Kids Would Be Happier If We Acted Like Our Hunter-Gatherer Ancestors — Here's Why

Anthropologists have seen how children in hunter-gatherer tribes spend most of their time playing outside
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Kids today have better health and education than at any other time in human history. So the big question has to be: ‘Why aren’t they any happier?’

Indeed, despite the convenience of 21st century life, we are seeing the reverse.

One in five children aged eight to 16 has a probable mental health condition, according to the latest NHS figures – and a range of research has found young people’s wellbeing has been in free-fall over the last decade.

As author of the ‘What’s my Child Thinking?’ series of books, who’s been charting children’s happiness over this period, I believe it’s time we looked at which aspects of our modern world are standing in the way.

While it’s true that for the vast majority of the last 100,000 years of homosapiens existence, childhood was tough and food was scarce, it also helps to look at how early humans successfully raised their young — against the odds.

Here’s some of the key ways returning to some of the primal parenting of our ancestors could help 21 century kids thrive again.

Eat Meals Together

From what anthropologists know of hunter-gatherer tribes in remote parts of the world, and from archaeological evidence, until we turned to farming about 12,000 years ago, humans lived in nomadic tribes of around 50 people made up of several families.

For most of the day, children spent it playing and foraging for food. But at the end of the day the tribe came together to eat around the fire which was used to cook.

Fast forward to the present day, and less than a third of families with kids regularly eat dinner together, due to a combination of children’s after-school-activities and parents’ different working hours.

By missing out on this essential bonding and sharing time, it means they are missing out on a dizzying array of benefits.

Research has found that regular family meals are linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety in kids, as well as higher rates of resilience and self-esteem, and even fewer eating disorders.

This seems to be because children feel like they are part of a family unit in which they are valued.

They also learn better communication skills and healthier attitudes to food.

How to be a more primal parent

As a family, you have 21 meals you could share together in a week. If you have different schedules, get creative. Weekend brunches or breakfasts work just as well, as long as you are all around the table, chatting and sharing food.

Make child-rearing a family job

When humans started to live longer and survive into their 40s around 30,000 years ago, (due to better food gathering techniques), it meant there were more older, experienced members of the tribe to pass knowledge down and help with raising younger ones.

It was the development of this supportive network of caregivers that helped ensure humankind’s survival and helped them to become the dominant species on earth, according to 2011 research from the University of Michigan.

And this idea of communal childcare, in which everyone helped raise the children of the family, lasted well into the last century.

Then over the 50 years there’s been a dramatic shift away from this approach.

Migration towards cities means different generations are far less likely to live close by — let alone under the same roof, as they often used to.

The creation of the welfare state also shifted the responsibility away from the idea that family members should help care for one another.

It means more recent generations of grandparents no longer see it as their role to help out.

This has left most modern children to be brought up by two, or fewer, stressed, parents, both working to pay for childcare and keep up with the cost of living.
As stress is contagious, children are also affected, often feeling hurried and being cared for by grown-ups too exhausted to meet their needs.

This is why for the wellbeing of modern children it would help to return to a whole family approach to raising the next generation.

Research by Oxford University researchers (2019) found that close grandparent-grandchild relationships are linked to a wide range of benefits for kids, making them happier, giving them higher self-worth and protecting them against depression, especially if their parents are no longer together.

How to be a more primal parent

While geography and your relationship with your parents will be a factor in how involved your parents and in-laws will be with your kids, don’t be afraid to let them know you need help.

Talk about how caring for grandchildren has been found in research to be good for grandparents’ longevity with some studies showing it reduces the risk of developing dementia. Work on ideas together with your parents on how to build a whole family team around your children which benefits every generation.

Feed them more whole, less processed foods

Hunter-gatherer children ate a varied diet of foraged foods, like fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, picked in their whole form.

Fast forward to the current day and children eat the highest proportion of ultra-processed foods, containing preservatives, cheap oils and added salts and sugars, than at any time in human history.

Indeed, ultra-processed foods make up 67% of the daily energy intake for the average 14-year-old child in the UK, according to a recent report by food charity First Steps Nutrition Trust.

However, we are finally starting to understand the critical link between what our children eat and how they feel.

Until recently, we tended to believe moods were only made in the mind. Now we know that diet makes a big difference to the production of mood-maintaining serotonin and other feel-good chemicals in the gut, where more than 90% is made.

When we give kids ultra-processed foods like pre-prepared meals, sausages and nuggets, as well as biscuits and cakes, it means they do not develop the gut microbiome they need to make these feel-good chemicals, making it harder for them to feel positive about life.

How to be a more primal parent

Explain to kids the link between what they eat and how they feel. Ask them to be curious about how they feel afterwards eating certain types of food.

Do they feel energetic and alive or sluggish and bloated? Explain that overall, they are likely to feel happier if they eat a rainbow of fresh foods which sows a lawn for their happiness chemicals to grow.

Ask them to shop with you so they can pick out the fruit and vegetables they like. Move towards cooking from scratch more rather than buying in ready meals. Involve your child so it becomes a fun bonding activity you do together.

Give them more playtime outside

From an early age, anthropologists have seen how children in remaining hunter-gatherer tribes spend most of their time playing outside with other kids of different ages.

They are left to it by the adults, who trust they are learning from one another and naturally developing the skills they will need as grown-ups.

There is no curriculum. Kids learn by ‘doing’ and finding out what they are capable of, creating a sense of confidence and resilience.

Childhoods in modern industrialised societies look very different.

Due to a mixture of fears about stranger danger, traffic, increasing homework, and rising screen time, the amount of time kids spend playing outside is dropping fast.

Research by the National Trust (2018) found that children in the UK play outside for an average of just four hours a week, half of the amount their parents did - and far less time than they spend on screens.

Even when they are on their own – for example walking home from school - it’s becoming normal for parents to track children with research showing that more than 40% of parents use GPS Location tracking every day on children.

This sends young people the message that they can’t be trusted to look after themselves.

When you look at the huge range of benefits of play and independent exploration for children, and how it makes them mentally and physically stronger - setting time aside for your kids to get outside becomes easier.

Look for ways outdoor play into your family life, by planning a weekly activity you all look forward to, whether it’s a bike-ride or a picnic or a trip to a new park.

Let them explore and take risks when they are outside, so they test their bodies to run faster, jump and climb. Even if they do get the occasional cut or bruise, it helps them learn they will bounce back and interact safely with nature.