I Tried (and Failed) to Turn My Family Into a Tribe

Hunter-gatherers are astonishingly effective parents, but also very hard to emulate.

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Despite having no means of communication and few cultural similarities, hunter-gatherers around the world all embrace a fairly remarkably consistent and permissive approach to parenting. Parents in these tribes — whether in South America, Asia, Africa, or Australia — let children discover their own natural boundaries, rarely say no, teach by showing and not by telling, and operate under the assumption that toddlers have a role to play in their communities. And research shows that this works remarkably well. The reason that there still are hunter-gatherers out there is largely that kids growing up in these communities tend to become well adjusted and serve as strong cultural stewards.

Though parenting experts are more likely to harp on the behaviors of upper middle-class French women, there’s a lot to be said for focusing on how tribal parents make it work — if only because they parent in keeping with the traditions that helped define human culture from the outset. It wasn’t until relatively recently, in the grand scheme of human history, that parenting practices diversified. Perhaps this is part of why hunter-gatherer parenting practices feel freeing. What parent wouldn’t want to stop yelling and giving timeouts? Not me.

Having looked into the information available on hunter-gatherer parenting practices (as one does) I was curious to give the OG school of parenting a spin. Surely, I thought, my wife and I could pull off the tribal approach for a week. Maybe, just maybe, our 4- and 6-year-old boys would cotton to the freedom. Maybe they’d like having us take a step back. But stepping back creates distance. What we discovered is that not disciplining, yelling, or coercing requires the specific kind of closeness that comes from depending on each other for survival, which is not exactly our situation here in Ohio.

Arguably the end came at the beginning. Because the whole experience started with my wife telling me I was full of shit.

“We’re going to parent like small-band hunter-gatherers for a week,” I told her.

“You know I’m with the kids more than you are, right?” she asked skeptically.

“We just don’t say no as often, let them discover their own boundaries and try not to yell, coerce or put them in time out,” I said.

“What if they try to kill each other?” she inquired.

This struck me as a distinct possibility, but I had no ready retort. I just sort of shrugged. Experiments are, well, experimental.

A good place to understand how hunter-gatherer parenting might work in modern time is to look at the work of Notre Dame’s Dr. Darcia Narvaez. She’s an advocate for “primal parenting” modeled on the tactics of small band hunter-gatherers. She acknowledges that modern parents face difficulties when trying to parent like our hunter-gatherer ancestors. After all, our culture wasn’t set up for it. Where they live together and share responsibility for the children, we live apart and try to figure everything out on our own. Where we have a life full of distractions, they have a life full of necessity. Still, Narvaez offers a basic path: “Create an environment for your kids where you don’t have to say no.”

This advice suggests engineering: removing those things from the family life and environment that would force a parent to step in for a kids health and safety. But in all honesty, my family already lives in a pretty safe environment. There seemed little engineering to do. So we just took safety as a given and simply stopped saying no. You want to punch holes in every piece of a 500-sheet construction paper stack with a cherry pitter? Go ahead. You want to scatter your stuffed animals across every inch of the house? Why not? You want to draw on your hand with a pen? Have at it.

Interestingly, in the first few days of the experiment, it appeared like we’d stumbled onto something pretty cool. Left to their own devices without our constant bird-dogging and nagging, the boys became more of a team. They played together for hours and hours without TV and without our attention. Mild conflicts arose and the kids figured it out without us refereeing. It was refreshing.

But then, a battle erupted over Legos. A creation was broken, another was smashed in retaliation, and soon one kid had kicked the other in the gut. There was screaming and tears and we could not stand by. My wife and I had to intervene and make it clear that violence is never permitted. It can’t be tolerated it in the house, or out in the world. Frankly, there seemed no good way to convey this message than to fall back on our old techniques of stern talks, timeouts, and the removal of the Legos.

All of that was against the hunter-gatherer method, of course, but to not intervene and teach a lesson seemed like a terrible idea. This was the moment my wife had worried about. The boys might not have killed each other, but someone could have been wounded.

It wouldn’t be the only time we’d fail the hunter-gatherers that week. Our 6-year-old, who seems to be working on developing the sarcasm portion of his brain, pushed all our buttons. Did the !Kung San not have kids who rolled their eyes at their parents and say crap like, “Well, duuuuuh”? Were our kids too far acculturated to selfish modern ways of “my stuff, your stuff” to benefit from boundless and discipline-free parenting? It certainly seemed that way. At least, it was not something we could ever dream of fixing in a week.

But then my wife and I realized something crucial. Yes, we’d stepped back and the boys had worked as a team without our influence. But it wasn’t so much because we’d stepped back as much as they’d stepped closer to each other. And in fact, to truly succeed, my wife and I would have to get closer to them. Not further away. For instance, if we’d been at the Lego table there likely wouldn’t have been a dispute, therefore no need to discipline. We would have been building as a family, and modeling negotiation and cooperative play. We had to be a tribe. Already, simply being mindful of working hand-in-hand seemed to offer glimpses of a better way.

One night, after a particularly wild play session, the house had been practically destroyed. The place was littered with toys, paper scraps, craft supplies and abandoned snack plates. Normally we’d tell the boys that having made the mess it was their responsibility to clean it up. That would have been followed by a couple of hours of them kind of cleaning, getting distracted, having us yell and plead, and eventual meltdowns and timeouts.

This time, though, the mess was everyone’s responsibility. My wife and I bent ourselves to the task and the kids were quick to join in for once. We became a team. No one was at fault. No one was to blame. Everyone was helping everyone else. Before we knew it the house was clean and nobody was ugly-crying on the stairs.

This was the epiphany of the week. It seemed to me the key to hunter-gatherer parenting wasn’t so much in letting kids have free reign to do as they pleased, but it was more in being beside them as part of their team. Not acting as a judge and jury, but as a member of their community helping them for the best interest of the entire home.

This is much different than a home in which authority comes from the top down and decisions are made by the adults for often mystifying reasons. As we recognized that, our language began to change. Both my wife and I began to use the word “we” when talking to our boys rather than “you.”

“We need to help your brother; we need to clean up together; we need to go on a walk; we need to go to sleep; we need to be a team and love each other.” And with phrases like this “we” all started feeling a bit closer and less angsty.

We. We. We. We. We. We. We. Me? No. We. We. We. We. We

This isn’t generally the way our modern world works. Modern society prizes individualism. Modern people don’t share as much as they once did. Neighbors don’t bring each other casseroles. Everyone has their own screen. The algorithms show us the private worlds that are meant just for us. But parenting, or rather trying and failing to parent, like a small band hunter-gatherer necessitated cooperation and togetherness.

Will my wife and I be ditching discipline anytime soon? As much as we’d like to, it just does not seem feasible in preparing our boys for our modern world. However, we will be changing the way we interact with them. Because the fact is that we do work better when we act as a single unit rather than individuals. And there’s a great deal of happiness in the communal effort. And naturally far fewer timeouts.

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