Family

There Is No Parenting Utopia

No tribe or “ancient” culture has perfected child rearing—so why won’t the expedition end?

A repeating pattern of the cover of the book Hunter, Gather, Parent.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Amazon.

The setup to the newest “parenting is better, anywhere but here” book goes like this: When reporter Michaeleen Doucleff, who lives in San Francisco, reached peak frustration with her spirited 3-year-old daughter, Rosy, she wondered if other people out there might have the answers. She visited a few places that seemed sufficiently different to be enlightening—the Mayan village of Chan Kajaal, the Inuit town of Kugaaruk, and the Hadzabe tribe in northern Tanzania. She packed Rosy along, and asked local parents for their help. The result is Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans. This is a heartfelt book that’s full of perfectly fine advice, wrapped in a story of some experiences that obviously changed this particular mother’s life, all built on a premise that should make us feel very queasy.

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I say the advice is “fine” because almost every bit of it is something I’d heard before, coming out of the interconnected worlds of Western parenting guidance that self-describe as “respectful,” “gentle,” “peaceful,” “unconditional,” and “Montessori-” or “Waldorf-inspired.” Inuit parents (Doucleff generalizes!) try not to issue too many commands and avoid at all costs getting into power struggles with their children? I think of the concepts of “dropping the rope,” or “modeling graciousness,” both of which I learned from respectful-parenting bloggers and podcasters. Mayan mothers don’t overpraise, and their kids retain internal motivation much better? Psychologist Alfie Kohn wrote the book on it, more than 20 years ago, and you can find Montessori memes with suggestions for things you could say instead of “Good job,” ready to print and put on your refrigerator. Hadzabe parents give their kids a lot of physical freedom? Google “natural gross motor development” + “Emmi Pikler.” Mayan mothers do everyday household chores alongside their kids as they play, finding ways for them to participate as they can? That’s straight out of Waldorf and Montessori.

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I point all this out not to discount the value of the parenting traditions Doucleff distills for her book, but just to note that there is no need to go on quickie expeditions to far-flung villages to get this advice. These ideas still aren’t mainstream, to be sure, but you might simply start reading, following people whose bios have the right keywords on Instagram, and joining Facebook groups full of parents who are also struggling to reframe our cultural scripts around early childhood. Of course, a journey across podcasting queues and Instagram accounts sounds less than thrilling as a concept for a book. So why do these ideas “stick,” in a marketing sense, when they’re extracted from Indigenous cultures that can be called “ancient” in a book title, or “timeless” in an Atlantic URL?

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Part of it is the same reason why books about taking your child to France to learn to eat, or to Germany to learn how to be self-reliant, are popular: American parenting, when done in a mainstream way, can be a miserable grind, so we’re curious to know how we could step outside of its confines. It was that same fact that sent me down my own advice-reading rabbit hole, back when I was pregnant and terrified that I’d end up regretting my decision. The problem with the “I took my child to a foreign place” genre, though, is that a lot of the things that make American parenting burdensome aren’t things one American parent can fix when they’re back in their same old context. Looking at some of the advice in Doucleff’s book, I think about how the idea that children can’t be trusted, which results in so much stress and struggle, goes all the way back to the Puritans and is deeply ingrained in our culture. And how I’d love to give my preschooler permission to walk to the corner store, the way they do in Chan Kajaal, except that the cars sure do whip down our little street.

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But this book is different from its predecessors. These aren’t European countries Doucleff visits, and so the power dynamic between writer and subject is not the same. In her brief sojourns to these places, Doucleff is one in a long line of Western visitors who have come looking for some kind of soul healing among tribal people. And our inclination to freeze certain cultures in time, to describe them as “premodern,” to hail them as living ancestors, and to think of their lives as natural utopias, is time-worn, paternalistic, and dangerous.

Doucleff knows that this problem exists. There’s a section in the book acknowledging it, without which Hunt, Gather, Parent would be even more preposterous. Americans “romanticize other cultures, believing they contain some ‘ancient magic’ or live in some ‘paradise lost,’ ” she writes, calling this “categorically wrong.” She promises to donate a large portion of the book’s proceeds to the people she met and the places she visited—admirable! Then she goes on to describe idyllic scenes of harmony under a baobab tree, call the people she meets “superparents,” or marvel at the peaceful feelings that come over her when she’s visiting in these homes. And Rosy, of course, gets transformed by it all, going from truculent to helpful. The plain truth is, without the idea that these cultures contain “ancient magic,” the whole narrative wouldn’t work, and the book would not sell.

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There’s something very familiar (and ridiculous) about the spectacle of the overwhelmed white parent, begging Native women to teach her how to be happy in her role as a mother. It connects with far too many other images of Western white women as helpless and weak—images that pack tremendous political power. After hearing coverage of this book on NPR, historian Shannon Withycombe wrote an alarmed thread about it on Twitter, connecting it to her research on birth and prenatal care in the United States. The idea of the book, she wrote, “perpetuated a very old and dangerous narrative” about motherhood and race.

I called Withycombe to talk about what she meant. In the last half of the 19th century, she told me, American physicians writing about childbirth always described nonwhite women’s experiences with birth as “natural.” “There’s usually a reference to the kind of cliché of a nonwhite woman giving birth, then taking their infant into a cold river, washing both of them off, and going back to whatever she was doing, like the birth didn’t even interrupt life,” Withycombe said. Doucleff includes an “easy Native birth” story like this in the book, which comes out of anthropologist Jean Briggs’ book Never in Anger, based on research done in the Arctic in the 1960s—not long before, we should note, that discipline largely disavowed the practice of treating other humans as if they lived in a different timeline than the researcher.

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The idea that nonwhite people live “close to nature,” Withycombe said, provided cover for a lot of neglect. “While white women, who these doctors would call ‘civilized,’ lived in a modern world, and their bodies, nerves, and mental health were strained by it,” Withycombe went on. “In this view, they’d lost touch with the ‘ancient way of mothering,’ and so they needed doctors.” The end result was that white women got more medical help at birth, and nonwhite women’s pain was devalued. “I think a lot of the narrative of ‘who needs more help,’ in childbirth but also in child care, ends up being white women, who get described as not ‘naturally’ built to do it,” Withycombe said.

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And despite its best intentions, that’s what this book does: It frames tribal parents as eternally happy, and Western parents, who in truth possess every material advantage, as miserable victims of circumstance. Do the parents in the cultures that Doucleff describes need more money? Better health care? Do the governments of the countries where they live oppress their tribes, or do they allow them to live as they please? Were they oppressed in the past, causing generational trauma? If you were to excise the brief section of Doucleff’s book that head-nods to any historical changes that may have affected family life in these places, a reader of this book could be excused for assuming that everything there is A-OK. Better than A-OK—it’s perfect.

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