- Contemporary parenting often relies on punishment and reward.
- In contrast, parenting in hunter-gatherer societies was characterized by communal caregiving and respect.
- A return towards more intuitive parenting starts with noticing and questioning what we consider "normal."
Do you ever wonder if it is normal as a parent to be exhausted by the end of the week? Or the day? Do you ever wonder if it is normal to do most of the parenting by yourself? Have you felt guilty for not enjoying every moment of parenthood more? Do you ever question whether your approach to parenting is right? Have you ever given in to the pressure or expectations of others, even when they contradicted your own intuition?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you are not alone.
I have told my daughter to sit down at the table because of a look I saw on my father’s face. I have worried that not interfering more would leave her spoiled. I have felt overwhelmed as a parent. And I felt shame for feeling overwhelmed.
The mainstream view on parenting in our culture emphasizes the importance of teaching children “good” behavior through punishment and reward. It assumes that the best way for children to learn to regulate their emotions is by discouraging or denying them. And it assumes that we need to push children to become independent, by ignoring their requests for closeness.
It also assumes that we shouldn’t complain that we do it all alone. As older generations point out, when they had young children, paid parental leave, childcare subsidies, and flexible work arrangements were absent or less extensive than they are today.
So, by comparison, we have it easy (or so the logic goes).
This is normal in our society. Which simply means it is what most people do.
But being normal is not the same as natural. To be normal doesn’t necessarily mean it is right or healthy for the parties involved. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it results in the desired outcomes.
For example, it used to be normal to beat children in the name of discipline. This norm had devastating effects on children (and their parents). And what we consider to be normal parenting today, too, has devastating effects on children and parents.
Increasing numbers of children are grappling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Similarly, parents are frequently stressed and overwhelmed, struggling to stay calm in the heat of the moment.
However normal it may be, this is not a natural aspect of parenting; rather, it’s a product of our contemporary environment.
When we look at hunter-gather tribes, the way we have lived for most of our human history, we see a very different picture:
- Children are raised by a community of caregivers, not just one or two parents.
- Children are treated with respect and autonomy, not coercion and control.
- Children are exposed to constant physical contact and affection, not isolation and detachment.
- Children are immersed in nature and culture, not screens and schedules.
For hunter-gathers, it is normal to enjoy parenting, not to feel overwhelmed. It is normal to feel confident, to intuitively know what to do, and to be supported by many others.
They intuitively know that every child shares the same innate needs: for safety, connection, and autonomy. Over our evolutionary history, failure to meet these needs meant a child’s survival was at risk. For instance, a baby sleeping alone could have been easy prey to a lion, and a disconnected or overly controlled child wouldn’t learn essential risk assessment skills, also increasing their danger.
Returning to Natural Parenting
It has created a new norm, but one we all suffer from. Luckily, we can return to how we once all parented, and make what is natural normal again.
How do we do that?
There is much we can do. We can learn about children’s evolved needs and find ways to meet them. We can find ways to meet our own needs better—and reconnect to our own intuition. We can slow down.
But I think the first (and perhaps most important) step is to simply notice. Notice what “normal” parenting today looks like. Notice cultural narratives and ideas about how to treat children, and how to (feel as a) parent. And dare to question.
Seeing that the way we parent today is not the way we have evolved, and meets neither parents’ nor children’s needs, will allow us to take a different stance towards the questions posed at the beginning.
Overwhelm, isolation, uncertainty, stress, and shame may be normal experiences as parents in today’s world, but they aren’t inevitable. Noticing and beginning to question normal parenting practices is the first step towards another (older) way.
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Adams, E. L., Smith, D., Caccayale, L. J., & Bean, M. K. (2021). Parents are stressed! Patterns of parent stress across COVID-19. Frontiers, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.626456
Chaudhary, N., Salali, G. D., & Swanepoel, A. (2023). Sensitive responsiveness and multiple caregiving networks among mbendjele BaYaka hunter-gatherers: Potential implications for psychological development and well-being. Developmental Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0001601
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