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There are many parenting books out there. But NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff says all the parenting books that she read after becoming a mom left a lot out.
“I’m trained as a scientist. I spent seven years as a chemist and I really believed that the parenting advice we got today was backed by really stringent scientific research,” she says. “And when I started looking at the studies as a scientist, I was really, really let down.”
She couldn’t find answers to the trouble that she was having with her young daughter, Rosy.
“She started actually, like, slapping me across the face, regularly. And I read all this stuff and nothing seemed to work,” Doucleff recounts. “In fact, a lot of it made things worse for us. And then I started doing a story, actually for NPR, on parenting in the Yucatan and oh, my gosh, it just like shifted my whole sense of what parenting could be and what mothering was.”
So, she decided to visit again — this time taking her daughter with her. They also traveled to the Arctic and Tanzania.
She writes about what they experienced and how to be a better parent, in her forthcoming book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach US About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans
On what she found watching moms in the Yucatan[I] watched them with their kids and they just had this incredibly calm, relaxed confidence about them that I had never seen in my life in San Francisco and growing up, and there was no yelling or bickering or nagging and yet the kids were very kind and respectful and super helpful. And I just wondered, like, what would they do with Rosy?
On navigating her way through a street in an Arctic village while Rosy was having a meltdown
Yeah, it was it was embarrassing, to be completely honest with you. Because she was really the only kid that was acting that way. And then, also, t was just really obvious that I didn’t know what to do with her. At the end of it, actually, one of the moms … said to me, ‘You know, I think you can handle her better now.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re absolutely right. I can handle her better now.’ And I’m so grateful to them for that.
On what’s different about parenting in this Arctic village
One of the key, key differences is that the parents never engage with the child at like a heated level at, like, the child’s level. So all the parents have this incredible calm energy that they bring to every interaction with a child. So no matter how heated the child is and upset the child is, the parent remains this incredibly calm, gentle way. … I spent about, I say, seven or eight weeks in these places total. And I saw one mom lose her temper — and she was a very young mom, too.
On how they keep it together
So, I think a big part of it, and I talk a lot about this in the book, is they have a different perception of children and their behavior — so it’s not so much that they’re suppressing anger towards children or suppressing frustration, it’s that they look at children in a way that allows them to have less or really no anger towards children. So, for instance, you know, we often think that children are pushing our buttons or testing boundaries or manipulating us. But actually a lot of parents don’t see children that way. They see them as just really inept, illogical beings that are of course misbehaving because they haven’t learned yet.
On a family in the Yucatan with children who helped without being asked
So we actually saw this on our first trip down there — the girls were on spring break. The family has three girls and we were actually getting ready to leave the house, and the 12-year-old woke up on her spring break and just started doing the dishes — nobody asked her anything. And the mom was not even surprised. She was like, well, you know, she’s 12. So she knows what needs to be done if she sees it. And I was just kind of like ‘what?’ And actually, you know, if you look around the world [you see] this is not super uncommon — and that, in many ways, like our kids that don’t want to do anything, or we have to really force them to do things, is more the exception. So in the book, you learn about all these things that parents can do to nurture this quality in children and all the things parents can do to erode this quality.
On using the acronym TEAM as a framework
I came up with this to help me remember it with my daughter. So T is togetherness, and this means doing chores and activities together. So then E, which I think is the hardest one by far, is encouraging versus forcing. So A is autonomy. What it is — it’s, yes, it’s the right to self-governance to make your own decisions, but you’re also constantly connected to the group and you’re responsible to the group. So you’re wanting to help, you are required to be respectful, and you’re required to share with the group. And then finally M is minimal interference. So the idea behind this, it kind of fits with autonomy, but it’s like this is not free-range parenting because the parent is always kind of there — or some caretaker, you know, an older sibling, a neighbor, a friend or relative — but they’re not interfering with the child’s exploration. There’s this idea that the child knows what they’re doing, but I’m there in case they want to engage with me or they need help.
On how her relationship with Rosy has changed
It sounds almost too good. It’s just, it’s transformed incredibly. Like I say, like at the beginning of this, I really I dreaded my time with her. And it sounds like a horrible mom, but, you know, I was just so on edge and … I felt so much like I didn’t know what to do. And now I love being with her. I think so much of our relationship was built on tension and conflict before because I was like trying to control her and then she was trying to control me back. At least that’s how I felt. And this approach is really about minimizing conflict and tension and really maximizing cooperation.