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Back from Bali

A conversation with Jean Liedloff
In the Spring of 1992, Jean Liedloff went to the island of Bali, in Indonesia. (Interview by Candyce Cameron.)

How did you come to choose Bali as a place to observe continuum behavior?

I had spent a month there in 1979 which, if anyone remembers, was called the International Year of the Child. There was a conference in Melbourne, Australia on that subject and I had been asked to speak at it. As I was living in England — about halfway around the world, they gave me a first-class air ticket around the world. So I left some months free after the conference and, at my leisure, spent a month in Bali, some time in India, Greece, and Thailand.

What was it about Bali that made you want to return there?

I had heard from other people who had been there that the people of Bali were very “continuum” and I wondered whether they were. And, in fact, it is true. I had an idea at the time that I mentioned to the head of the Institute of Noetic Sciences — a vision of holding international conferences on the Continuum Concept, in Bali, so that one could be having one’s theoretical discussions and be able then to go out of the conference into a place where the continuum concept was being lived wherever you looked — in the villages, or even the shops. You could see it everywhere — people whose muscle tone was relaxed — who smiled easily as soon as you looked at them. They are adults who have been treated correctly, who have an attitude of respect toward each other and themselves and treat their children with the same respect.

One of the things people do after reading The Continuum Concept is try to find ways to achieve “continuum correctness” in their own culture. Both the Yequana and the Balinese have a set of beliefs and customs that let people know where they came from and where they are headed.

That’s right. And they are not trying to accommodate their feelings to a culture that doesn’t fit. For example, it’s a custom in Bali never to let a baby’s feet touch the ground for the first six months. So, they’ve institutionalized the instinctive knowledge that you shouldn’t put babies down.

It was interesting, though I don’t think it’s worthy of much emphasis, that I did see the Balinese put their babies down sometimes when they were asleep — which is something I’ve been saying “don’t do” because of the fact that the babies’ energy needs to be discharged. But their babies looked as comfortable as the Yequana babies whose caretakers are carrying them all the time and are active and discharging their own energy fields and the baby’s energy field with it. But apparently they do manage to discharge the babies energy fields sufficiently at other times, and while sleeping with them at night.

It’s important to know that even though they did occasionally put their babies down, they were always within close earshot. The minute the child woke or made a noise, they responded instantly. It is what I’d been saying “don’t do” because I didn’t think a child should have to be in a state of emergency to get its experience correct. But they do let the child wake up and signal — they just immediately come and pick it up.

My impression is that this is fairly rare and we ought to be careful about putting down a less relaxed child even for a short time.

So, their children learn at a very early age that they have the power to get their needs met.

Right. That they’ve got the power to elicit a response. Whereas if you let them cry and cry more, and somebody gets angry at them or doesn’t come, the child does stop believing in its power to attract care. The child feels, “No matter what I do I’m not lovable enough,” “I’m wrong to want my mother,” or “I don’t matter enough.” The important point is that the instant their children wake they’re picked up and then can feel their power.

Did you gather any information in Bali about their child spacing or nursing habits?

There was something interesting about their nursing and weaning. What they did, which I would not at all have expected, was when they wanted to wean a child of two or three because they were pregnant with another, they would put bad tasting juice on the nipple. I tried to think about it with an open mind because it looked hostile — like a nasty thing to do to a child. But then when I thought about it, perhaps what’s happening is that when the nipple tastes bad, the child rejects it. The mother is not rejecting the child and causing him to feel unwelcome or unworthy.

Did you go to Bali to accomplish anything other than to observe what you already knew about continuum culture?

I wanted to be able to show others what I observed, which is why I brought a high-resolution video camera with me — so that members of our network or other interested people might see it. For example, I say that the babies’ muscle tone should be soft and you try to picture it, but you don’t really know what I’m talking about. But if you see it, then there’s no question. So at the end of the trip when I had some time to myself, I hired a motorcycle and a driver and we went out into the countryside.

Were you able to observe continuum behaviors in the people in the city as well?

Yes, but I wanted to be out where there were no tourists so I could get a better feel for Balinese life. The city of Ubud was full of tourists, shops and restaurants.

I guess what I’m asking is whether you saw more “Westernized” behavior in the Balinese cities as opposed to the villages.

Yes. but not very deeply. The people and the children are still “continuum.” For example, when we went out the first day, Dewa, an acquaintance from Ubud, very kindly offered to take me to his village. Just as the Yequana child would naturally be included, Dewa’s five-year-old son jumped on the motorcycle behind him. I had my driver and we followed them into the country to see his family. When we stopped for lunch on the way back, I was sitting facing the five-year-old who was on his father’s lap — and there was perfect calm. You can imagine in our culture having a five-year-old on your lap, saying, “I want this, I don’t want that” — and the usual tension between the child and the parent saying, “No, you have to have this,” “Don’t touch that!” “Eat up!” “Sit still!”

Did the child select his own food?

No. Dewa ordered a dish from the menu. The child had a fork and ate from his father’s plate. He wasn’t worrying about “What do I want?” or “Do I like this?” There was no question, just familiarity, comfort, certainty and trust on both sides.

It’s interesting that he was welcome at that age and size in his father’s lap. I would have thought in a continuum culture that a child of that age would naturally be more separate from the parent.

Well, he was very self-reliant, yet he was totally at home sitting on his father’s knees, almost as though they had one body. One would have a bite, the other would have a bite. There was just no conflict. It was total welcome — complete acceptance of the fact that they were on the same team and have the same interests. There was perfect ease and serenity. Nobody trying to prove anything to the other; no jockeying for control.

Did you observe children of other ages as well?

While we went out with Dewa, we went to see a wood carver’s family. There was a baby 18 months old who had just had his head shaved. (Every few months they have ceremonies — at six months there’s “touching the ground” — and they shave their heads as part of the ritual.) The parents were both carving little figures of pigs. They were sitting on the floor with a lovely repose in their bodies, seldom talking to each other, the mother on one side, the father on the other and the baby in the middle. The baby had a mallet, a chisel and a little block of wood. A real mallet and a real chisel! I just turned the camera on and watched to see what would happen. Every once in a while the baby would hit the chisel with the mallet or play with them. It was his family’s work, their activity, and he was part of it. He wasn’t excluded. No one was making him do it but, like the Yequana, they know that children always want to join in what is being done. He had the tools and whenever he wanted to do it, he could. If he put them down that was fine too.

At one point the baby got up and the father kept telling him what to do, probably for my benefit. He spoke in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. And the baby obeyed without any sign of conflict.

At a certain point the baby wanted to nurse, so he went over to his mother. She put her things down and nursed him. The baby fiddled about on her lap for awhile, then wanted to nurse again. There was no conflict, no problem. He stayed as long as he wanted, then walked away. Then he gave signs of wanting to pee. He wasn’t wearing diapers. The parents told him to go to the edge of the floor (there was no wall on that side) to go — and the child went by himself, relieved himself over the edge and came back. There was no sharpness. It was just, “This is where you go.” It wasn’t angry or punishing and it wasn’t permissive. It was the third way — to give the child the information about what to do, because that is what social beings want to know. We have to learn to believe that the child has the innate motivation to be social and show him our expectation that he will be. It all works together. What we have lost is the belief that a child is naturally social.

Consequently we come across as having the expectation that the child is going to do something antisocial and that’s the expectation that they fulfill.

Right. We initiate the game and they play it, ironically, because they are so social!

And this is tricky because even those who start off in line with the continuum — carrying their babies, etc. — are still subject to a culture that believes that children are not innately social.

That’s why my emphasis is on non-adversariality, which is not just carrying the baby around, but the whole attitude and philosophy — the assumption of innate sociality. You have to assume and really understand it down to your bones that this creature is social by its very nature. And if she doesn’t behave socially, it’s because her sociality has led her to go along with your negative expectations — and that there is no other way that children become antisocial. It’s a human characteristic that is evolved to work in a positive way: the belief that babies and small children have in our authority — they haven’t any alternatives. No matter what kind of weirdos we are, no matter how sane or insane, they take our values.

Some parents give babies the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their motives, but when the baby becomes a child — around a year or so — and begins to have a mind of its own, they start to question its motives.

We have doctors still leading us down this adversarial path. In an interview with Dr. Spock not so long ago, someone asked if you could spoil a newborn baby by picking it up when it cries. To my delight he first said, “Oh no you can’t spoil a baby by picking it up too much or responding to it.” But then he said, “...not until it’s three months old.” And then he went on to say that at three months you’ve got to “let them know who is boss” otherwise the baby will become a tyrant. That’s the word he used. “Tyrant.” And he was talking about a three-month-old.

The crime here is that it creates a vicious circle: the parent pits her will against that of the child or pushes the child away, the child responds in kind and the parent then interprets the contrariness to mean that the child is a tyrant.

Exactly. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. The most basic tragedy for our society is that the child grows up believing that he is bad and he’s got to hide his badness, somehow, in order to get along. But if you have a bad feeling about yourself all day every day for two or three decades, maybe you’ll drink or take drugs to take the edges off. You try to look like a good guy the rest of the time. Some things go well and some things don’t and when they go badly you think, “It’s my fault, that’s the truth about me.” Or if things go we well you think, “I got away with it.” What happens is that people who feel badly about themselves are unkind to other people — people who are anti-self become antisocial. So what we have is an antisocial population. We have people in house and offices, farms and factories, who all feel badly about themselves to varying degrees. Everybody knows that when you investigate extreme cases, from schoolyard bullies to serial killers, you’re going to find tragic childhoods. but somehow we manage not even to feel sorry for them, just because we have to defend ourselves from them. We should be on our knees begging forgiveness of these people for what’s been done to them.

Back to your video tape... Are there any other observations you’d like to share?

I have a sequence of five-year-old Ayu talking with her father, Made, in one of the eateries where her mother is a cook. The mother was about 8-1/2 months pregnant, cooking from ten in the morning to ten at night, seven days a week. She was calm, relaxed, uncomplaining — even in the terrible heat. Made was taking the orders and relaying them to her. Ayu spent most of her time sitting on a bench conversing with her father between orders. They talked and laughed with almost constant eye contact. The relationship was always respectful and relaxed.

None of the condescending “child tones” we so often use to address children in our society?

No. They found lots of things to make them laugh together without his ever baby-talking or acting like a child. I found it so striking that I arranged to meet them the next day at the father’s work. a lodging place for tourists. In the morning we sat down at a table, with Ayu sitting next to her mother. After they ate, they began to have lessons. Putu, the mother, was teaching her reading and writing. But again, it was completely harmonious. There was no conflict — even though she was “teaching” (which is something that I’m rather against). But it was done without any coercion. Ayu was clearly accustomed to cooperating with her mother. She’d never had a mother looking at her in a way that would make her feel that she was the enemy or expecting her to rebel. Sometimes Ayu would look a little weary and lay her head on the table, but then she would perk up again. As they talked, their voices blended together — comfortable, reliable, with both feeling that the other person was always “on her side.” There was never the question, “If I do something wrong, will she turn against me?”

Then Putu went away and Ayu had a long conversation with her father that was a joy to watch — just talk about all kinds of things that interested them or made them laugh and change expressions, looking into each other’s eyes. Then they began a sort of horseplay, which is something I never saw the Yequana do. She would jump on his shoulders and he would mock defend himself. But there was never any feeling that it might get out of hand or be pushed by anxiety, nervousness or desperation on either side. There was no feeling of the battle for control we so often see in our world.

Did you get all that in your videoJean Liedloff produced a 2-part video called The Continuum Concept: Non-Adversarial Child Rearing in Bali, which we plan to convert to a digital format for online distribution. To be notified when the Bali videos are available, you can subscribe to our mailing list.?

Yes — every fascinating minute.