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Parenting Lessons from Tribes Around the World - Page 2

Author // Michelle Henning

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Parenting Lessons from Tribes Around the World
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So the babies are constantly on the mothers?

Yes, they’re never left alone. If the parents are working, the other brothers and sisters carry the babies. They’re always sleeping between the parents, or the brothers and sisters, and from when the day begins, they’re attached to another human being. Everywhere you go, that is a common denominator. Obviously, in the colder climates, they do that for warmth, but even in the warm climates.


Do the babies then still whine and cry?

Hardly at all, no. There’s always human contact. All their needs are being met. They’re constantly on the boob. They just need the warmth.


And during the night, do they wake a lot, nursing?

You never hear that they’re awake. They nurse all night, so they sleep like my children were brought up, next to their mother. If they’re hungry, they get something. There’s never any process of screaming or yelling.


Do you think this parenting style is possible in our society?

Our first one was attached to me, 24 hours of the day. I had this long wrap sling, and she grew up facing me, and then when she got older, she’d be facing out, and fall asleep. Everywhere I went on the bike, I had her in my sling. She lived in there, for about three years; so much so that when you took her out, she would scream, because she wanted the contact. She just came with us. If she fell asleep and we weren’t ready to go to bed, she would stay attached to me or my wife. Come bedtime, we would just put her down and we’d all sleep together.

It depends on how enthusiastic and committed you are as a parent. We live in this world of 1,001 opportunities and distractions. To keep the child away from that requires you to apply yourself as a parent, on a far greater level than most people ever do. Unfortunately, being acknowledged as a mother is not significant anymore. We believe it’s far more important to be somebody, and have a title.


I find women are really conflicted with the pressure to be everything—successful at their careers and a great mother. We’re trying so hard to do everything right, which of course is impossible, and then we fail, we get tired, we shout at our kids, then we feel like bad mothers.

Yeah, we’ve made things so hard for ourselves. Also from a physical point of view—we’ve all decided to have kids in our late 20s, 30s, even 40s or 50s, which I think is a disaster. In the tribes, they all have children in their teens.

I think there’s nothing better than having a child when your body is as strong, healthy, elastic...and when you are as fearless as you are when you’re in your late teens.

I had my eldest when I was 25. I would have done it two or three years earlier, if I could have. In fact, we’re encouraging our kids to have kids as young as they feel comfortable.


Really? That’s interesting.

I think physically, they’re going to be stronger. They’re more adaptable. They’re healthier. They need less. They’re happy to take care of the kid, they’re more mobile. They have less expectations, less structure. Come the age of 40, you’ve got kids who have left the house, and then you can go and do other things.


What else have you witnessed on your travels that influenced how you raised your kids?

Many, many things. Interestingly, my wife of 23 years now, traveled extensively before we met. One thing we experienced, and what I still experience when I go off into the bush, is how everyone sleeps huddled together. Even if you’re a stranger, and especially if it’s cold, you put your hands and your feet in each other’s groins and armpits, to keep warm.

When my wife and I had children, from Day 1 they were in our bed. My wife said: “Here’s the baby, and the baby is going to sleep here.” I was a little bit upset at the beginning, but 18 years later and now with three children, we all still sleep in the same bed. We’ve got two mattresses together. My two eldest daughters have boyfriends, so when the boyfriends visit, they go to their own room. If there are no girlfriends or boyfriends, we all sleep in the same bed.

That’s probably the most significant thing we’ve adopted from experiences that we’ve learned on our travels. We’re looked upon as very strange.


That’s incredible.

How my kids grew up is the polar opposite of how I grew up. I grew up not knowing my parents; at the age of 7, I was sent to a boarding school with Jesuit priests for 10 years. My concept of physicality and nudity and the opposite sex was seriously handicapped, from my youth. Nothing was ever discussed. If it was discussed, you’re going to go to hell, and you’re going to die.

Now here I am, I’ve grown with the kids, in our physicality. We walk around naked when we’re getting dressed in the morning. Nobody bats an eyelid. That all comes from growing up as a unit. I think that gives us a strength that many other families don’t have, so when it all hits the fan—and it does—the children have a deep sense of self-security and confidence from that.


That’s wonderful.

In general, our society is overly protective of our children—because everything is so transparent. We now know all the dangers. We only have to Google every accident we could ever imagine, and it’s available, so we’ve become terrified. We don’t do anything anymore, and don’t let the children do anything.

When you go to some of these communities, the children grow up in the environment with everybody. In Papua New Guinea, there is a group of people living in treehouses, 40 meters up from the ground. The treehouses don’t have a fence. The children crawl freely; they just don’t go over the edge.

I think you have to let children find their own borders. We live in a city. My children are allowed to go and come in the evening as they please. We are, again, judged by other people that give curfews and deadlines. My wife and I say, “They’re going to get out anyway. They’re going to find a way.” We used to smoke, we don’t smoke anymore. We don’t do drugs. But we say to our children: “If that’s what you want to do, do your thing, and you’ll learn accordingly. Please keep in touch with us. Please communicate with us.” If you don’t trust them to have their own adventures, they’ll intuitively fight against it, they’ll want to go and have those experiences.

Seeing my teenagers now, how free they are and how happy they are—it’s harder work as a parent, because there’s more freedom. You’ve got to be on the ball. Each child is different. You have to trust them in their own adventures, allow them their own disasters, and to make their own mistakes. Otherwise they won’t learn.


My mum understood that, too—that is how she raised me.

I think we dissociate ourselves too much from our children. In the tribes, there isn’t really a separation of child and adult, or old person, or teenager. The children are as important as the old people, but they have different strengths and weaknesses. Everybody works together as a community, as a unit, because you need each other to function and survive.


Pathways Issue 46 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #46.

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