A return to 'paleo parenting'

Do our hunter-gatherer forebears have something to tell us about the recipe for parenting? What is old is new again. 'Paleo diets' are all the rage. How about applying some 'paleo parenting' principles to raising kids? 

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
Outdoor play is an essential part of the paleo-parenting plan. Kids play in the snow at Central Park in New York, January 22.

Surely you’ve noticed the trending of the so-called “paleo diet.” Once I’d heard the term a few times – and my daughter had experimented on me with some of her paleo cookies – I had to do some research. 

“The paleolithic diet is a nutritional plan based on the presumed diet of Paleolithic humans,” says Wikipedia, the fount of all foraged knowledge. “It is based on the premise that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, which marked the end of the Paleolithic era, around 15,000 years ago, and that modern humans are adapted to the Paleolithic diet."

Could it be time that we applied such throwbacks to former times to a few other things beside our eating habits? How about a healthier diet for the mind and child development? What would that look like? 

One of my favorite texts about learning and childhood makes a potential “paleo parenting” recipe. May Sarton was a Maine poet who attended a progressive school. She remembered her zeal for learning in a chapter from her autobiography, "I Knew a Phoenix."

“We children must have seemed a primitive insurgent tribe,” she writes. “We were not subjected to a theory of education. We were set down in the center of a primal force at work. We never knew what would happen next, but what did happen was always immensely interesting. Everything we learned was alive, hunted down, a private possession.”

During my 30-year career in elementary education, I have carried this passage around in my intellectual “hip pocket.” I return to it frequently, for inspiration. Ms. Sarton has transposed the language of hunter-gatherers onto the elementary school day. It’s what makes her description passionate, energized, and un-school-like.

Who wouldn’t want to go to school (or work!) every day if that’s what you had to look forward to? 

It makes me think there ought to be a similar manifesto for childhood itself. Is there room for a concept of paleo parenting? Is there an emerging return to a philosophy of parenting that allows children to show up for their own childhoods as if they were “a primal force at work,” with similar aliveness, and private possession?

My parents might have been paleo parents, though they didn’t know it at the time. And they were not atypical. They probably would have eschewed such a reference to a trendy diet or theory of parenting. After all, Pop Tarts were a breakfast staple and they were winging it as parents of three kids. 

My own "paleo childhood" started in third grade when we moved from a suburban neighborhood outside of Chicago, with concrete sidewalks and a tree-town street grid – tame, ordered, planned – to a more rural suburb outside of Boston. In my new home, I was initiated into the life of exploration. My new neighbor, Jeff, showed me the dirt foot trails through the woods, to the big pond, and streams. We built forts, went fishing, had conflicts and escapades, and imagined ourselves the Natty Bumpos of Aberdeen Road.

After school, we simply took off for the wilderness of childhood that was waiting for us in the big woods across the street. Mom just needed to know we’d be back by dinner. Until then, the streams, mud, abandoned cars, derelict camp cabins, cool and mysterious white pine groves, and old farm fencing. It felt like an empire for our modest insurgent afternoons. 

"Wildwood Wisdom," the tattered camping guide I discovered on the family bookshelf, was my guide. I pored over its instructive drawings of lean-tos and backpacks and campfire cooking. And I can draw a direct line between this era in my childhood and going to Outward Bound in Scotland at age 14 and many years of wilderness treks, summer, and winter. 

But the paleo childhood is not really about life in the woods. That was just my landscape of awakening and development. It is about independence, resiliency, imagination, and ownership. I feel now that every kid deserves to have the same encouragement toward independence and a sense of inhabiting a domain all his own. The key to such a paleo childhood is distinguishing between information and physical experience. Contemporary childhoods and schooling often feel dominated by mere information. 

This relates to some of the contemporary conversation about boundaries and the line between parental protection and permission – between play that is prescribed and programmed, versus improvisational and creative. Too much app, too little Huck Finn. Childhood ought to be about “lighting out for the territory,” little by little. Paleo childhoods require time and space and materials. And, in my case, a medium sharp pocket knife at age 10. Nope – nary a cut.

Much of this conversation feels tinged with the afflictions of affluence, and a misplaced sense of parental responsibility. At a certain point in the 1980s, I remember the onset of a kind of parenting formatted by professional prowess. “If I just apply all of my professional skills to raising children (and interacting with their school), then I’m going a good job as parent” – at least that was the thinking. 

What happened to instinct and feeling? Parenting isn’t an occupation. It’s more like an art, a calling, a conversation based on improvisation and guidance. I like the way a former school mentor of mine put it to parents: “You need to add a little more benign neglect.” As the father of five boys, he could claim some gravitas. 

And so I like it when I read articles advocating that childhood be restored to children, that kids be allowed to play with real tools in order to experience their own cause-effect relationships. Good paleo parents let kids play with pocket knives! 

One could argue that maturity and learning have become alienated from the moment of greatest potential, much the same way our eating habits have alienated us from the source of our very diets. A great many teachers, parents, and children feel we have delegated curricula, testing, assessment, scheduling, and the myriad school day-opportunities to “hunt” to a remote, barren, often sterile intellectual landscape.

We’ve lost the narrative thread of learning in favor of overly conceptualized and abstract reasoning, and skill sets that feel disconnected from practical living. The experiential diet given to children is forlorn from how we’d like to feel about learning, and from the learning our children will need to live in post-industrial settlements.

How many kids can come home and tell the story of actually making something at school? In other words, students shouldn’t simply be consumers of learning, but makers of their learning. One of the afflictions of affluence in learning is being relegated to consumption, not production. And how many kids get to come home and go play in the woods?

So, what would a paleo parenting diet include? It would be all of the things we look for in contemporary food sourcing trends: local, organic, free-range, seasonal ... imaginative, and, potentially, improvisational.

Sure, it might mean no GMO “grains” grown by packagers of experience – just knowledge and learning stimulated by need, ingenuity, availability, hunter-gatherer skill, and opportunity. How would the childhood diet change for the better? We would be nimble, self-reliant, questioning, adaptive, resilient. We would make our own tools, and migrate to follow “food supply.” We would feel “set down in a primal force at work.” What is the childhood learning equivalent of making flint arrowheads, or learning how close you can get to the fire? 

Yes, one could stretch the metaphor ad nauseam while speaking of processed foods versus foraging. Simply put, might the notion of paleo parenting be a model for raising the effective continuing learners that will be required in the workplace of the 21st century? Many of the things that early progressive educators, like Sarton’s teachers, were inspired by have come around again. I predict it will be trending soon. Watch your Twitter feed, info-hunter-gatherer-parents. 

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