This book was first published in 1975. It sometimes shows it’s age, but remains a fascinating insight into the child rearing practices of the Yequana tribe of Venezuela. Jean Liedloff developed her philosophy of the Continuum Concept based on her observational research, spending time living with the tribe, and comparing their parenting and it’s outcomes to traditional Western parenting. As you might have guessed, the Yequana’s are the goodies in this equation, with Western parenting presented as a Dickensian villain.
My first critique is that her theories seem to be based purely on her own interpretations of her observations. So although more formal research may support some aspects of her beliefs, references to science are minimal, and the approach is very subjective. I think she’s certainly onto something here, but she compromises the validity of her work somewhat by getting carried away with speculation and hammering her point home with an industrial sledgehammer.
So, what is the Continuum Concept? In a nutshell..
We are born with a set of instinctive expectations of what life should be when we are a baby. They are based on the normal experiences of a Human child born in the wild. Her view is that evolution has not had time to catch up with the pace of change in the last few centuries. If our Continuum expectations are not fulfilled during babyhood, our sense of self is compromised, and we will spend our adult life trying to recreate them.
In practical terms, babies are born expecting to be held in their mothers arms and to be in close contact with caregivers most of the time. It’s highly distressing for babies to be left alone or not receive a response to their cries, as their expectations are to be in fear of the (once very real) risk of predators and they are very aware of their helpless reliance on others for survival.
The hallmarks of the tribe she lived with are that the children are well-behaved and happy with an excellent sense of self preservation. Adults are cheerful, patient and enjoy working. Jealousy and competitive feelings appear non-existent. Her conclusion is that this contrast with our more self-centred and unhappy Western society is due to the differences in child-rearing practices.
One aspect of her theory that struck a chord with me is the importance of a caregivers expectations. She believes that children are inherently programmed to do what is expected of them, not necessarily what they are told to do. So if a parent expresses surprise when a child does something good, they may feel they are offering encouragement, but the impression the child takes away is that they have done something that was not expected of them, and may be discouraged from doing it again. By pro-actively telling a child not to do something, you may be giving them the impression that you expect them to do it.
Once children are beyond babyhood, parenting in the Yequana tribe is based on using this sense of expectation. The adults get on with their work leaving children to do as they please, and trust that the children will look after themselves, and will gradually show increased interest in their activities until they are old enough to join in. This is invariably the case, with Yequana children showing no interest in rebelling.
Whilst I’m not prepared to let my child play with sharp knives as the Yequana’s do, I’m inspired to be mindful of this principle in the way I raise my daughter. I will try not to make too much of a song and dance about it when she does something good, and I will be careful not to give her ideas – ie. telling her not to do something before she has shown any sign of wanting to do it.
There are chunks of this book that are worth skipping – namely the lengthy description of the seven stages of hell that a crying Western baby goes though, and the spurious list of societal woes (including homosexuality) that can be attributed to our Western anti-continuum ways.
It’s also important to note that this does not serve as any kind of parenting manual. After putting forward a strong argument for Continuum child rearing practices, it offers little in the way of useful guidance as to how these practices could translate from a small jungle community to the infinitely more complex Western world. If you’re the type of Mum that wouldn’t dream of leaving your baby to cry, you can feel smug that your child’s Continuum needs are probably being well met. Hardly a shocking revelation.
However, criticism aside, it’s very much worth a read just for the insight into a civilisation so different to our own. It’s exciting to think about the breadth of cultural possibilities for our species. If you dream of a happier more caring world, this book will help you keep that dream alive.