An Interview with Jean Liedloff
More than thirty years ago an intrepid young writer/editor/fashion model answered a friend’s invitation to hunt for diamonds in the South American jungle. Along the way, however, she discovered a different kind of treasure. It was one whose enormous value would become apparent only with time.
Her rare and unexpected find: the Yequana, an indigenous people still living in the Stone Age. By her fourth prolonged stay with them she began to notice something profoundly different about their children. They were intrinsically happy and developmentally sound, and furthermore, they enjoyed non-adversarial relationships with parents, siblings and peers alike.
Thus began the mother of all improbable stories. The anthropologist without portfolio was Jean Liedloff, and she couldn’t help puzzling over what could be setting these kids so strikingly apart from any Western children in her experience. The mothering practices of the Yequana women suddenly came into focus. Liedloff observed that the Yequana, unlike most Western mothers, were in constant physical contact with their babies until the babies started moving around on their own. By day mothers carried their babies in slings. This way the baby had access to the breast and could nurse at will. By night each family shared a single sleeping place, allowing the baby’s attachment to the mother to proceed uninterrupted.
Liedloff also noticed that the babies were not the center of their mothers’ attention. The mothers would stop and lovingly address the baby’s signals; otherwise she went about tending to household, village and social needs, and the infant was simply along for the ride. She noted, too, that Yequana parents and other adults didn’t initiate contact or activities with their children after babyhood, but were readily available when the children needed them. Children spent most of their time with their peers, as did the adults with theirs. Because Yequana parents placed such great faith in a child’s instinct for self-preservation, the children enjoyed a great deal of freedom and displayed a corresponding level of autonomous functioning rarely seen in children in the West.
So impressed was Liedloff by the mental, emotional and physical vitality of the Yequana children that she ultimately wrote a book about her discoveries, which is in its twenty-sixth printing and has been translated into numerous foreign languages. She decided to call it The Continuum Concept, indicating that the children of the Yequana were happy, competent and self-assured because the Yequana were still in touch with their “continuum,” or the evolutionary knowledge, with which all humans are born, of the way human beings are supposed to live.
A quarter-century after the book’s publication, Liedloff continues to attract a worldwide following of parents intent on raising children without the alienation they found so prevalent in their own childhoods. Her childrearing beliefs — that infants should be in constant physical contact with the mother (or another familiar caregiver); sleep in the parents’ bed until they leave of their own volition; breastfeed in response to their own body signals; be constantly carried in arms or otherwise be in contact with caregivers and allowed to observe while the caregivers go about their daily business until the infant begins crawling; have caregivers respond immediately to their needs without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation, yet showing no undue concern or making them the center of attention — are falling on increasingly receptive ears.
I interviewed Jean by phone on her houseboat in Sausalito, California, which she shares with her cat Tulip.
Chris Mercogliano: John Holt is reported to have said about The Continuum Concept when it first came out in 1975: “I don’t know whether the world can be saved by a book, but if it could be, this might just be the book.” Why do you think he said that?
Jean Liedloff: That was such high praise it was almost embarrassing. But I think Holt said it because he felt as I do that a huge quantum of the individual alienation and neurosis in Western civilization is caused by people feeling inadequate, not quite good enough. Practically a hundred percent of us suffer from this condition to one extent or another.
Then there are our social problems. Take drug and alcohol abuse, for instance. Why is it that people are so discontented with their customary state of consciousness that they feel compelled to alter it repeatedly to the point of addiction? Is it because of genetics? I don’t think so. Or why are so many teenage girls longing to be pregnant? And what about the increasingly violent criminality in our society? I think John would agree with me that these are all manifestations of a very generalized longing and anger that are seething under the surface in most everybody. It’s a pandemic illness.
Chris: Is this what your book tapped into, people’s subtle awareness that it contained a solution to the malaise that is the root of many of our most serious problems?
Jean: I think so. There is an almost universal sense of wrongness about self that underlies everything I’m talking about. This wrongness about self — which is erroneous because there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our selves — can be traced back to parental authority.
Chris: How so?
Jean: It is our genetic nature as a species to believe as young children that our parents and elders are right. We watch them to see what’s what. Later on we can judge for ourselves and rebel if need be, but when we’re just months old, or a year or two, and a parent looks at us with impatience, or disgust, or disdain, or just leaves us there to cry and doesn’t answer us even though we’re longing to be embraced and nurtured, we assume that something must be wrong with us.
Unfortunately, at that age it’s impossible to think there might be something wrong with them. The parents are totally desirable and the child is nothing but desire. So when they don’t want us, we begin to feel we’re not good enough. Our nature is such that if we need something we cry to get relief. The signal is automatic. But when those very creatures to whom the cry is obviously directed ignore it, how else can we feel? We can’t stop wanting them because they’re all there is to want.
From there it’s not that difficult to make the connection between people who are anti-self and those who are antisocial. There’s no mystery. Look at the way Kliebold and Harris acted out their feelings of unacceptability at Columbine High School.
Chris: So what’s the answer?
Jean: The two words that I’ve arrived at to describe what we all need to feel about ourselves, children and adults, in order to perceive ourselves accurately, are worthy and welcome. If you don’t feel worthy and welcome, you really won’t know what to do with yourself. You won’t know how to behave in a world of other people. You won’t think you deserve to get what you need.
Of course your parents are the authorities when you are small, and if they make you feel unwelcome, then that’s the way you are going to feel. It’s not a question of reason or choosing. And then feeling unworthy is just an extension of feeling unwelcome.
When I consult with people, the very first thing I do is to help them to see what’s been true all along, even though they didn’t know it, that they are worthy and they are welcome. I get them to understand that their parents were wrong, and that what they wanted as infants and little children — to be held and accepted — was right.
It’s not that their parents were evil. They were just taught the wrong things about parenting, and they were treated wrongly as children, too. They are just as much victims as their children.
Chris: When you were writing the book back in the 70s, did you ever imagine it would have such an enormous impact, that it would spawn an entire movement?
Jean: Not at the time. I just felt I had an important story to tell. But I remember being in London the day the book first came out, and there was a lead article about it in the Sunday Times book review. It never occurred to me that this might happen because I had never written a book before, and hadn’t read all that many either, I might add.
Chris: Are you surprised now?
Jean: Today it’s much more that I’m frustrated because I can’t get the message out to everyone. I’m longing to figure out how I can appear on Oprah, or whatever is necessary to incorporate the continuum concept into the conventional wisdom on parenting, so that parents will know what homo sapiens children require in order to be happy. I just want to take parents by the shoulders and say, “Look, it is our nature that all babies must be held, must be slept with, must be made to feel welcome.”
Then we won’t have to go on building more prisons, and hiring more psychiatrists, and reading more self-help books. Bit by bit our neuroses will lessen if we just begin by imitating the right behavior. Then, little by little, it will take root because it is our nature.
One of the first women who read the book in England when it came out said to me, “I wouldn’t dream of carrying around my baby all the time. It would be like lugging a sack of potatoes.” But when the baby was actually born, you see, the birth hormones choreographed the dance and she wanted to hold that baby. Then, when she put the baby down and it cried, she didn’t need a dictionary to know what the signal meant. She respected the baby and responded to its cry, and didn’t listen to Dr. Spock* telling her that she would spoil the baby by picking it up. She honored her own instinct that the baby was calling for help, and she knew what it wanted. This knowledge is built into every parent.
Chris: I know, but we’re faced with a generation of young parents who were born to parents who weren’t in touch with their parental instincts. Maybe they were raised by strangers in daycare centers while both their parents worked, meaning that the continuity of instinctive knowledge has big gaps in it at this point. How do we address that?
Jean: The point is that we’re all born with our instincts, but we’re taught by the culture from very early on not to respect them and to doubt them. So it’s a question of recognizing that we have instincts, and then honoring them, In other words, right now, this minute, if a baby cries in Grand Rapids, let’s say, and a truck driver next door hears it, the signal will be perfectly clear. He’ll know that baby needs something. But today the custom is to say, “If you pick it up now, it will just start crying again when you put it back down.” Well, of course, it will, because you shouldn’t have put it down in the first place!
Chris: I see a lot of young parents today who seem to lack the instinctive or common sense parenting skills that my mother had.
Jean: Can you give me an example?
Chris: How about a father who can’t ask his three-year-old to put away the crayons? The little boy just sits at the table shrieking and throwing them everywhere except back in the box, totally ignoring his father’s pleas.
Jean: By the time a child is throwing crayons and screaming “no!” the situation has already gone way off. The question is not so much how you handle that, it’s how did the relationship get to this point? This kind of behavior is a protest on the child’s part. It’s done to get a reaction.
You have to remember that it’s the parents who declare war in the first place, usually just about at birth. The adversarial relationship begins then, and by the time a child is two, it’s all he’s ever known. Suddenly he discovers that he has the power to make his parents react: I pushed the button and the monkey jumped. Let me try it again and see what happens. When the monkey jumps again, he is amazed. No sane child can resist this power, once he finds out he has it.
What we see very often lately are parents who are trying to be permissive because it’s the latest style — being understanding and loving and all of that — and they start obeying the child instead of the other way around. Now the child knows instinctively that this isn’t right. A two-year-old feels very uncomfortable about being in charge of the household. He expects a natural hierarchy where the adults know what to do and don’t allow their behavior to be changed by little Johnny.
The first thing I tell my clients is stop obeying their children. Amazingly quickly, the child feels more serene and secure — once they’re sure the parents won’t obey. The trouble is that many parents will resist for a little while and eventually give in. The child learns that he will still get his way if he only pushes hard enough. But, of course, then he feels insecure all over again.
Chris: It’s a vicious cycle.
Jean: It’s counter-intuitive. It looks as though you’re doing the child a favor when you go along with him, but in fact, you’re not. It’s much better for parents to be calm and confident, and not allow their childrten to change their behavior.
Chris: Is there the possibility of parents who are practicing the continuum concept and the family bed becoming over-attached to their kids?
Jean: There has been a problem with parents being child-centered, and in some cases even child worshipping — practically creating little emperors. I encourage parents to respect their children’s needs, but not to treat them like little gods.
I didn’t foresee this problem of child centeredness, but when I realized what was happening, I tried to address it in the introduction in subsequent editions of the book. I’ve also written about it in Mothering magazine. But, you know, I never intended for the book to become a childrearing manual. I was just writing what I saw in South America.
Chris: You were very clear in the book that the Yequana mothers seldom made their infants the center of their attention.
Jean: That’s right. Most of the time they were paying attention to what they were doing, or they were talking with someone. They weren’t constantly looking into the baby’s eyes and cooing to it, and going on and on. The Yequana baby is in the middle of everything and knows that it’s welcome there, but it’s not the center of attention.
Chris: Then, you made the point that once the infants became secure on their feet, they would begin to wander off to play with the other children, and their parents took for granted that their kids would be sensible and keep themselves safe. Little Yequana kids would follow behind their parents on the jungle paths, and the parents wouldn’t look back to make sure the kids were there.
Jean: What we do in this culture, which is a mistake, is to follow the children around. I advise people who are at the end of the “in-arms” phase, when their infants start to creep, and then crawl, and then walk, to go about their own business doing useful, interesting things in and around the house. Don’t just sit around in front of a computer or a book, but do the things that any reasonable hunter/gatherer would do like cooking, or gardening, or housework, or talking and laughing with your friends — things that a young child can see some kind of sense in. This way the child can follow you and watch you, which is the way nature intended. Then inevitably they will want to imitate you and help you. You don’t have to ask them. They will automatically want to participate in the life that is unfolding around them, and they will naturally begin to move toward independence, just like any animal.
Chris: Today we have this incredible obsession with safety. Kids rarely do anything on their own any more. Almost all of their activities are supervised and they aren’t allowed to play outdoors by themselves.
Jean: Part of the trouble is the way we keep suggesting to children that they’re going to hurt themselves. We don’t seem to have even a faint notion of how powerful our authority is in their eyes. We put gates at the tops of stairs, and then we accidentally leave it open one day and down they plunge because the suggestion was so strong that, if the gate isn’t locked, then they are going to fall. But if there were no gate they wouldn’t fall.
Chris: You observed in the jungle that the children all had a very reliable sense of self-preservation.
Jean: All animals do! You don’t try to prevent cows, or sheep or pussycats from falling. They don’t trip over the edges of cliffs. We think that homo sapiens are the only ones stupid enough to do that. We don’t trust our children not to walk into a fire, but we trust puppy dogs and kittens. The truth of the matter is that we’re much better at preserving ourselves than we realize.
Chris: What’s about the prevailing childrearing principle that children need discipline?
Jean: All of the experts would agree with that statement. But I’ve got news for you: children don’t need discipline if they are treated correctly from the outset. Of course, I had to happen into the Stone Age to discover how deeply social we are as a species. I never would have discovered around here that there’s nothing anti-social in our nature. We are made to be anti-social by being treated that way.
I never saw anybody discipline anybody while I was in the jungle. The Yequana children were running around all day unsupervised, playing games, and fishing, and shooting at grasshoppers with their little bows and arrows, and I never once saw two children fighting. Now wouldn’t you think, with our experience in Western civilization, that it’s natural for kids to fight — “boys will be boys” — and all of that?
Chris: That’s pretty much the party line.
Jean: But guess what, it’s not true. If boys feel good about themselves, sure they will whoop and yell and jump and play roughly, but they won’t try to hurt each other. I never even saw Yequana boys argue with each other, let alone fight.
Chris: I remember reading an interview with you in Touch the Future magazine by Mike Mendizza a few years ago where you said that one of the worst things you can do to a child is to do for them ...
Jean: ... what they can do for themselves. Even if the doing takes a bit longer. That’s one of my little rules, though it doesn’t sound very ‘Liedlovian’ to have rules. If a child is trying to climb up on a chair, let her figure it out herself. Apart from the fact that she’s testing and using her abilities, she’s also learning that her parents trust her.
Our expectations about our children are extremely powerful. It’s not necessarily what we tell children we want from them, but what we show we expect that children respond to. For instance, if you’re at the park and you say to a child, “Now don’t run away. Stay right here,” you’re showing him that you expect him to want to run away, which he otherwise wouldn’t dream of doing because you’re the only person he knows there. It’s deeply instinctive, not only for human beings, but for all young animals to want to stay close to their mothers in strange territory. But once we’ve placed the suggestion, the next thing you know the little boy does run off, and there she goes chasing after him.
Or we say, “Don’t get up on that; you’ll fall and hurt yourself.” And very often they do.
Chris: What are some of the other Liedloff rules?
Jean: Rule one is to be aware of how powerful our authority is in young children’s eyes, and not to say or do anything that makes them feel as though something’s wrong with them. It’s so easy to do this, even with a look. My mother was the master of “the look,” and if my sister and I were talking at night when we were supposed to be asleep, she would open the bedroom door and peer in at us with this hurt, disappointed expression, and then close it again. I would rather she’d beaten me with a bullwhip.
The bottom line is how children end up feeling about themselves, because that’s what they grow up with. If we all felt as good and right as we really are, and had a warm, constant current of confidence in our bosoms, just think how much better we would behave toward ourselves and toward one another. We wouldn’t have bulging jails and dysfunctional families.
Human nature is so much better than we believe! The idea that one has to go into the deepest jungle to find this out is terribly, terribly tragic.
What people really want, if it doesn’t sound too soppy, is to live their love. Every day! Eat things because they love them, share food because they love to be with people. Just live out of love, love for beauty, love for truth, love for children and animals. It is our nature to live expansively and generously, not cautiously and calculatingly. The opposite of love is fear, not hate.
Chris: If enough children were raised along the lines of the continuum concept, do you think we would have a more loving world?
Jean: Sure, but the big question is how to reestablish the continuum concept as the conventional wisdom. And, of course, no one knows the answer to that.
Still, the point is that any individuals who are treated as our evolution has designed us to be treated are going to feel good about themselves and are not going to behave anti-socially toward others. And the more of those people we have, the better off we will be. I think that’s what Holt meant with his cornment about my book saving the world.
Chris: Here’s a question from one of the mothers in my school. She has raised her two children according to continuum concept principles and they are superb kids. She wants to know what parents should do if their kids are over the age of three or four and the family is not living in the context of a nurturing community with children being brought up in similar fashion.
Jean: I never suggested that people should isolate children and bring them up in an incubator of continuum bliss. I think what parents can be confident in is that, if they have started their children out on the right track, then they will be able to deal with life’s adversities. If they’re out in the world and a dog scares them, or another child in the playgroup hits them, they will recover much more quickly than children who don’t feel good about themselves.
Chris: We’re very grateful to you for giving us so much of your time.
Jean: I figure we’re all on the same team, trying to get the word out and save the world as John Holt hoped. The best we can. I find myself always urging people to evangelize other people, to write letters to newspapers, and tot Oprah, or Rosie O’Donnell, or Ted Koppel, or Diane Sawyer and ask them to invite me onto their shows. You never know whom you’re going to get through to.
I wrote the book with love. Now I send the message out to people with love, and I request that they do the same. So please ask your readers to help spread the word.
Chris: Consider it done.
Well, I’m bound to stick up for Dr. Spock here! Too many people have second-guessed his philosophy of child-rearing in too many respects! He’s been accused of sexism, of excessive permissiveness, of encouraging parents to abandon their parenting responsibilities — but this is the first time I’ve seen him accused of the sins of his Skinnerian forebears!
That’s OK, Jean. You acknowledged not being that much given to reading. I do assure you, however, that Spock is NOT responsible for the “scientific school” of the Watson-Skinner school of child-rearing which held sway during the first four decades of the 20th century and which equated picking up the crying baby with reinforcing his tendency to cry — and thus his wish to become the center of attention — i.e., to become ” a whiny, spoiled brat!”
The irony of this notion is that, in fact, the popularity of “Spock babies” as a childrearing model among a generation of middle class parents did in fact help to create a generation of “whiny, spoiled babies” and child-centered families! Child-centeredness, which was not Ben Spock’s object, became an inextricable part of the model parents took from his concept of “democratic” childrearing, and gave parents, themselves reared in an authoritarian manner by their parents, an excuse for not paying attention to the effects of their indulgences on their kids! Kids do respond to conditioning, and conditioning to ignore their parents’ rules or wishes can be very strong, involving as it does a sense of power — as Jean says above!