely add more fuel to that fire. An example of this is not listening to exact directions, speaking out of turn, trying to be playfully annoying, etc.
Back to tantrums. Doucleff (2021) thinks that kids who are ignored while they are having a meltdown, will stop having meltdowns. This is false. Kids have tantrums because they are not yet able to effectively communicate what they need in that moment, or, what big feelings are happening. They lack the vocabulary and the emotional intelligence to be able to do so. Ignoring them is not going to teach them any skills that will make them more emotionally intelligent or any better at communicating. Instead, you are creating an environment where your child no longer feels it is emotionally safe to be expressive. They will shut down. In the long run, this not only ruptures our parent-child connection, it also makes it more difficult for them to know and understand what they are feeling and effectively work through those feelings. Fast forward a few years, and you will likely have a teenager who doesn't want to talk to you about anything, or, who engages in maladaptive behaviors in response to having big feelings.
Here are are some quick reminders of what to do during a tantrum instead:
Sit with your child while they are not okay. Just give them your physical presence while those big feelings pass. Sometimes this is more than enough.
Acknowledge they are having big feelings- if you aren't really sure what they are feeling you can just lovingly say "I know" or say "You're having big feelings right now". This sends the message: I see you. And I'm here for you while you are having a hard time.
Place your hands on your child or offer them a hug. Physical touch biochemically calms humans down.
Say "let's take some deep breaths together"- and do it even if they don't join you. One day your kid will say they need to take deep breaths when they are upset and you'll realize this repetition pays off.
If your child is having a tantrum in response to being told "no", these tools do not involve breaking that boundary. We can hold a strong boundary with our children while still being loving.
4. Don't give your child choices
Doucleff (2021) focuses many parts of her book on how to effectively grow resilient and independent children with a big emphasis on autonomy. Autonomy is especially important for children. They are afterall, dependent on us and by nature, lack autonomy in many different ways. Tantrum trigger, anyone?
While she emphasizes this, she also suggests not giving your child choices, which we commonly suggest doing in modern day, positive/gentle parenting. If you look at how the lack of autonomy impacts children in a negative way, sometimes giving them choices for inconsequential things is huge. Here's the pro tip: don't give your child unlimited choices, give them options. An example of this is: "Do you want to wear the red shirt or blue shirt today?" or "Do you want to eat applesauce or yogurt?". When you give your child these little choices, they are experiencing autonomy in a way that doesn't negatively effect you, but, very positively effects them. It makes them feel like they have a little bit of power and choice in their day-to-day life, which overall is going to decrease those "big feelings" we talked about earlier.
5. Tell your child scary stories
When I read this part of the book, I put it down and considered deleting my other blogs where I had referenced it. But then I realized- there are good and bad parts to every book, and I truly believe that the good outweighs the back with this one.
Doucleff's (2021) suggestion here is to tell your child scary stories in order to get them to do what you want them to do. One of her "monster stories" that she tells her own child is that there is a "Yelling monster" that lives in the ceiling on their home and listens through the light fixtures. When children yell or demand too much, he comes down through the lights and steals you away. Another is the "sharing monster", who lives in a tree outside the kitchen window and grows bigger when little kids don't share. Eventually, he comes and snatches you away into his tree for seven nights.
She has others, but you get the point here. There is one very simple reason why this is effective (and it's the same reason it's problematic): children up to a certain age, are incapable of differentiating between fantasy and reality. This is why kids are able to believe in things like the Easter Bunny and Santa. If your child is young enough that these stories are effective, they are effective because they actually believe you. And instilling this level of fear into a small child to get them to listen to you is never, never okay. You are risking trauma and anxiety by instilling this level of fear into your child. Your home should feel like a safe space for your child, period.
Additionally, instilling fear into your child as a parenting method is not actually effective. You are not teaching them any form of internal motivation, skills, or any level of real world consequences when you are engaging in this behavior. You are not teaching them to think for themselves. Therefore, this is a short-term, ineffective parenting tip.
There is perhaps a more gentle way to use this tool. If your child finds whatever monster you are telling them as silly, then no harm is being done. I have a strong feeling that whatever the silly version of that monster story is, it will not involve your child being kidnapped and taken away from you. One example of this is saying that a child has to brush their teeth to get all the "sugar bugs" out- my toddler loved this one and found it very silly. Another friend of mine told her son that the fridge monster would come out of the fridge if he kept leaving the door open. Again, he found it silly and the story did not involve him being stolen away or hurt.
6. We don't know why babies are born so helpless
Doucleff's (2021) hypothesis is that babies are born so helpless because we are meant to parent in a village. I do agree with this theory, and also agree with the fact that we are not meant to parent in isolation. It bad for our kids and bad for us to do so. Even if we don't have access to a healthy family of origin or extended family, it is essential that we find a sense of community somewhere for us and our kids. This book is spot on in this area.
One thing that isn't discussed much about newborn tendencies is : attachment. Babies are born as helpless as they are because they are biologically designed to attach securely to their caregiver. There is a reason that babies are unable to hold up their heads on their own for so long. It's to encourage mothers to carry their babies, so that babies will be more likely to breastfeed more often. We are "carry" animals and our milk content, which is low in fat and protein, shows as proof of this. We are meant to breastfeed regularly throughout the day and night, and in doing so, we keep our babies close to us. In fact of all mammals, humans have the lowest fat and protein content, which means we are supposed to breastfeed often in order to keep our babies nourished. We are literally biologically designed to attach. When we hold our babies and breastfeed them, we release oxytocin, which increases that bond and attachment. So while I do agree with this statement, I think there is more that meets the eye in this case.
References: Doucleff, M., & Trujillo, E. (2022). Hunt, gather, parent: What ancient cultures can teach us about the lost art of raising happy, helpful little humans. Avid Reader Press.
To learn more about what our milk content says about our species: https://www.lllc.ca/mammal-milk-composition-and-mothering-styles
At Root Counseling, we understand how parenting struggles can impact the whole family. We support you in your journey of creating togetherness. We also offer breastfeeding help for mothers who are struggling or want to learn more. To schedule an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.