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  • When it comes to parenting, much of this turn to the past is incomplete. It extracts useful tips but overlooks the deeper values that allowed our ancestors to parent differently. Tweet This
  • Paleo parenting suggests...that modern parents can enjoy the benefits of traditional life without actually giving up any of their modernity. Tweet This
  • The impulse to draw on the past without actually wrestling with the past’s values is common. Tweet This
Category: Parents

A few weeks ago, my 5-year-old daughter wanted guacamole with dinner. It was a pretty normal request, and in the past I might have simply told her to go play while I got to work making the dish. But on this particular night, I decided to try something different.

“Okay,” I said. “Make it.”

My daughter balked. She had never done that before. She didn’t know how. She didn’t know where in the kitchen to find the ingredients. But to each of her objections, I simply responded that she should figure it out.

And she did. Soon, I was watching in fear as she wielded one of our sharpest knifes to split the avocados. But she didn’t cut herself. Nor did she break the ceramic dish she used to mash up the avocados. She didn’t fall from the step ladder when she was getting ingredients from the fridge and cabinets. It took her a little longer than it might have taken me, and I did have to help her reach a few ingredients, but she did it. The guac was a hit. I was amazed.

Though I like to think of myself as a fairly free-range-y kind of parent, I had never let my daughter try something involving these particular hazards before. And while I’d like to take credit for simply realizing I could trust my daughter to make food, I was actually inspired by something else: The book Hunt, Gather, Parent from author Michaeleen Doucleff, which I was reading at the time.

The book grew out of Doucleff’s time as an NPR reporter, which took her to several different indigenous communities around the world where people practice a kind of hands-off “super parenting”—something Doucleff argues is both common in history and makes parents and kids happier. 

The book is part of a broad trend that I’ll describe as “paleo-curiosity,” or a looking toward the past to fix the shortcomings of modern life. Think, for example, about the paleo diet, barefoot running, caveman lifestyles, or even interest in things like medieval sleeping habits. That same impulse is now making its way into the world of parenting, with Hunt, Gather, Parent representing a high-profile example of a growing cottage industry sometimes referred to as “paleo parenting.”

In general, this trend is good news. Adults, and especially young people, are currently beset by numerous ills such as deteriorating mental health, technology addiction, and widespread loneliness. These problems have also emerged or become worse in recent years so it makes sense to look for solutions from the past.

But here’s the rub, and my thesis: When it comes to parenting, much of this turn to the past is halting and incomplete. It extracts useful tips but overlooks the deeper values that allowed our ancestors to parent differently in the first place. It suggests—falsely I think—that modern parents can enjoy the benefits of traditional life without actually giving up any of their modernity. And in doing so, it risks turning the concept of traditional parenting, which surely could help today’s overextended moms and dads, into just another paleo fad that we’ll soon forget.

I’ll use Doucleff’s book to illustrate.

If I were reviewing Hunt, Gather, Parent in one sentence, I’d say that it made my parenting better. Doucleff draws on her visits to Maya, Inuit, and Hadzabe communities and suggests that traditional “super” parenting involves incorporating kids into the family “team,” giving them real responsibilities, and letting them learn from their own mistakes. It was after reading about these ideas that I not only let my daughter make guacamole, but also opted to step back and be minimally involved in the process. 

But I was also struck by how the book seemed to capture a common impulse to sidestep the most fundamental parts of the super parents’ lives—parts I might want to emulate if I want to be a similarly successful parent.

For instance, Doucleff discusses letting kids roam somewhat free, and offers advice to parents who might live in big American cities rather than rural villages. But she never really grapples with the idea that if letting kids have independence is important, then perhaps some environments are simply better for child-rearing than others.1

Something similar happens with the book’s discussion of the intergenerational family. In short, most of the people Doucleff observes have the benefit of a family-based village they rely on for support. Family villages are so common in the book that I started to get the impression that they may be an essential feature of super parenting. But the book never advocates for intergenerational families or spends time helping people understand how to build one. The possibility that would-be super parents might require intergenerational family is mostly just ignored. 

However, probably the most perplexing example of this refusal to grapple holistically with traditional lifestyles is the book’s handling of gender roles. Though she repeatedly mentions both super moms and super dads, Doucleff’s descriptions overwhelmingly focus on moms. Again and again, it’s women getting kids ready for school, making meals, and maintaining households. In the Maya and Inuit communities, men are mentioned so infrequently that I began to wonder if maybe there just weren’t very many men around. The section on a Hadzabe village in Tanzania does feature one dad, but there are only fleeting descriptions of his actual parenting. Meanwhile, Hadzabe mothers seem to be doing a lot of the childcare, and both men and women are described as existing in gendered spaces—men with men and women with women—that would probably feel strange to contemporary Americans.

So are traditional gender roles an essential part of super parenting? Well, the premise of the book—and of the paleo parenting trend generally—is that looking at traditional communities offers insights into a better and more natural way of living, one that we’ve abandoned to our own detriment. If those ideas about gender conflict with what we’re used to in contemporary America, that seems significant. And the book never offers an explanation as to why this extremely common feature of traditional communities wouldn’t matter, leading me to conclude that it probably does.2

I don’t mean to pick on Doucleff here. I can imagine why she left some things out. Helping parents get their kids to do chores is easier than telling parents to adopt an entirely new worldview. Few people are looking for someone to tell them their core values are wrong.

I point this out because the impulse to draw on the past without actually wrestling with the past’s values is common. Case in point, and as I’ve discussed elsewhere, author Kristen Ghodsee recently appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast to discuss centuries of utopian experiments and what they mean for families. But when pressed on why she didn’t just focus on extended family as a solution to modern problems, she didn’t really have an answer. Ghodsee was turning to the past as a means to find exotic alternatives to the family that fit modern sensibilities rather than to identify the values that worked for the most number of people over the greatest span of time.

Similarly, the paleo parenting movement is made up of a big and diverse group, but tends to focus more often on tips than on emulating the worldviews that generated those tips in the first place. 

Like I said, I’m thrilled the past is getting more attention. But my concern is that without diving deeper, paleo parenting advice is just that: More advice to toss on the ever-growing mountain of parenting tips. And if it’s just a bunch of tips, then it’s just a fad, something that will be slowly forgotten along with paleo diets and barefoot running.

In the end, it’s rare to find any of this paleo curiosity focusing on core beliefs. Parents in the past didn’t just behave differently, they saw the world differently, too. And in that light, perhaps today’s myriad parenting challenges aren’t just a product of the way moms and dads act, but also of their worldview and values.

Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribune.

1. I’m not suggesting here that cities are bad for kids, or that village life is better. I think Doucleff’s book hints at such a conclusion, but never explores the idea enough to conclusively say which types of environments are actually best for kids. I will add, though, that I’ve seen many well-adapted kids and families living in cities, often in Europe, where different urban design values deprioritize hazards such as cars. My personal opinion is that certain types of cities probably are great for kids, and other types (car dominated, etc.) probably are not.

2. This isn’t to say that the communities Doucleff observed are living some sort of 1950s American version of the family. At one point, Doucleff describes Inuit women slaughtering animals. She watches Hadzabe women gather food. Some of the moms she met have wage-earning jobs. But regardless of the endless variation, the women and men in the communities she visits do tend to have different roles, and in general the women appear to be more focused on domestic labor than the men. How integral that fact is to super parenting is hard to say, though, because gender roles are barely acknowledged.