We Learn Nothing About Parenting From Other Cultures If We Leave Out Dads

The popular new book 'Hunt, Gather, Parent' offers crucial lessons for parents — but not the ones that were intended.

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Dr. Michaeleen Doucleff and her preschool-aged daughter Rosy struggle through the acacia brambles of Tanzania, falling further behind a swift Hadzabe hunting party they were trying to follow. As the group of hunters grows smaller on the horizon, Doucleff frets that she and her little girl will be left behind in the bush. As a mother from San Francisco, the chemist and NPR contributor embedded with the hunter-gatherers, is decidedly out of her element. But, as she recounts in her new parenting book Hunt, Gather, Parent, Doucleff learns she was actually never alone. As she struggled, one of the men in the group, a father, would quietly circle back to make sure the pair would not be left behind. She just never saw him.

It’s a telling detail. The premise of Doucleff’s book is that parents in cultures connected to ancient ways of life have a great deal to teach modern parents. She arrives at her conclusion through a globe-trotting adventure with her daughter, living with far-flung peoples who readers are reminded are far more connected to the past than to the Internet. And while her book does offer some excellent, well-researched advice — don’t yell at kids, and let them help with chores — her insight has a gender bias that is impossible to miss, even for those who don’t happen to be the Parenting Editor from Fatherly. Through most of the book the dads, like the quiet Hadzabe hunter, remain unseen.

The unintended message of Doucleff’s book is that child-rearing is, universally and cross-culturally, women’s work. And in our current American moment, where women are taking on the bulk of pandemic related child-care duties and schooling responsibilities, the absence of fathers in a book about parenting is particularly worrisome.

Take her Mayan travels. The people Doucleff meet live in the pseudonymous Chan Kajaal on the Yucatan peninsula, where the church looks like a double-necked “pink brontosaurus” and domestic duties are helmed by women and girls. Here Doucleff spends a great deal of time getting to know and puzzling over the parenting tactics of supermoms Maria and Teressa and their children.

The unintended message of Doucleff’s book is that child-rearing is, universally and cross-culturally, women’s work.

Doucleff has an anthropologist’s eye for familial interaction and her observations pour out in the awe-struck narrative. She watches as daughter Angela walks into the kitchen to do dishes unbid. She watches as Teressa uses subtle gestures to orchestrate the morning school-prep ritual. We’re told that the Maya have the most helpful children in the world. And we’re led to understand that it has something to do with the ancient parenting wisdom of the masa-wielding supermoms.

Do the fathers have any influence over these fantastically, quietly industrious children? Who knows? Readers never witness a conversation between Doucleff and a Mayan father. We are treated to an example of a father pouring a concrete floor while his two-year-old “Beto” helps. But it’s unclear if the scene is apocryphal.

Calling out missing fathers in a book that claims to offer parenting advice that can be universally adopted isn’t just a complaint about equity in representation. The thing is, that we know from the increasingly robust research on gender differences in parenting that mothers and fathers offer unique benefits to the development of their children. But child development research has been painfully slow to ask questions about dads. Prior to the 1970s, gender differences in parenting was largely unexplored territory for child development and psychological research. Even now, parenting research largely focuses on the mother-child dyad.

Consider research conducted by University of South Florida’s Vicky Phares. In her study Still looking for Poppa published in the journal American Psychology in 2005, Dr. Phares notes that in eight prominent developmental psychology journals from 1984–1991 only 1 percent of the 577 studies reviewed included fathers only. Mothers and fathers were both included and considered separately in just 24 percent of studies. On the other hand, a full 48 percent of the studies included only mothers. A re-examination of those same journals by Phares from 1992 to 2004 found the ratio had barely budged. In that period the studies looking only at fathers had only increased to 2 percent. Studies looking at both parents, but considered separately only grew to 30 percent of studies.

When dads are absent, kids suffer. When dads are present and engaged kids thrive.

While the research may be scarce, it speaks volumes. Here’s what science tells us: When dads are absent, kids suffer. When dads are present and engaged kids thrive. In a 2019 story published on Fatherly, science editor Jonathan Krisch summed it up neatly.“Studies have found that kids who grow up with a present, engaged dad are less likely to drop out of school or wind up in jail, compared to children with absent fathers and no other male caretakers or role models,” he writes. “When children have close relationships with father figures, they tend to avoid high-risk behaviors and they’re less likely to have sex at a young age. They’re more likely to have high-paying jobs and healthy, stable relationships when they grow up. They also tend to have higher IQ test scores by the age of 3 and endure fewer psychological problems throughout their lives when fatherhood is taken seriously.”

So for Doucleff to tell readers these super kids are super due to moms is indeed a discovery — one that bucks the trend of all the (admittedly thin) studies of parenting that include fathers. But the author isn’t just dad-blind in the mother-run households of the Maya. Fathers seem to be absent wherever she travels.

Full of knowledge from hot climates, the intrepid mother and daughter leave their mesoamerican hammocks and head for the icy lands of the Inuit. Here we find large close-knit families. And while there are father and grandfathers present, they move voicelessly through the scenes.

In the town of Kugaaruk the author has a revelation. Children shouldn’t just be around one adult. It’s an insight important enough to make it into the index, cataloged under Parenting: “And childcare as a one-woman show. Doucleff is struck by her epiphany as she and Rosy go about their daily business in the Arctic town. Whether she’s shopping or eating in a cafe, or just walking down the street. Kugaaruk women approach, again and again, earnestly asking if they can help the lonely mom by taking Rosy off her hands for a bit. The experience is framed as a lesson in communal parenting and we’re told that a child shouldn’t ever be around just one person. But what we’ve witnessed is communal mothering — again, the burden of child-rearing and helping is framed as the domain of women.

To be fair, there are a few dads in Hunt, Gather, Parent. The Hadzabe tracker Thaa anchors Doucleff’s hunter-gather chapter. Like most dads in her book Thaa is a man of few words. His parenting is by silent example. He hunts. He leaves his children plenty of space to do things on their own. Still, the author gleans more insight from traveling with the Hadzabe mothers with “elegant posture” with whom she joins to gather tubers. “The moms expect everyone to help with every task,” she observes. “Even the out-of-shape journalist.”

The party is joined by Thaa’s six-year-old daughter Belie. Doucleff watches as Belie offers childcare to all the children. Independently comforting them and feeding them baobab fruit. But we learn very little about how Thaa, as her father, has influenced this behavior. And we do not see any boys engaging in this kind of communal childcare.

One of the fathers who does have a prominent billing is Doucleff’s own grandfather-in-law, a nameless bakery owner that teaches his son, Mickey, the way of bread and pastry. We see this father through his son’s eyes. We’re told that, like Thaa, he was a silent type too, who used a few well-chosen course-correcting words to help his son learn and eventually run the business. The lesson drawn from the story is that father and son shared a togetherness that allowed him to pass down knowledge.

Mickey’s story would seem the perfect opportunity to address gender in parenting and how moms and dads can have unique influences on children. But instead, Mickey’s father offers an unexamined dad stereotype that has long persisted. He is bound to his labor to provide for his family. He toils without complaint. His primary point of interaction with his child is at work. He is strong and quiet and productive, but his influence is rendered largely inert. He’s just there.

Doucleff’s advice is exciting, thought-provoking, challenging, and inspiring — if it didn’t also seem to call for more maternal labor to reach these aims.

Mickey’s American father is one of Hunt, Gather, Parents few dad-examples. But what he represents is an image of fatherhood that has largely kept fathers from being examined by child development researchers, sociologists, and cultural anthropologists. Fathers are often seen as vestigial to the process of child-rearing. They are responsible for the hunting more than they are responsible for parenting, so why even ask how they might shape a child’s future?

And it’s odd that Doucleff doesn’t notice the bias. She spends much of the first half of the book focusing on bias in scientific parenting research. Her criticism centers on the fact that the bulk of child development and parenting research focuses on sample populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic, or WEIRD. And that’s absolutely true. But what’s also weird is that the samples are also predominantly female.

What’s most maddening about Doucleff’s book (to this Parenting Editor) is that the information she offers parents in the practical sections is spot on. Her TEAM method (Together, Encourage, Autonomy, Minimal Interference) of parenting promises a fine antidote to overscheduled modern parenting. Yes, children need more autonomy. Yes, children should feel like a part of the family team. Yes, children should be encouraged and parents should interfere less with how their kids explore, play and learn.

Doucleff’s advice is exciting, thought-provoking, challenging, and inspiring — if it didn’t also seem to call for more maternal labor to reach these aims. Modern families are striving for balance. The world outside our homes demands so much of our time and attention that even in a pandemic lockdown when both parents are working from home, we struggle to find parity. Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis over 2.4 million women have left the workforce, nearly double the number of men. For many of those women, jobs had simply disappeared, but plenty more had to make a hard decision to leave the workforce to care for children as childcare became scarce.

Parents need more examples of moms and dads who are raising children collaboratively. The thing is, you don’t have to search the Kalahari to find them.

Even as men have stepped up, the most recent federal time use survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women continue to take on the lion’s share of household work, organizing, educational activities, and caring for household members. Men? They spend far more time on paid work and leisure activities.

Parents — and dads especially — need more examples of moms and dads who are raising children collaboratively. The thing is, you don’t have to search the Kalahari to find them.

Consider Finland. Finn fathers spend a tremendous amount of time in childcare. In fact, a recent survey found that men are often the go-to parent when it comes to childcare and women are free to pursue careers outside their homes. Like the Maya or Hadzabe, children are given autonomy and freedom. Finns value equity and equality and those values are passed to children who remain some of the most resilient in the world.

Importantly, though, Finland has an extensive social support system. For instance, fathers are offered a full three months of paid parental leave. Few men take the full three months but all Finns take far more than American fathers. And in the time that they are home they learn to become integral to child rearing. They orient themselves towards their children and family and take on parenting responsibilities. Finland has invested in equality and fatherhood. Fathers, in turn, have invested in their children.

Cross-cultural explorations of parenting are incredibly valuable. They show us that there is a diverse array of methods for raising children to be good humans. But in Hunt, Gather, Parent, Doucleff only shows her readers part of the picture. And in the end, the result is not a progressive understanding of raising kids but a reinforcement of rigid gender roles.

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