For years now, I’ve been meaning to write something about how The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff relates to our parenting style and a lot of my life experiences. It’s a big idea, and I have a lot of scattered notes stashed in a draft post, but so far I haven’t even gotten around to adding this book to my list of Books That Blew My Mind. This is what 7 Quick Takes Friday is good for! After giving a brief summary of this concept I’m talking about, I’ll tell you just 7 specific experiences we’ve had with applying it to our urban, non-tribal, high-tech lives.
The Continuum Concept is about Liedloff’s observations of the Yequana, a primitive South American tribe she accidentally wound up living with for a while. She came to the conclusion that their way of life, compared with the “civilized” world, was more in tune with the way human beings are intended to live, the way our minds and bodies are wired. I do not agree with everything she wrote, but it is very interesting and inspiring, and I highly recommend this book!
A lot of people mistake The Continuum Concept for a how-to or advice book. It isn’t. It’s more like, “Here are a bunch of ideas that really shook me up and made me see things in a whole new way! I want everyone to think about them, and I hope you’ll be as transformed by them as I was.” Given that it’s not a how-to manual, and that most of us are not willing to drop everything to join a Stone Age tribe in the jungle, what can we do? I’m not claiming to have it all figured out! We only have one child, so we can’t say for sure which outcomes result from our parenting strategies and which come from his own personality. But these 7 things have worked out well for us:
1. We gave him early and frequent experience in social/public settings, including those not designed specifically for children. I started taking him out on errands, to church, and to Brownie meetings when he was 10 days old. Wherever possible, we walked or took public transit, so that I could hold him in the sling instead of isolating him in the carseat, and he could see lots of people. I was willing to reduce the outings if Nicholas seemed very uncomfortable during them, but he was just fine–in fact, from about 7 weeks on, he was strikingly less fussy and needy when in a big group of people! He was just like the babies Liedloff describes: alertly watching what people are doing, relatively calm with soft muscle tone, occasionally making sounds and gestures that seemed like approximations of the behaviors he was observing. He was nearly 3 years old before he became more interested in being actively involved in things (talking, getting attention, feeling entertained) than in simply watching and imitating. Even now, at 6 years old, he has no objection to being the only child present at such adult events as dinner in a restaurant, a committee meeting, or the Ash Wednesday Rite II Holy Eucharist.
2. We chose a home childcare center where children of various ages were together. In a traditional village, a baby would not be at home with only his mother, nor would he be in a group of children all the same age; he would spend time with older children (not only his siblings, if any, but all the children of the village) and later with younger children as well. Liedloff observed that Yequana mothers were not the only people who cared for their babies; other people of both sexes and all ages spent some time with the babies. I went back to work when he was 12 weeks old primarily because I like my job, but I also felt it was crucial for my child to have influences other than me. (Contact me if you want a referral to a great home childcare in Pittsburgh!)
3. We spoke grammatically correct English and didn’t much limit our vocabulary. Sure, we sometimes used that “talking to a baby” inflection, but our word choice was pretty much normal right from the beginning. (The occasional, “Who’s my izzy wuzzle?” moment is inevitable!) We just saw no point in teaching a child a special children’s dialect, only to turn around and teach standard English later! Not only is that complicated, but it sets apart children as a separate class of people instead of just smaller, less experienced members of the family. We didn’t use third person in talking about him or ourselves (“Mama give Nicholas a blankie!”); we figured that referring to each other as Mama and Daddy when talking to the baby would be adequate to teach him what to call us, and it was. Nicholas used pronouns correctly from an earlier age than most kids, and his vocabulary and pronunciation have been ahead of the curve.
4. We did not do anything resembling “sleep training.” We just allowed him to sleep whenever he happened to sleep, and we taught him by example that sleeping is the thing we do from late night until morning. He began catching on to our schedule by 4 weeks old, and by 10 weeks he had almost completely stopped waking, except to nurse and go immediately back to sleep, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. He did not have to be “put to bed” until he was 2 years old; as a baby, sometime between 9 and 11 p.m. he simply conked out after nursing and stayed asleep for 2-5 hours until he got hungry. His sleep was disturbed by noise, light, or movement only if it was sudden or extreme; he easily slept in the sling as I walked down the street or in a basket on the dining room floor as we walked around him, talked, and played music. By 5 months he had settled into morning, afternoon, and early evening naps at semi-predictable times, but there was no need to plan our schedule around his sleeping because we could move him while he was sleeping and take him almost anywhere without preventing sleep. Things got more complicated when he got older–heavier to carry, interested in bedtime stories, more aware of all the fun things one might do instead of sleeping, inclined (like his parents) to stay up late and sleep later into the morning than is compatible with his school schedule–but there hasn’t been any problem we felt was caused by our being flexible about sleep when he was a baby. Here’s more about how our approach to sleeping evolved as he grew.
5. We trusted his safety instincts and sense of his own abilities. He learned to climb and descend stairs safely, without a baby-gate. We did install a gate, but it kept pulling loose from the wall (how safe is that?) and we could see he didn’t need it because he treated the head of the stairs with great respect, as he did all visual cliff situations. At 10 months, he figured out how to crawl up the stairs. Then he wanted to go down, so he crawled to the edge of the top step and looked down. (I was right there watching, ready to catch him if it came to that but not holding out my hands as if I expected him to do it wrong.) He stretched his hand tentatively toward the next step down, but just as he touched it he felt himself begin to tip forward, so he pulled back. After a few rounds of this, he knew he couldn’t crawl down headfirst, so he sat back and cried, but he stopped trying that approach and stayed away from the top of the stairs. Over the next month, we saw him studying the problem by climbing in various directions on and off a cushion placed on the floor. One day he did this in a sideways-then-backward fashion, looked up with a “Eureka!” expression, climbed up the two steps to the landing and came back down using that method, then chortled, “Aha!!” and zoomed up the stairs to make a careful, perfect descent. Ever since, we’ve found that Nicholas knows what he can and can’t do. He can do a lot of things I couldn’t until I was much older, so it’s hard for me to let him walk on the tops of retaining walls and so forth, but I’ve seen that he really isn’t reckless and is quite willing to admit that he isn’t big enough or skilled enough for some of the things he’d like to do.
6. We pay attention to him the way we do any other person. We don’t hover over him because he’s a child, nor do we treat him as insignificant and bothersome because he’s a child. If he is talking, I look at him and listen. If I feel like talking, I talk to him. If he is crying, I look for a way to comfort him. If he expresses hunger, I see that he gets something to eat. Obviously he needs more help doing things than an older person would (and used to need more help than he does now), but I don’t think of that as “attention” really–if I was sitting at the table eating oatmeal with the baby in my lap, and after each bite I took I offered him a bite, that didn’t take a whole lot of attention; I could read while doing it. When his father and I are having a conversation, if he wants to get involved in discussing the subject, that’s fine–we only get annoyed if he interrupts with something unrelated. We expect him to be “seen and not heard” no longer than we’d expect polite silence from an adult companion who’s uninterested in the subject we’re discussing.
7. We haven’t pushed him away. From birth, we respected his need to be near other people to feel safe. We didn’t hold him all the time as Liedloff recommends, but we picked him up quickly when he fussed and held him a lot of the time even when he was calm. He didn’t have a high chair until he was 11 months old and getting awkward to hold in our laps while eating. As an infant he was content in his baby seat or lying on a mat while we were no more than one room away, but once he became adept at crawling, it was obvious that he preferred to be near another person at all times. This pretty much eliminated worries about his getting hurt or into mischief because he stays where we can see him! It’s still true, most of the time, at 6 years old. Yes, it’s sometimes annoying that he doesn’t just go play in his room and give us some privacy, and sometimes he wants me to be in the room he wants instead of following me where I’m going . . . but mostly we appreciate the connectedness, and we know it won’t last forever. He is becoming more independent gradually, as he’s ready for it.
In fact, this week Nicholas wanted to walk to school by himself. He talked about it for a few days, and then yesterday morning he announced he was ready to do it. We live only a few blocks from the school, in a very safe neighborhood, and many other children and some parents walk to school, and the only intersection with significant traffic has a crossing guard . . . but had my thinking out loud taught him the skills he needed to be safe from cars at the quieter intersections? He said confidently, “I know to look at the driver’s face to see if they’re going to wait for me. If they’re not looking at me, they might not have seen me. And they might be turning even if they don’t have the blinker on.” I decided to let him go. He was fine. He wasn’t alone, really, just moving independently through this crowded world, in familiar places with plenty of people in sight.
But this morning he asked me to walk with him again. “I missed talking to you, Mama.” That was fine, too.