Posts tagged ‘evolutionary parenting’

Book Review: The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff

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.

Lightbulb moment

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.

In conclusion…

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.

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The “good baby” myth

Life as a new Mum in Leyton is a life lived on buses. There’s not much going on, and the bus is the most convenient escape route for those brandishing an unwieldy pram. I make this point to excuse myself for two blog posts in a row based loosely around something that happened on a bus (insert predictable “you wait and two come at once” joke here).

So I was on the bus, and the grandmother of the baby in the pram slot next to mine struck up the normal small talk – how old, boy or girl, etc. Then she said “Is she good?”. Filled with pride, I gave her a knowing look, and said “Yes, she’s really good”.

What do people mean when they refer to a baby as “good”? They normally mean a baby that sleeps a lot (when convenient for the parents) and doesn’t cry very much. It’s a strange phrase to use, as it suggests that babies who don’t conform to these standards are somehow “bad”.

If I were to have taken her meaning as above and answered in all honesty, my little girl is going through a not so “good” phase at the moment. She is waking often in the night, and is sometimes finding it difficult to get back to sleep. She goes through phases of crying a lot during the day. But I answered as I did because there is no such thing as a “bad” baby. There are just babies who happen to be content or babies who happen to be distressed. Whether she is happy or sad, my baby is pretty much the best thing in my world – “good” is understating it.

Of course, the lady on the bus was very well meaning, and would have been sympathetic if I’d have chosen to bore her with a detailed account of my baby’s sleep routine. Referring to babies as “good” is so ingrained in our language, that it would be ridiculous to suggest people stop; I often do it myself without thinking. But it is symptomatic of the value placed on quiet / convenient babies in our society, and the latent pressure on parents to manage their behaviour.

It makes me sad to think that there is a burgeoning industry in books on how to train babies to cry less. Crying is the main form of communication that a baby has, and it’s a dangerous myth that no crying always equals a happy baby. If a baby has been trained to understand that crying will not bring the attention and comfort that it needs, it will stop crying not because it’s happy, but because it has given up. Why any loving parent would want their baby to stop communicating with them is beyond me.

For those with a passing interest in babies or developmental psychology, the article below makes for a fascinating read. It challenges those who advocate “cry it out” techniques with research-based evidence.

Evolutionary Parenting: Educating the experts

Each time I am kept awake at 4am by an unhappy baby, I take a deep breath and remind myself that (contrary to popular belief) babies do not cry just for the joy of being a pain in the ass. Being a pain in the ass is what their teenage years are for.