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Tribal Blathering: Why Western Parents Have Little To Learn From Ancient Tribes

14/08/2014 16:50 | Updated 22 May 2015

Tribal blathering: Why Western parents have little to learn from ancient tribes

So there I was, pounding cassava root at sunrise while my children ran free in the forest, untroubled by thought or care... Not really. OK, so I was actually randomly squirting golden syrup on my seven-year-old's Shreddies when my eye was caught by a newspaper extract from Jay Griffiths' latest book, Kith, in the Guardian.

Now, according to Griffiths, we Western capitalist parents have much to learn from Ancient Tribes. Wise, they are, in the ways of rearing the younglings. She has visited them, and learned much of their simple wisdom.

They allow their children to run free! Not for them the evils of 'control' perpetuated on fat, florid and fearful Western brats by their overbearing parents. Not for them the 'torture' of controlled crying. Not for them the fetters and constraints of watching Scooby-Doo after school.

You might be familiar with Godwin's Law, which states that anyone who mentions Hitler or the Nazis during an internet argument has automatically lost. I now propose Jolin's Law, which runs thus: anyone who uses the justification: 'But they do it in Ancient Tribes! And they're all so much happier!' has lost, lost, lost, and must do penance by going forth into the wilderness at the time of their womanly courses and sitting, keening, on a pile of leaves.

Perhaps it's unfair to pick on Griffiths, though I did hoot aloud at her description of controlled crying as 'being an unwilling accomplice to torture.' She is, after all, only the most recent manifestation of this particularly annoying strand of birth and parenting advice – tribal blathering.

I first encountered it when pregnant with my first child. A well-known birthing centre attempted to charge me £15 for a small bottle of oil to massage my perineum, carrying on the well-known custom of 'ripping off the naive fool'.

"It's practised by South American tribes," the nice lady in the yoga trousers assured me.

I declined. I decided thereafter never to read a single pregnancy book that held up Ancient Tribes as role models. I got rid of a lot of pregnancy books.

I did, however, read Daniel Everett's excellent book, Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, in which he describes how Pirahã Indian mothers who live in the Amazonian jungle typically give birth alone, especially if they have no close female relatives. It is not the done thing to respond when a woman labouring by herself screams for help, as Pirahã women must be strong.

It's a great book. I find these other lives fascinating. There are some wonderful aspects to life as a Pirahã Indian. But they are not aspects that I feel the need to apply to my own life, because I am not a Pirahã Indian.

Not being any kind of expert in cultural relativism, I have no desire to criticise Ancient Tribes. I am sure they are perfectly happy hunting, fishing and storytelling (and watching extremely violent Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, as an eminent Arctic anthropologist informed me recently), and I am equally sure that they do not give a toss that I allow my children to put too much golden syrup on their Shreddies.

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It's the hectoring experts that annoy me. The ones who seem to think that we can't possibly simply appreciate another culture. No, we have to Learn From It, because we are so rubbish. Why?

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It's an utterly pointless guilt-making exercise. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't let my kids run wild in the local forest, or go hunting for ptarmigan. They tend to take a dim view of that kind of thing in my local park.

My immediate society isn't perfect. There are many things I don't like about it. But I operate within it as a parent to the best of my ability. Which, as far as I'm aware, precisely what Ancient Tribes do. There's no point in me applying how Inuit kids sleep to my own children. Might as well warn the Inuit kids to look out for school run traffic on the ice floes.

So perhaps it's time to stop beating ourselves up for, yet again, not living up to a totally impractical ideal, and think about all the things that we do get right. For some reason, I don't get much praise for my superb shoving-kids-into-car skills, honed over years of being late for stuff.

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Nobody ever visits me and writes in awe-inspired tones of my preternatural ability to take a work call while simultaneously throwing fish fingers into the oven and looking for a missing Lego head.

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Ancient Tribal parenting experts are clearly missing a trick. So I present to you Parenting the Slightly Stressed Western Way: It Seems To Work Out Fine Even Though Everyone Says You're Doing It Wrong. Not coming to a bookshop near you any time soon.

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