Ask the Expert: Michaeleen Doucleff

“Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us How To Be Calmer Parents”

Why doesn’t my child pitch in and help around the house? Is it so much to ask him to just load the dishwasher? Why doesn’t she cooperate? Why does he lack confidence? Today’s parents are often plagued with questions like this, and we all know parenting can be a struggle. For our latest “Q&A: Ask The Expert,” we spoke with NPR reporter Michaeleen Doucleff, author of current parenting bestseller Hunt, Gather, Parent. Doucleff grappled with these same questions and tackled them in a creative and unorthodox fashion—by traveling thousands of miles to learn how parents in non-Western societies successfully raise children who appear more confident and helpful than Western children.

 As a lead-up to her decision to embark on this endeavor, Doucleff read countless parenting books but was still having clashes with her daughter. She recalled when she observed family life and reported stories from places like the Yucatan and an Inuit town in the Arctic, that there was no yelling, bickering or nagging and the kids were kind, respectful and cooperative. She embarked on a journey with her then 3-year-old daughter, Rosy, determined to glean insight from these remote societies on how to be a better parent. In her book, she offers actionable lessons and insight on how we can re-set parent-child expectations with creative solutions to many long standing but vexing parenting challenges.

Q: Can you describe something you learned from your experience that has helped you be a better parent? Were you able to incorporate any of your findings to make your daughter more cooperative?

A: Young kids are eager to help; it’s like there’s a flame in their bodies encouraging them to help but, often they just don’t how. I started off by giving Rosy small tasks that we may think are inconsequential, but can be accomplished fast and easily so there is less likelihood of resistance; this helps build confidence. For instance, when cleaning up the floor, I say to Rosy, “I’ll hand you the books and you put them on the shelf.” Another example is when we clean up the living room, I’ll ask her to get the vacuum. If I ask her routinely then eventually she no longer needs to be asked, it just becomes something automatic. When the child is young, they need to be around the task to learn it; it teaches them to cooperate and work together.

Unlearning behavior that generates resistance and conflict is difficult, but can be done. It’s about learning how to ask and encourage the child in a way that makes them feel like they are making the choice. You just can’t be upset if they don’t do it. For example, Rosy suddenly became resistant to taking her plate to the kitchen and we started arguing about it. Finally I said to myself, “it’s just a plate and I need to stop asking her” because she had built up some kind of resistance around it. So I stopped asking and two days later she took her plate to the kitchen. She knew what she was supposed to do, but didn’t want to do it because I was asking her to do it. Intrinsic motivation is about having it be your individual choice. If you feel like you don’t have a choice, you resist it.

Q: How can we do a reset with older children to encourage them to be more helpful?

A:When a child is young, you can be more forceful and pushy. The older they get, the lighter hand you have to have. But I believe the lessons these societies taught me is that you can implement these practices at any age. My niece stayed with me for a while. She was in her own world, on her phone, on Tik Tok, but I tested things out with her and it was amazing how quickly she started being helpful. I included and welcomed her every time we did something and eventually she was pitching in along with the rest of the family.

Q: You mention in your book that these cultures do not praise their children. Can you explain why?

A: According to some psychologists, accepting kids’ contributions and input is so much more motivating than words. For instance, if Rosy helps with dinner, I accept what she is doing. Maybe I’ll fix it a little, but I don’t try to make her do it the way I think is right. I don’t interfere with her; I just accept how she’s doing it as long as she’s contributing. A great example is when she grabbed the zester to grate cheese. I thought to myself, you can’t grate cheese with a zester, but I let her do it, and it actually worked out. Accepting her contribution is much more motivating than praise. Praise can cause kids to look externally for the praise or a reward rather than internally.

Q: Power struggles are common between western parents and children. It’s easy to say, “I’m going to remain calm,” but often it doesn’t happen. Do you have any advice for parents?

A: I try to follow advice from psychologist Larry Cohen who advocates making things into a game.  For example, if you have a struggle over doing homework or going to bed on time, wait for a calm, peaceful moment (not when you’re arguing) and say, “I notice we’ve been arguing and we’ve had a tough time with going to bed or doing homework. Let’s play a game about it. Let’s role play. You be me and I’ll be you.” And then you act out the task. The more you exaggerate the better. Yell, “I don’t want to do my homework! I don’t want to take a shower!” The kid ends up laughing, and this technique is really helpful in diffusing a power struggle.

Regarding staying calm, we tend to have a lot of big emotions – VERY NEGATIVE for negative things and VERY POSITIVE for positive things, which many parents in these other cultures don’t have. Things are just stated as fact, without a lot of emotion, but with very calm energy.

Parents in these cultures tend to have fewer negative strong emotions toward kids than we do. We see kids as having nefarious motivations, and we say things like, “She’s pressing my buttons” or “she’s testing boundaries.” [I used to say “my son is manipulating me.”] This way of thinking is not at all universal. When I told an Inuit mom in the Arctic that Rosy was testing my boundaries, she laughed at me, and explained that misbehavior is not personal; it’s silly to get angry at a child because they have to mature and you have to teach them. And yelling would just teach kids to get angry and yell too. Instead, you should be silent or just walk away.


Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is the author of the New York Times bestseller Hunt, Gather, Parent. The book describes a way of raising helpful and confident children, which moms and dads have turned to for millennia. It also explains how American families can incorporate this approach into their busy lives.

Doucleff wrote the book after traveling to three continents with her 3-year-old daughter, Rosy. Maya, Inuit, and Hadzabe families showed her how to tame tantrums, motivate kids to be helpful, and build children’s confidence and self-sufficiency.

Doucleff is also a global health correspondent for NPR’s Science Desk, where she reports about disease outbreaks and children’s health. Doucleff has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Berkeley, California, a master’s degree in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Caltech.

She lives in Alpine, Texas, with her husband, daughter and German Shepherd, Savanna.


Writer’s Note:

My 7-year old son and I occasionally end up in power struggles, especially over taking a shower. Recently, he got out of school and immediately said I don’t want to take a shower today, and listed all his reasons for not wanting to. After reading this book, I decided to ignore him and let him just keep talking. When we got home, he had to go to the bathroom. Once there, he yelled to me, “Mom, I wanna take a shower now!” Wow, it worked. I thought about all the shower fights we had over the years, and sighed. Why couldn’t I have read this book sooner?

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