Most good parenting books offer at least one nugget of wisdom that you can take with you on your parenting journey. Some, however, are not even worth reading the book jacket. If you choose to read one single parenting book, please make it Hunt Gather Parent. This book has been a game changer in our home for so many reasons and I want to shout from the rooftops how it can help you, too!
Read on to find out why I think Hunt Gather Parent is the best parenting book ever.
A big reason I think this book spoke to me is that it explains how WEIRD we Americans are. As this book proposes, Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) societies raise their children differently than nearly the entire rest of the world. What? This perspective alone gives reason for pause.
What are we doing differently, why, and what can we do about it?
First, a brief history of how Hunt Gather Parent came about… NPR correspondent, Michealeen Doucleff, set out to report on an entirely different assignment when the idea for this book came to her. While studying the attention span of teens in a Mayan village in Mexico, she noticed how helpful the children were and how the whole family was happier and calmer all around because of it. Doucleff explains,
“The skill – of paying attention and then acting – is such an important value and goal for children that many families in Mexico have a term for it: it’s being acomedido.”
She ended up visiting three families in different parts of the world (with her two-year-old in tow) to see what she could learn.
We raise children so differently here, in part due to our lack of a village. Typically, one or two parents are expected to do the work of many caregivers, which makes raising children a burden (at times) rather than the truly joyful experience it can and should be. In the past, even here in America, people lived either very close to extended family or even in the same home together. I won’t go into the details about why this all changed because you should read about it in the book, but spoiler alert – it has to do with the Catholic Church.
Now that we’re on our own to figure things out, people are spread thin. We are forced to work, run a household, raise children, exercise, eat right, make time for recreation, and take care of our mental health all at the same time. No pressure though.
Because of these daily demands, we end up overparenting, rather than teaching our kids how to be happy, healthy, helpful human beings. We overextend ourselves by trying to play all the roles of all the people in the village, in and outside of the home.
So by the time chores need to be done, we parent from a place of exhaustion rather than intuition. We give orders, we make rules, and we get stressed out when nobody helps around the house even though we haven’t modeled or taught them how exactly they can help. We get tired, we yell, we cry, and we overparent again the next day.
Luckily, even without a village, there are things you can do at home to raise your child(ren) in a more intuitive way that fosters connection, emotional intelligence, and autonomy. Doucleff uses the acronym TEAM to explain how.
Togetherness– connect with your child throughout the day
Encouragement – encourage effort and results, don’t praise non-achievements
Autonomy – let children do things on their own
Minimal Interference – talk less and do not help unless the child asks for help or is in danger
TEAM work is a large part of why I think Hunt Gather Parent is the best parenting book ever.
Do you know another reason we’re weird here? There are many, but we do a whole lot of kid-centered activities. How do you spend your weekends? Children’s museums, playgrounds, birthday parties, sports, and extracurricular activities? Sounds normal, right? Well, in other parts of the world, the day does not revolve around the child. What does this mean? You do not have to do all these things, nor should you do all these things to provide constant entertainment for your child!
Doucleff suggests you do all the things you would normally do if your child wasn’t there. This might mean adjusting things a bit until they can keep up, such as going for shorter hikes or visiting museums where you can take a movement break.
To be clear, she’s not saying act as if they aren’t there, she’s saying teach them how to live in a world that values all family members, not one that caters solely to the child’s agenda. [In another good parenting book, The Family Firm, Emily Oster offers research-based suggestions on how to decide what activities fill your calendar based on your collective family values.]
High on the list of things you should do with your child is chores. This is a BIG one. Most parents are so tired by the end of the day that all they want to do is get dinner on the table and get the chores done so they can get a minute’s rest before bed. Imagine if your child not only knew how, but did the chores before being asked? Most of you are probably laughing at me right now because this is a giant part of where our cultural differences lie.
Most of the time when chores need to get done or dinner needs to be made, we here in America will send kids off to play so we can complete the task without distraction and mess. In the Mayan home Doucleff visits, a mother makes dinner and her toddler watches, eventually asking to make the tortillas herself. Mother first shows child, child then does it. The tortillas are not perfect, but the child is learning! And one day that child will be able to feed the entire family dinner because she was offered a chance to learn.
We use this approach daily in my home now, and it has been amazing to see how capable and willing to learn my daughters are, who are currently four and six years old. My husband saw it firsthand about a week after I started implementing what I learned from Hunt Gather Parent. Not only did they want to do more, but they were also seeking out tasks and actually arguing over who got to do them!
Luckily, there is no shortage of chores around the house. After a few weeks of showing the kiddos what keeping house looks like they now look for things that need to be done and just do them, which is what being acomedido is all about! [As an aside, another excellent parenting book, Duct Tape Parenting by Vicki Hoefle, also offers helpful suggestions on how children can be more responsible, respectful, and resilient.]
At this point, I’d like to discuss the acronym TEAM a little more in-depth so you can see why it is so effective.
Togetherness – simply being together wherever you are, modeling the jobs you are doing, and letting your child see how and why tasks need to be done.
When your kiddo asks if they can help (which they often will because small children truly have an innate desire to be with you and do everything you do), find a task that is manageable and truly helpful. Kids know when you’re placating them. Don’t give them measuring cups to bang around, give them ingredients to measure and stir. Buy child-safe knives and let them chop softer foods to add to whatever you’re cooking. As they get more confident and skillful, work your way up to teaching them how to use the stove.
This practice of starting small and building on those skills should be implemented throughout the house and beyond!
Encourage – somewhere along the way, we were told praise fosters good self-esteem. Unfortunately, it makes children seek praise for everything rather than actual achievements.
Count the number of times you say “Good job” in one day. You’ll surely cringe. Doucleff points out that encouragement can be a nod, a literal pat on the back, or even just reassurance that the task is being done correctly. Nonverbal cues are just as effective, if not more, than using too many words.
Autonomy – this is about letting your children know they have control over their situation. We rarely give that to them, as their day is often planned for them, they are given constant instructions and commands rather than the freedom to do what needs to be done on their own.
Doucleff offers two simple ways to give your child autonomy.
1. Decrease your commands and other verbal input to your child (e.g. questions, requests, choices).
2. Empower your child by training them to handle obstacles and dangers, which in turn allows you to reduce your commands.
Doucleff also asserts that there are lifelong benefits of offering your child autonomy, such as “increased confidence, self-sufficiency, long-term motivation and better executive function.” Offering your child control does not take away yours. It gives your child the ability to exercise their reasoning skills and make choices based on their current knowledge, which is a competence that will serve them well throughout their entire lives.
Minimal Interference – stop helping your child do everything! I cannot stress this enough. You are not helping them by being in their face all the time, not letting them do things independently, and trying to fix mistakes before they happen.
There are so many lessons to learn from failure and you are doing your child a disservice if you don’t allow them to try and try again. Yes, it is your job to keep your kid safe. It is not your job to do everything for them! Model a task, then watch them do it. Don’t jump in, don’t say a word, don’t even let them know you’re watching, and do not help unless you are asked. You will be happily surprised and so proud when you let your kid succeed on their own!
We all know children want to help. We brush them aside and tell them to go play because we’re tired and don’t think they’re capable of actually being helpful. Guess what, they are capable of so much more than we give them credit for! Above all, how do they learn if we don’t teach them? By telling them to go find a toy instead of helping with chores we are teaching them that housework is an adult’s job. So, by the time they’re teens or preteens and we want their help, they are more reluctant to do so.
If you teach, encourage, and offer autonomy and minimal interference at a very young age the child will gain skills and confidence in all areas of life.
There is one section of Hunt Gather Parent dedicated to a concept that I found easy to understand but challenging to implement. It is called “Never in Anger.” While visiting an Inuit family, Michealeen witnessed the calmest, quiet, and gentle approach to parenting.
When a child acts out, they are not met with anger or punishment, but with understanding and space to let the child settle themselves down. Doucleff explains that children simply don’t know any better. They do not yet have the executive function or the emotional intelligence to know why they’re acting out, so what does it help to get upset about it? Stop any unwanted or dangerous behavior, but also do not give it attention, judgment, or repercussion. Eventually, the child will learn.
For this reason, the parent should hold less anger. Not suppress it, but actually come from a place of less anger. That is really freaking hard when you feel like your kid is being a little monster for seemingly no reason! Well, there likely is a reason they can’t express yet, so have mercy and allow yourself more time to deal with these behaviors gracefully in order to have a better outcome.
One more very important takeaway is that we as parents need to find alloparents.
“Allo comes from the Greek term for other“, so this means a person other than ourselves who can take care of our child. “A relative, a neighbor, a friend, or even another child can be a fantastic alloparent.” When I first had children I actively worked to find my people and I now feel so lucky to have an amazing support system. In lieu of the traditional village we’ve lost over time, it would benefit every member of the family to seek out alloparents.
The last key piece of wisdom you need to know is that everything takes practice.
Modeling behavior, surrendering the need to control, and remaining calm are all work. You will not be perfect at it all the time and that is okay. Children will not always jump to help and that is okay. The important thing is that you practice as a TEAM. The end result will be worth the effort.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, my four and six year olds now enjoy dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, cooking, scrubbing and drying dishes, doing laundry, gardening, and taking care of our dog. When I asked the big kid what her favorite chore is she replied, “all of them!”
This is just a summary of some of the helpful and actionable information Michealeen Doucleff imparts, but there is so much more you can learn by reading the book yourself. Implementing these ideas in our home has made life so much easier in a number of ways.
Please understand, I don’t love this book just because it made my children do chores (although that’s definitely a nice perk). I love it because it reframed how I think about raising my daughters and it has helped me empower them to be capable, intelligent, and respectful individuals. Our children are confident, self-motivated, and truly happy to help!
Please give it a read and find out why I think Hunt Gather Parent is the best parenting book ever.
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