Michaeleen Doucleff, HUNT, GATHER, PARENT

Michaeleen Doucleff, HUNT, GATHER, PARENT

“We Westerners are the exception. This conflict-ridden existence between parents and children is not super universal and not actually really common at all.” NPR Correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff traveled around the world and documented the different ways parents communicate with their children. She shares these tools to help de-escalate family tensions and incentivize children to take initiative in her book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Michaeleen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans. Thank you for this book.

Michaeleen Doucleff: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thank Rosy for going on this world tour with you to help other parents not destroy their own kids.

Michaeleen: I think she probably had the most fun of all of us with the book writing.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How old is she now?

Michaeleen: She’s five. She’s in preschool right now.

Zibby: She basically wrote a book at age five, so that’s pretty cool.

Michaeleen: It’s really interesting. I travel a lot for my job. It started to be this time when I was writing the book proposal. She was starting to get mad at me. She was like, “Why aren’t I going with you?” I was like, “All right, you come with me. We’ll do this thing.” It was her idea completely to go.

Zibby: Wow. That’s your first lesson in parenting.

Michaeleen: Exactly. You’ve got to take their ideas. They have good ideas. Sometimes they’re totally off their rockers. Every now and then, she comes up with an idea and I’m like, wow, that’s a really good idea. Before I wrote the book, I wasn’t listening at all for those things. I was just ignoring basically everything she said.

Zibby: Even still, I don’t know that I would bring — I can barely bring my kids in the car for an hour, let alone all these other continents and everything.

Michaeleen: I have to say, the first trip to the Yucatán was a hot mess, a hot, hot mess. By the time we went to Tanzania, it kind of worked with what I talk about in the book, just practice and training, she got so much better at it.

Zibby: Wait, in case people don’t understand what we’re talking about —

Michaeleen: — Sorry.

Zibby: No, I kind of just jumped right in there. Why don’t you explain the voyage you and Rosy went on, why you did it, and what you learned. That will basically be a book synopsis.

Michaeleen: While I was on assignment for NPR, I’m a correspondent there, I was sent down to the Yucatán to a small Maya village. I was doing a story about children’s attention. When I was there, I was just like, whoa, there’s a much bigger story here just about parenting in general. The moms I met there, one of them, Maria Tun Burgos who you meet in the book, was just incredible to me, how skilled she was as a parent and the relationship that she had with her children. She has five kids, three that were still in the home, four to twelve. She has this relationship with them that there’s very little resistance. There’s no yelling or screaming or negotiating. She’s very calm, but she’s also very confident. She was clearly in charge. Yet the kids across the whole village, the kids are just incredible, very kind and generous and super, super helpful. The third day I was there, Maria’s oldest daughter who’s twelve, Angela, she was on spring break. She had stayed up the night before watching a movie. She was sleeping in. She woke up around eleven. She walked past me and her mother in the kitchen, this strange white woman in the kitchen. She didn’t say a word. She just started washing the dishes from breakfast.

Nobody asked her to do it. Of course, I was like, what just happened? Oh, my god, that’s incredible. Maria wasn’t even very surprised at all. She told me, “She’s twelve. She, at this age, knows what she needs to do, and so she does it. It doesn’t happen every day.” I left there just completely stunned. I want to raise a child like that. My child at the time was two. She was just a complete hellion. There was constant yelling and screaming. I tried to read about it in parenting books. I could find very little. I kind of left it. I did some stories and kind of left it. Then I went on another trip up to the Artic with Inuit families. This story was about anger. Again, I saw the same very similar thing, these very calm, confident parents interacting with children in a way that was just incredibly conflict-free. I started reading more about it. I realized, oh, this is a common way of communicating and interacting with children around the world. We in America, we Westerners are the exception. This conflict-ridden existence between parents and children is not super universal and not actually really common at all. There’s a different way to do it that’s easier.

Zibby: I love how you described this in the book. You said, “So while I raised Rosy with essentially a single tool, a really loud hammer, many parents around the world wield a whole suite of precision instruments such as screwdrivers, pulleys, and levels that they can bring out as needed. In this book, we’ll learn as much as possible about these super tools, including how to use them in your own home.”

Michaeleen: It’s true. We think that we can do everything with words, and often, repeated words or loud words. In fact, though, there’s all this incredible, huge set of tools, some with words, some with physicality, some with looks, action. They tend to be much more effective with kids I think because they tend to lead to less arguments and less negotiating. I talk about the look in the book. This is super common around the world, that parents can just shoot a look at a child across the room and the kid knows exactly what the parent thinks. It’s actually easier than you can imagine. Once I do it, Rosy knows. We were in the grocery store once. She picked up a candy bar. I just shot her the look. She just dropped it.

Zibby: Show me the look. Do it right now so I can practice doing the look on my own.

Michaeleen: You just have to channel all the anger you have to them, or big eyes. You just put whatever you’re going to say to them — I would say, “No way, sister. Drop that candy bar.”

Zibby: This is way more than a look. This is a full-on face shapeshifter. It’s as if a child says, what does an angry face look like? The face that a child would make themselves.

Michaeleen: Exactly. Especially if it’s from a distance, you want to — I will even give them to my husband now. He’ll say something. I’ll just be like — . He knows. The thing is, you can’t negotiate with a face. You can’t really talk back to it because it’s not talking to you.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s so funny. My husband is the stepdad to my four kids. Before he even met them, he’s like, “When I was growing up, my dad would just give me a look, and I would know.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He tried that a few times on my kids, this look. It did not work at all. It did not fly. They were like, why is he looking at me like that? What on earth? Maybe you have to start it really early. Is this something you can actually add in once you’ve already spoiled them with the yelling or whatever other tactics you have?

Michaeleen: That’s very interesting. I wonder if it also has to do with who gives the look, how much power you wield over them or the history. It definitely works with adults. I tried it with my mom too. The science of the look, I think there’s good evidence in psychology that kids, especially younger kids, are built for non-verbal communication. A lot of words can be — we think they’re understanding us, but I don’t think that they do, especially when they’re little. We say all this stuff to them. I say we try to have this logical conversation where I’m trying to explain electricity and why you have to close the refrigerator door and all these really complex things to a three-year-old. How is she going to get that? One of my friends says we have these conversations with them as if they’re thirty. Then we want to give them a plastic knife to cut something with. We kind of have it flipped around. I say in the book we underestimate their physical abilities hugely. That is something that I think could really change a relationship if we start to have a little bit more confidence in their physical abilities. Yet we overestimate their emotional abilities and their intellectual abilities, their abilities to control their emotions. I think all the verbal input is one of those things where we’re overestimating their mental capacity to understand it and then act on what we say.

Zibby: I remember when I had really little guys, some expert saying, you’re going to say, “Don’t put this there…,” and all they’re going to hear is “sink.” They’ll hear one word that you say. I try, although of course I forget, to think about that when I can hear myself. It’s like when they ask you, what does this word mean? I’m like, “Irony really means…,” and I go off. They need one word. They’re like, we’re done, Mom. That’s enough. Got it. Right?

Michaeleen: Exactly. That’s another really good tool that I think you can definitely add in. I think you can add in all of them. I think you can add in the action tool of just doing what you want them to do instead of, okay, it’s time to take a bath. Five minutes until bath. Now we’re going to take a bath, all this lead-up to it. Are you ready to take a bath? Do you want to take a bath? I saw one of the moms when we were in the Artic, she just went and drew the bath. Then the three-year-old just walked into the bath. There was no lead-up. I know why I’m doing it, but we don’t need to do all this narration. Kids are built to do what we do. We just don’t give them the opportunities, really.

Zibby: It’s more than modeling. I don’t know because if I run the bath, sometimes they don’t even end up in the bathroom at all.

Michaeleen: Then you start to wonder, do they need to take the bath?

Zibby: Right. Yes. I’ve been wondering because one of my kids has been like, I don’t think I need to take a bath every day. I’m not that dirty. Why can’t we do every other day? I don’t really have such a great reason.

Michaeleen: No, there’s no reason. In fact, if you look at the science behind it, this gets to this idea that we do wellness stuff that we don’t need to do. Somebody has convinced us that we need to do all this stuff. Bath is a great one. Actually, if you look at the newer science on skin and everything, it’s really hard on your skin to take a bath every day, especially if you use soap. One could argue that it’s healthier not to. There’s a whole list of things that we do that we think that good parents do. Nowhere else in the world people have ever done this. Throughout history, we didn’t do it. Americans, European heritage people didn’t do these things. Now we feel like if we don’t do them, we’re a bad parent. Rosy, after we went on these trips, she was right around age three and a half. I was just like, all right, it’s up to you when you take a bath. I don’t care. Sometimes she’s kind of stinky. I’m like, I think you’re kind of stinky. You should take a bath. She’s like, yeah, I am kind of stinky. I should take a bath. I cut out ninety percent of the stuff that I felt like I needed to do.

What that did too, it cut down on conflict because I wasn’t trying to force her to do all these things. Two, and there’s a lot of good evidence for this, it teaches her the initiative. There’s evidence that everything you do for a child over and over again — clearly, when they’re little, you have to do things. Everything that you do until they’re twelve, thirteen, fourteen, kids cede that responsibility to you, and so they don’t learn to take initiative and take responsibility for it. In the book, I talk about sleep and how a three-year-old can just put herself to sleep fine. One of the psychologists told me it’s because the parent has never taken that responsibility for the child. The child has always determined when she goes to sleep, how long she sleeps, and so the child takes responsibility for it herself. As a kid that just has somebody telling them when to sleep all the time, they never learn that skill of, I decide when I sleep when my body tells me. They never take that responsibility. I don’t talk about this a lot in the book, but I think it’s a big part of why we have this failure to launch kind of problem, is because parents aren’t giving children their responsibilities to learn what it is to be an adult and take initiative with things.

Zibby: Action items for me, which is what it all comes down to, I am running bath. I am going to have bathtubs all over the place filled with water for whoever. They’re not going to drown. I shouldn’t even joke, but my kids at least are older. Younger kids’ parents should not do this. What else? Should I just wait until they’re hungry and be like, we’re not having a family dinner? What do you think about that?

Michaeleen: How old are your kids?

Zibby: I have a six-year-old and a seven-year-old. Then I have twins who are almost fourteen.

Michaeleen: Oh, wow. You’ve got four.

Zibby: The older kids, they take showers and go to bed on their — they do that stuff now. I don’t have to tell them.

Michaeleen: I think it depends on what you want. What’s your goal with the kids? It really is about that. Do you want your kids to do chores easily without being asked like Maria’s kids? Do you want your kids to get along? Do you want them to be kind or generous?

Zibby: All those things sound great. Do I have to pick?

Michaeleen: No, you don’t have to pick. Some people are like, I want my kids to go to Harvard. I’m like, okay, well, I also want my kid to do the dishes. The idea in the book is that whatever you want a child to do easily without having to nag them or bribe them, you start welcoming them into that task as early as possible. People always ask me, but does it work for an older kid? It absolutely does. It just takes a little bit of time. You need to be a little more gentle with it and not so forceful. I think with the little kids, you can be a little bit more hands-on. For instance, if you want your kids to help clean up afterwards with the dishes, then make them part of the whole meal. Have them come over while you’re cooking. Come help me cook. If you have four of them, you guys could cook and clean up so fast. It’d be incredible. Think about if you were all working together.

Zibby: Actually, during the pandemic we had the opportunity to do that many, many times.

Michaeleen: Did it work? Was it good?

Zibby: Yeah, we had the chores going. Everybody was doing something. They want to play with me after dinner. I was like, I could do all this, but you’re going to have wait five times as long, basically. If we all do this, I’ll be ready to play with you really fast.

Michaeleen: That’s exactly what one of Maya moms says in a study. Things get done so much quickly when we all work together. That’s exactly what you need to do. We tend to break things up into, now on Tuesday, it’s going to be your turn to do this. On Thursday, it’s your turn to make the bed. If you actually want kids to want to do it and enjoy doing it, then you’ve got to all do it together, the emphasis on a shared responsibility. Just like you say, we all clean up together, the dinner. We’ll get it done faster. Every Saturday, we all do the laundry together, including the husband. It’s a shared task that everybody is doing as a family because everyone lives in the family and everyone needs clean clothes. It’s kind of a shifting of a mindset of individual tasks versus, this is what all the family does. It’s actually gotten a lot better in terms of, my husband and I don’t fight over chores anymore because it’s a shared responsibility that we’re all doing.

Zibby: I feel like I should put you in touch with Eve Rodsky. Do you know who she is? She wrote a book called Fair Play. She designed this whole system for parents to divide chores. You’re both essentially saying the same thing. To not fight about something, someone has to just have the responsibility for it start to finish. If I’m going to tell a kid that bath time is up to them, they can bathe when they want, as often as they want, they can decide when to turn it on and drain it and whatever, and I’ll never bother them about it again, my fear is that they’re just not going to do it.

Michaeleen: That’s kind of like, you’ve turned it into the free-range bath. That’s not what I’m saying. There’s somewhere between. One way we think is, every night, it’s this very strict schedule. Then the other way is like, okay, I’m just not going to have anything to do with it. What I’m arguing in the book is that there’s actually some other way where the child decides, but you can still guide them. We’re talking about baths, but this could be anything from hitting the sibling to whatever. You’re not taking the choice, or at least the sense of choice, away from the child, but you’re not also ceding complete responsibility to the child. It’s like me talking about, you’re kind of stinky, I think you need to take a bath. If I really wanted her to take a bath, I would be even heavier with it. I’m going to go draw a bath now. You need to get in the bath. Or I’d just go draw the bath and then take her hands and walk her to the bath. We kind of swing between these two, very strict micromanaging and very free-range, but I would argue that most of the world sits between where the child is involved in the decision and involved in it and you’re paying attention to what the child’s doing, but you also have some goal in mind. The two goals are trying to meet here in the middle. I don’t know if that makes sense.

Zibby: It makes sense. I like it. I do. I like it. I think with each subsequent kid that I’ve had, I’ve become more like that than I was in the beginning.

Michaeleen: Interesting. Because it’s less conflict?

Zibby: Yeah, and just, I don’t have time. The other night, my littlest guy, he just would not put on his clothes. He would not eat dinner. I was like, well, we all have to eat. In the olden days, I would’ve been on the floor and trying this tactic and this. I would be sitting with him. I would be bribing him. I would be getting upset myself. I would be like, ahh! I would ruin the whole dinner. This time, I was like, I’m going to sit and enjoy the dinner with my other kids.

Michaeleen: Who cares?

Zibby: He’s going to miss it. I guess if he’s really hungry, he’ll eat later.

Michaeleen: You’ve weighed the consequences of it. One of the moms in Alaska told me, she’s like, “Just go to the relationship.” Always think of the relationship. How is this going to affect my relationship with my child and the relationship with the family? If you made this big deal and had this big argument, was that going to help things? Would that help the relationship? No. I think sometimes we get these blinders on because we think we have to do these things. We have to all sit at the table. We have to all take a bath. We sacrifice peace and we sacrifice time when we don’t really need to.

Zibby: PS, at eight o’clock — we were trying to eat at six. I ignored the whole thing. He sat with no clothes on in the next room having a fit about it. Then maybe half an hour later he put on his clothes. Then by eight o’clock that night, he was like, “I’m hungry.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah? You ready for dinner?” Then he ate the dinner.

Michaeleen: Oh, so you saved it for him. That’s perfect.

Zibby: Yeah, I saved it. I didn’t feel like it was perfect. I felt like I did a terrible job as I have a naked child writhing on the floor. I’m like, just leave him.

Michaeleen: I think it sounds like a masterclass.

Zibby: Oh, thanks.

Michaeleen: What harm has it done? The child’s perfectly fine.

Zibby: He came to dinner the next night. It didn’t happen again. It’s not like it became a pattern. That’s always the fear, right? It didn’t happen again.

Michaeleen: That’s a very weird thing too, is this idea that we’re going to ruin them at any moment or the window of opportunity is going to close. You have to do this before they’re four. When they’re babies, it’s like that. You have to do it before four months or they’re never going to sleep by themselves. This is crazy. That’s just craziness. Nobody else ever on the planet thinks such things. It’s very strange.

Zibby: Tell me for two seconds about the actual writing of this book. How long did it take you to write after you did all your research? Did you enjoy that process?

Michaeleen: I loved it. I think it was the best part of the — I love traveling, but I love writing. It took about a year, almost exactly. I took a year off from NPR. We traveled a little bit before that, and then about a year. Then I didn’t realize how much work has to be done actually after you turn the book in. You probably know. I thought, I turned the book in, and I’m done. It was the opposite. I turned the book in. Then it was like, okay, now I have to work more. I went back to my regular job, so I don’t have time either. I’m with you. I don’t have time to deal with nakedness. It’s like, fine, be naked. Especially during the pandemic, I had very little, if any, childcare while I was writing a lot of the book. It was really hard. I think that that’s when I really started doing the things in the book, was when I didn’t have childcare and I still had to finish the book. I was like, I can’t parent the way I’ve been taught to parent and still work and still have my mind. I’m just going to have to really embrace what’s in this book because I have to parent twelve hours a day with this kid now and write.

Zibby: Walking the walk.

Michaeleen: I thought I was embracing it. Then I realized I wasn’t completely at all. She’s going to have to entertain herself. She’s going to have to step up and make lunch. She’s going to have do all this stuff. It took a couple weeks. There was a lot screaming at first, but then she did it. There was something on the other side of that screaming. That was a long answer to your question, but I loved it. I loved writing. How about you? Did you like writing your book?

Zibby: I love writing. I love any chance I get. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Michaeleen: Somebody told me that — it’s the best advice I think I’ve ever got. Just go write. The only way you’re going to get better is to write enormous amounts. There’s so many places now to write, and so just start. Just start writing. Start sending things to people. Figure out the place you want to write for. Then write a piece. Send it to them. Writing is all about, at least for me, is volume. I will write four thousand words before I really understand what the chapter is going to be about. I have this sense, but then I’ll actually write my way into the point of the chapter or the real narrative structure of it and stuff, which sounds crazy. You have to have this real confidence in yourself that something’s in there. It takes time. I’ve been a professional writer now for eleven years, and before that, just trying. It takes a lot of time.

Zibby: Thank you so much for my parenting session. I really appreciate it.

Michaeleen: I don’t know if I helped. You sound like you are a master. You’re a master.

Zibby: You had the words masterclass and my parenting in the same sentence, and so that’s it for me. Thank you. We’ll see what happens at dinner tonight. Anyway, thank you. Thanks for the wonderful book and for all the journeys you went on to help the rest of us and get us out of our own heads a little bit and back out into the world.

Michaeleen: Exactly. If it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it, it’s probably not worth it.

Zibby: Forget it. Naked dinners all around.

Michaeleen: Naked dinners all around. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Buh-bye.

Michaeleen: Bye.

Michaeleen Doucleff, HUNT, GATHER, PARENT

HUNT, GATHER, PARENT by Michaeleen Doucleff

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