A book review by Darcia Narvaez, PhD, and Mary Tarsha. How the new book Hunt, Gather, Parent reflects the science of our Evolved Nest.
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“We give this book two thumbs down in terms of it not being heart-centered and providing the evolved nest.”– Darcia Narvaez, PhD, and Mary Tarsha
Dr. Darcia: Welcome to the Evolved Nest’s book reviews! My name Dr. Darcia Narvaez and I’m here with Mary Tarsha. We are both at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Psychology and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
Humans evolved to be nested. Humanity’s nest for young children helps optimize children’s development, fostering thriving, flourishing and resilience capacities in children of all ages. The evolved nest includes soothing gestation and birth, on-request extensive breastfeeding and positive moving touch (no negative touch), a welcoming social climate, self-directed play with multiple-aged mates, warmly responsive nurturing from mother and others, Nature immersion and connection, and healing practices to repair miscommunication or hurts and rebalance.
Child thriving includes Physical health, Happiness and wellbeing, Self-acceptance and self-confidence, Self control, Emotional Intelligence, Sociality & social skills, Empathy, Perspective taking, Kindness, Active curiosity, and Community cooperation.
D: Today we are talking about Michaeleen Doucleff’s book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy Helpful, Little Humans.
Both Mary and I were a little disappointed with this book and we’ll tell you why shortly. First, we want to go through the nest components and see what she covered, and how well and what she advises.
Let’s start with soothing perinatal experiences – she doesn’t address at all. Breastfeeding is not addressed at all, but she does mention positive touch, a little bit, and how that’s helpful for calming a young child. She’s a reporter who had, at the time of the writing, a three-year-old, and was having trouble with her daughter, Rosie, and was trying to figure out how to improve her parenting and improve their relationship. Mary, do you want to give a little more background?
M: Sure. We chose the book because we were really interested in these ancient parenting practices. The idea behind the book is really a fascinating idea. She’s seeking out other cultures that have been engaging in parenting practices for many, many years and that still maintain parenting practices that have been around a long time, thousands of years. And she herself shares a lot of her own personal story about her own frustrations and just the anguish, really, that she’s been going through. It was really hard for her. One particular story, she starts out the book, is how it’s five in the morning and she feels like she’s getting ready for battle, for when her toddler is going to wake up because just the whole day is, you know, a series of battles and power struggles.
And so she thought there has to be a better way of parenting. She immerses herself in several other cultures around the world. The Mayans, Inuits and Hadzebe and shares her experiences of what she has learned from them. One of the things that she learned is about positive moving touch and how other cultures use touch to calm and soothe. It was a new experience for her to see that even three-year-olds, four-year-olds, when they’re upset can be soothed through picking them up and calming them in that way. That was one example of something that she had learned. , A component of the evolved nest is positive moving touch.
D: Right. So I think she, she points out that Western educated industrialized rich and democratic nations – WEIRD is the acronym for that – have gotten kind of off track in terms of parenting.
And she admits, well, at least we can see that she’s very controlling parent, which is a Western kind of thing to do in various ways. And she herself really had difficulty because she wanted to make the child do things, right, coerce and force. She realizes from her travels and experiences with these other communities that is actually is not the best way. And there are other ways to get your child to do things that are helpful. And so the whole book is about making a helpful child.
We have some comments about that shortly, but let’s go on to the other aspects of the nest.
There’s play. She brings up dramatic play along with scary stories his way to, again, sculpt behavior. Either control misbehavior, avoid misbehavior, or help the child, obey, in essence.
M: She also talks about playing in terms of work. So, from the very beginning, there is a focus and emphasis throughout the book of how to get your child to work and how to get your child to be responsible and contribute to the family through work. And so she emphasizes having your child do chores as a way of play. Because for them it’s fun. But you know what one good thing about the chores and the play is how she emphasizes doing it all together. So, if you’re making tortillas or you’re making a meal, you really involve your toddler in different ways and that’s how you build their skills.
D: Yeah, so she uses the acronym TEAM. T for togetherness, which is this very communal way of being together, living together, and doing whatever needs to be done around the household. The child can help with that and not put push them aside or put them in front of a screen while you do all the work. Instead, this is a shared kind of life-centered way of building togetherness, around daily tasks.
So “TEAM” also means: Encouragement, without force; Autonomy; and Minimal interference. She uses those categories to describe her experiences with these other cultures.
M: And again, the emphasis is very much about productivity and how you can get your child to work or be responsible and that type of thing. But one value that I see in the book is when she has this revelation, this aha moment, where she realizes her way of parenting is all about entertaining. And for the child, the moment the child gets up till they go to bed, it’s all about: how can I entertain my child? She realizes that this is not the way of parenting that has been successful across the world for thousands of years. So moving from “how to entertain my child” to “how to just embrace them” as a family member that has value and is important right from the beginning. So, her way of understanding that is through chores, or through involvement in work around the house.
D: So the valuing of the child is what their contribution is to the family.
Let’s look at alloparenting, number six of the nine components of the Evolved Nest. She really notices this difference between her experience in the United States as a parent, with a husband, but all the burden of raising the child is on the two parents. Whereas in these other cultures, it’s a community event. And everyone’s interested and everyone helps. She’s very envious.
M: Yes, and she has a lot of stories in there about just how relaxed she felt by being within this communal setting of sitting in a living room with other adults and other children of all ages and everyone is playing together, and how the other mothers really had a lot of pity for her because she was parenting all by herself. They saw it as her having to not only be the caregiver but to play with the child and to provide all these different things. Their perspective is that a child needs many, many people, many other children, really needs a community. And she just relishes in that.
D: One of the comments to her was, “Oh, your child is sick of you. She’s with you all the time. No wonder she’s misbehaving!” It’s like a clue. Our children need many relationships, not just the one or two in the nuclear family.
All right, how about responsivity, the seventh component of the Evolved Nest? The book is about moving from engineering your child, actually she didn’t really engineer, she was reactive. It seems like she was so reactive to her child, whenever the child didn’t do what she expected she didn’t have any understanding of it. She just reacted, right, and everything escalated into angry words back and forth, which just made everything worse and made life at home miserable. That’s why she went on this journey – to figure out how to change.
M: There is a big emphasis on anger. She shares about how she was angry a lot throughout her day every day. She says that she yelled at her child every single day. She yelled at the family every day. She yelled at work every day. She yelled on Twitter every day. And so, a big part of the book is on how to control the anger and how to move from reacting to the anger to stop the fires that take place between the toddler and the parent through all of this anger. I don’t know if we would call that responsivity but I think it’s a first step towards recognizing that parenting out of anger is not the best place to be parenting from. It’s not parenting from calmness and a sense of what is best for the child, but as you’re saying, Darcia, it’s just reactive.
D: And what she learns from the other mothers and the other cultures is that children are perceived as learners. Of course, they’re going to misbehave and be bossy and aggressive, they don’t know any better yet. And so the parents, the adults, the older children are there to help them learn, with patience and kindness and modeling.
So let’s go to the eighth component of the Evolved Nest: nature connection. She does mention, in the Inuit community, they would say if the child is dysregulated (they wouldn’t say that word)—upset and isn’t calming themselves down, then take them outside and have them look at the sunset, or whatever it is outside, or just have them be outside, which is a calming experience.
M: Yeah, they do say, you know, if a child is misbehaving, “Oh, they’ve been inside too long.” That is the conclusion. So that was a great pearl within the book.
And what about healing practices, the ninth component of the Evolved Nest?
D: She doesn’t really mention them. I think she’s trying to heal her parenting throughout the book. Her parenting style. But it’s really, we think, not the kind of healing that we would consider real healing, which is a heart-centered healing. You have to come from the center of your emotions, your social emotional intelligence, your connections, your relationships, and place relationships first, and responsiveness and attunement and flexibility to relationships, which she notes children have these other communities that they’re more socially, emotionally intelligent than she is, let alone all the children in the United States.
So she’s not really healing in the way that we would describe healing. She’s more, again, engineering. How does she better engineer her child’s life, or her relationship with her child, without putting the relationship first?
M: Right, so a clear example of that would go back to the anger. Her approach is to kind of make a step-by-step process of how to control her anger in order to minimize her child’s tantrums and outbursts and fighting. It is a revelation for her, as she sees these other parents, not to argue with a young child or a child in general. So that’s the first step that she takes.
So, there is still this series of steps for her, and she lays them out to help other people. These are important and I think are valuable. But we’re saying that another approach is tuned in, to examine the sources of the anger in order to heal those from the first place, rather than just trying to minimize them or control them so that there is really a relief and healing of that anger and a greater self awareness. I think that is some of the concerns we had.
D: Yeah, we thought this would not be a book to select if you’re only reading one parenting book per year, though if you’re reading 20 of them go ahead read this one too. But it’s not going to give you the heart-centered orientation that really is going to help your child thrive. This is because it’s so focused on “helping me as a parent not get upset with you. I could not control my, my anger I still have anger.” It’s just not as healing as we would want a parenting book to be oriented to.
M: Right. It seems that one of the also things that we talked about is there’s a lot of dysregulation that she talks about within her book that’s what we would call her emotional regulation and a lot of behavioral dysregulation. And so one of the concerns is yes we want to help change behavior but we want to do it from a heart-centered position. And also, you know, when you have that heart-centered position, it’s really about relationship. And coming from a relational understanding of the child being important and valuable just because of what they can contribute to the family in terms of workload or responsibility. And so that would be another critique that I would have of it. It is a failure within the Western framework of really seeing your value because of what you produce. And it’s very interesting that she goes to these other cultures where that is not their emphasis per se but their children are contributing much more. And so she’s very fascinated with that, rather than the wellbeing and the thriving of my child. And in order to promote that it has to be that heart-centered relational, and then doing that by providing the different aspects of the nest.
D: She mentioned a couple times that her pediatrician gave her charts to follow like to do sleep training when the child was six months, which we would disagree with, and feeding schedules we disagree with that too, and other ways of, you know, forcing a child into something. She mentions that these ideas about sleep, sleep issues and feeding schedules were all started with institutions where they had orphans or hundreds of children to manage. And so they came up with these procedures you know to manage their sleeping and they’re eating, and then it got into parenting books because we have so many immigrants that came to the United States who didn’t bring their extended wise elders with them, who didn’t know how to raise a child so they turned to these books by so called experts, not really. And so we’ve got all these myths that are guiding Western parenting still. And so it was good to see that she at least acknowledge those. She didn’t really tackle them very deeply.
But I think this book is going to be good for people who have an orientation to engineering parenting and how not to be as controlling and, especially, making everyone mad and unhappy. It might be good for people who are in that space. We would advocate, though, that for thriving for the children and the family, the relationship has to come first. And that means lots of different nuances and these techniques might work, but you have to let go of them once they’ve been habituated and be there with your child, right, and be creative and sensitive to who they are uniquely, not just as the helper in the family.
M: Yeah, so there is a big theme of control, as you’re saying throughout the book. It’s very interesting, a great book to read, just learning about her own personal journey. But it seems over and over a big theme is about her relinquishing control because of an awareness of the goodness of the child. That is at the heart of heart-centered parenting and also of the evolved nest: it’s the awareness and the understanding and the trust that your child is made good, the developmental process is good. And so then you can trust them and how they grow, and what they do and how they experiment with things and that changes your interpretation. They’re not misbehaving; they’re experimenting with something. Or they’re not misbehaving, they just need to go outside, those type of things.
D: Yes, they want to be good. Well, any last comments here, Mary? I guess we do not recommend it, in general, for everyone to read but only if you are a deep reader of parenting books.
M: And there were a couple other concerns that I think maybe we should address just briefly. At one point in the book there are things that actually cut against nest provision. One of them is she says, don’t pick up a crying baby wait until an older sibling steps in or does it. So, we would argue against that.
D: You don’t want to wait till baby’s crying to help them self-regulate. They’re already giving you signals before that: their gestures, their face. You want to keep them calm because their biochemistry is really important during their rapid brain development. Don’t leave babies to cry, period. And don’t let them get to that state.
M: It’s interesting she actually did observe that in one of the communities she went into. She said she hardly ever heard a baby cry.
The other thing is that she uses, and encourages monsters, sometimes even lying to children in storytelling, as a way to get children to do what you want them to do. So that is also something that would cut against the evolved nest in this provision.
D: In a way the book is about manipulating your children, to put it in a nutshell, for getting them to do things you want them to do. Well, that is one way to think about what a parent does, but again it’s not the thriving orientation that we would want to see.
M: So in conclusion, we actually give this book two thumbs down in terms of it not being heart centered and providing the nest.
D: Thanks everyone.