Before Dr Sears and Attachment Parenting, there was The Continuum Concept. In the 70s, Jean Liedloff stayed with an Amazonian tribe for reasons completely unrelated to parenting. This fateful trip changed her life… And the life of many women around the globe who believed in a gentler way to parent.
What did Jean Liedloff discover? She discovered that, quite simply, you can be in tune with your baby, take care of him, love him, and not let him cry, and (it’s a big and!) you could absolutely be happy while doing so. Happier, in fact, than pretty much any Western parent around.
Today, many of us try to regain our lost Continuum, and yet… I see a lot of unhappiness in moms who go against the grain, and try to apply concepts from the Yequana tribe to their daily life. Here are the top 5 reasons why the Continuum Concept was misunderstood, and what we can do about it.
1) “Our children’s lives should not be scheduled” – I hear that a lot. It’s true that the lives of Western kids are overscheduled, and with the wrong kinds of activities. Children are rushed, pushed too fast too soon, and it’s not making anyone happy.
But, the Yequana children actually did have a scheduled life. It was just a different kind of scheduling. In the morning, people would wake up, some chores had to be attended to, food had to be gathered or hunted, it had to be prepared, habitations might need fixing, clothes might need to be mended or made, etc. And of course, the tribe followed the sun’s schedule – we wake up, we do things, we cool down, we go to sleep.
I see a lot of Continuum moms just drifting from hour to hour, not quite sure what to do, not feeling like they have time to do anything, and with totally bored children. How do we fix this? Follow a routine that children can understand, with steps they can anticipate. Maybe have a cleaning routine in the morning, then have your child help prepare lunch. He will probably delight in playing with the sink water “washing” the dishes, while you wipe the counters clean and fill the dishwasher. Then, after lunch, maybe have a quiet hour. Franklin is resisting “quiet time” on his own, but he’ll gladly sit down on the couch and have me read him books for an hour. You can sip a nice cup of tea at the same time, and nourish your soul. Some children will resist being indoors, and that’s fine. Replace quiet time with a walk in the forest, or go to a park. Have a similar routine everyday. Children find comfort in repetition. I do too!
2) “We should focus all our attention on our children” – Continuum mothers understand pretty easily, I think, that children shouldn’t be the center of our attention. Instead, they should be part of the community as avid observers, ready to learn and imitate. But when it comes to our daily lives, it is one of the most difficult Continuum Concept guidelines to follow. Imagine being a new mother… You’re home all day, there’s no one to talk to except your baby, and pretty much all you have to do is tend to your baby’s needs and clean the house. Well… Pretty quick, you’ll be focusing all your attention on the baby, since by comparison, everything seems pretty boring!
But, that’s a mistake. Children don’t want to be the center of attention (although they do enjoy it, it makes them uncomfortable, and they don’t really want to be in charge). They want to learn from us, watch us as we interact with others, go through tasks, etc. Eventually, as they get bigger, they’ll want to imitate you – pretend to pour tea, pretend to talk on the phone, pretend to vacuum. Not only is it very cute, it’s also important for their inner development!
How to remedy this? Create a routine, like mentioned in #1. This morning, I cleaned half of my house, and it was spotless by 11 am. I put on some music on Pandora, put Nicholas in a sling since he was fighting sleep and was waking up every time I’d put him down, and went through my routine. Kitchen first, then dining room, then sitting room. I then put some quiche in the oven to reheat, and made an arugula/kale/chard/spinach salad. And finally, I walked to Franklin’s preschool to pick him up. Before leaving, I set the table, placed a few books on the table (Franklin eats better when I read to him) and I left.
3) “Removed from tribal life, motherhood is a lonely, difficult journey”: Again, something Continuum mothers understand intuitively, yet fail to return to when joy disappears from their life. Often, we will assume (I say “we” because I most definitely felt that way at first) that our lack of joy comes from society. We are so far removed from the tribal Yequana life that we often feel the lack of joy is inevitable in our world.
But, even if things aren’t perfect, it is possible to parent the way we want to and experience the bliss that is our birth right. When I gave birth to my first son, I was totally isolated (mainly because before I had kids, I was the solitary type who worked all the time and didn’t make friends.) Now with my 2nd child, I see adults every day. I talk to some, and not to others. Sometimes, good old solitary Joanna wants to bury herself in her tablet and organize her inbox while Franklin plays. But the point is, I have a choice. I can totally chat with other moms while I bounce Nick in the Moby and Franklin runs with other kids. You don’t need to live in the Amazon to experience the joys of a community.
4) “I should carry my baby at all times, or at the very least when he’s showing signs of unhappiness”: Jean Liedloff definitely recommended carrying the baby at all times. But it didn’t have to be one single person’s job! A Yequana mom’s friend could do it, or her own mom, or the father. Moms aren’t superheros, and sometimes they need a break too. It doesn’t matter if said mom lives in a jungle, or a busy city. In the excellent book You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, author Rahima Baldwin tells the story of a woman in Mexico who tried to raise her child the Continuum Concept way, and quickly started to burn out. As it turns out, she was carrying the baby constantly, and no one was helping her. In tribal societies, a lot of different people close to the child care for him or her. Mom shouldn’t be the only one to carry and care for the baby.
5) “Choices empower our children, and makes them feel valued and respected”: In one of her last interviews, Jean Liedloff discussed this issue of choices. Now, don’t get me wrong, I definitely give Franklin choices. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I try to give 2 choices that both work for me (“Do you want to eat lunch with a regular fork, or your special green fork?” I don’t care what he chooses, as long as he eats his lunch). According to Jean Liedloff though, choices don’t empower children, they just confuse them. They want a strong, confident part who will give one choice only, and everyone follows. This definitely doesn’t work with Franklin, at least not in my opinion, but if it works for other children, I think that’s great!
The Continuum Concept: In Search Of Happiness Lost is a landmark book about raising children in a way that maximizes happiness for parents and their children. But in our society, it’s so difficult to misinterpret it, or lose sight of Jean Liedloff’s true message. To avoid this, whenever you feel unhappy as a parent, think about what it causing you trouble. Are you feeling lonely? Are you the only care taker of your child? Motherhood should be a happy, blissful journey, not one of struggle!
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