Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Continuum Concept - Jean Liedloff

I scarcely felt I needed to read this book since I have seen so many quotes and reviews in all the attachment parenting literature that I have read. In fact I feel that it has become a bit of an attachment parenting cliche to justify any childcare practice by saying that the Yequana people of South America do it. But, nevertheless, rather than prejudging, I thought I should read the book and make up my own mind.

So, if you have not already heard of it, The Continuum Concept is one of the original attachment parenting texts: it is a parenting classic. It came out in 1975 after the author, Jean Liedloff, spent two and a half years living in the South American jungle with a tribe called the Yequana. She observed that they had a much greater sense of well-being than was customary in the West and, through her observations of their lifestyle, concluded that it was the way they raised their children that gave them this greater self esteem.

The idea of the "continuum concept" is basically to live the life that evolution prepared us for. She argues that evolution has honed humans to occupy a specific ecological niche and that in order to make the most of our bodies and minds, we need to live in the conditions that evolution has led us to expect. In particular, she says that if babies meet conditions that are not as they expected, they cannot fully develop and mature. The conditions that babies expect, she says, are constant carrying during the day and co-sleeping at night. The "in-arms" phase, as she calls it, lasts until the baby can crawl, from which point it should be allowed to explore its surroundings without restriction.

She goes on to describe how just about every human failing can be traced back to a break in an individual's continuum. Since virtually everyone in the West has a wonky continuum, due to an unfulfilled in-arms phase, we have totally lost sight of what "healthy" is. For us, "normal" is broken.

Actually I agree with her theory that in order to develop healthily, we should bring up our babies as our ancestors did. I think she is quite right that it must be damaging to live outside of the niche that we evolved to occupy. At the very least, it must make it very difficult for us to completely fulfill our potential. Humans are designed to be carried as babies and we are designed to co-sleep (why else would we synchronise our breathing with our parents?). Cots and prams are modern inventions which are totally baby-unfriendly, but to say so out loud in Britain is to be looked upon as some kind of weird extremist.

However, if I wanted to be cynical about this book then there is a lot to be cynical about. For a start, how does she know that the Yequana people are happy because of their childhoods? Could it not be because of the food they eat or the surroundings they live in? Everything about their lives is so very different to ours that our differences cannot be pinned down just to our childrearing techniques. Her arguments really hit the buffers when she admits that the neighbouring Sanema tribe, who also live by the continuum, have a habit of raiding their nearby villages, stealing their women and slaughtering their menfolk. I can see why she kept that one quiet until the end of the book. But I suspect that if I voiced my misgivings to Jean Liedloff she would say, "Ah, but you would say that because your continuum is broken so you don't understand." She really has the perfect argument - everyone in the West is damaged so none of us are qualified to disagree with her.

The book might be flawed but that doesn't really matter, because it has provided a great talking point for over 30 years, and I am sure that Jean Liedloff is quite satisfied with that. It might not be a cast iron theory, but she planted a seed that has grown into attachment parenting with its central tenets of babywearing, co-sleeping and breastfeeding. As a scientific argument, it didn't really work for me. But as a piece of history, as a hugely influential text, it was definitely worth reading. If you have seen the quotes and heard the theory then I would recommend giving the original book a go.

9 comments:

allgrownup said...

I also feel this book is quoted like billy-o in many books I've read! Anything that brings parents one step closer to loving their babies the was we were programmed to is ok with me :-)

docwitch said...

Good post. There's a lot worth taking on board from this book, but I tend to agree with you when you say:

"But I suspect that if I voiced my misgivings to Jean Liedloff she would say, "Ah, but you would say that because your continuum is broken so you don't understand." She really has the perfect argument - everyone in the West is damaged so none of us are qualified to disagree with her".

Also, although I am someone who is pro attachment parenting, this theory, and the way Leidloff and the like lay it out, can be guilt-inducing to those parents who have little choice in whether they can follow this method.

It's an approach that is often taken up by the fairly privileged (educated, middle classes of which I belong myself), certainly not exclusively, but for those parents who have to go and work, or who may suffer illness or for whatever reason cannot adopt attachment parenting, it's a pretty bleak and dire prognosis (in fact, quite damning in many ways) for their children if we are to believe everything the Liedoff et al says.

I think you also raise a very relevant and crucial point when you question how do we know that the source of the Yequana's happiness is their childhoods, (although commonsense would suggest that this is the case to a certain degree), and not their food, enviro, etc? It's a bit of a paternalistic, Western template that Liedoff has taken and applied to a culture in order to draw the conclusions that she's drawn. I have real issues with these kinds of idealisations (and 'othering') of "primitive" cultures.

Jessica - This is Worthwhile said...

Terrific review! I haven't read the book, but based on your summary, the Continuum Concept is also based on a village raising a child, am I right? In as much, it's a LOT easier to keep an infant in your arms until she's crawling when there are aunts, uncles, siblings, and friends around.

The West is so far removed from a community family that it sometimes seems impossible to me that we'll ever get back to our roots.

Those of us who are sensitive to this sleep with our babies, wear them as much as humanly possible, and try to be as gentle and humane with the resources available. At the end of a few hours, a mother alone in a house will eventually have to put her baby down, and possibly for prolonged periods of time (to cook, shower, whatever).

I love that books like this exist.

Cave Mother said...

docwitch and Jessica - you both allude to the guilt we can be made to feel by books like this. I was made to feel guilty by some of the stuff it said and I am someone who has tried to parent like she wants me to. There was a very harrowing bit about newborn babies placed in cots and there was me feeling really bad about putting Cave Baby in a moses basket for her first night. The shame!

I forgot to mention the funniest bit - she justifies her recommendation of co-sleeping by saying she co-slept with a monkey that she adopted! Hmmm, not sure how relevant that is Jean.

cartside said...

I guess any approach needs to be checked against common sense.
I haven't read this book, but with every book I read I found useful bits and those that I didn't agree with. Best thing is to adapt to one's own instinctive feeling of what's right and what isn't. Being open to change one's view is part of that. Like, both hubby and I vowed never to cosleep and threw that vow over board very quickly ;). Both of us. It worked a treat.

clareybabble said...

Really interesting review and I might just borrow it from the library. I love to read about different parenting methods, even if they differ from my own. Great post.

Darcel said...

I've heard a lot about this book. Think I'll read it.

edenwild said...

The Continuum Concept has influenced my parenting style a great deal. But yes, she does tend to instill guilt if you don't get it perfect. I've gotten over the guilt part, and I try to take what I can from the example of the Yequana people, which I do think is more than just the points she emphasized. In fact, I recently read about a study that showed that children who spend a lot of time outdoors have better personalities and are better at sharing. So obviously all that fresh all is doing something for them. And of course the whole village aspect. It's impossible to live a perfect continuum life when we live in isolated nuclear families.

Anonymous said...

Take and leave what you like of The Continuum. You may want to apply all principles or just take a little of its inate wisdom. Whatever gets you through the night..it's alright.
Having been a friend of the author for many years it is not correct to say it is one of the "original attachment parenting texts", Jean did not like her work compared to attachment parenting and if you time line the release of her book she was fairly plagerised. However the end result was good for the new era of parenting post Spock. She did say scheduled feeding came from well meaning tho misguided parents. I think that is very relevant.