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Questions and Answers

Jean Liedloff Answers Readers’ Questions
How long do the Yequana nurse their babies and at what age is food introduced?

It’s hard to tell because you can see quite big children — you don’t know their exact age — maybe four or five who will occasionally, if they want to be calmed, just go and fling themselves onto the lap of most anybody. It’s not necessarily their mothers. It could be somebody else, or their grandmother. They appear to be breastfeeding though whether there is milk or not, I don’t know. But they’re able to nurse for comfort. And remember that there is no other source of milk.

It looked as though they start giving solid food when the child starts reaching for it, in which case they chew something up themselves and then feed it to the baby. Their diet doesn’t have as much variety as ours. What they are most likely to be chewing up are bananas or cooked plantains, or a bit of grated manioc root that’s been baked into something called casava and then broken up into water.

Conventional evolutionary biology and genetics maintain that environmentally induced changes in the phenotype are not and cannot be communicated to the genotype and therefore cannot be inherited. How does your concept of evolved expectations fit in with accepted evolutionary theory?

I’m talking about the very large picture of evolution — hundreds of thousands of years. When in fact what we have done over even millions of years is to evolve — before we became homo sapiens we were evolving from some mammalian prototype. We were a prototype mammal and then there came pussycats and giraffes and different types of mammals. We became what we are by adapting to the physical environment and to the intimate environment, which is to say the way we are treated by the other members of our species — so that we evolve with the expectation, for example, that we are going to encounter air when we come out of the womb. Therefore, we have little lungs all ready even though we have no personal experience of air. We have only the personal experience of amniotic water. But we’re expecting air because our evolving antecedents encountered it when they crawled up out of the water onto the land and developed lungs. That’s the time scale I’m talking about, not the experiences of our grandmothers. We developed as a response to our experiences and therefore we expect those experiences. I’m not talking about recent experiences. I mean the experiences upon which we became hunter gatherers. We haven’t evolved noticeably since we became hunter gatherers. Agriculture has only been going on for about 8000 years and that’s nothing in evolutionary time.

Many experts in child development suggest giving children “age appropriate” choices in order to prevent unnecessary power struggles between parent and child. For example, experts say to ask a child if he/she would rather brush teeth with the red or green toothbrush (since color choice matters little to the parent), rather than tell a child it’s time to brush teeth and risk a power struggle should the child resist. You have said, however, that you believe we give our children far too many choices. Since choice-giving is such a mainstay of ’90s childrearing, can you explain how it is in opposition to our children’s continuum expectations?

We give far too many choices and we give them far too early. It leads to frustration and fury and parents then trying to figure out why their children are so angry. We keep giving them more choices, saying, “well, what would you rather do?” and the children get even more furious because that’s what’s making them angry and they can’t explain themselves. As to alternatives to giving choices, it’s hard to take it out of context. Let’s just for the moment talk about one child and one parent. A mother at breakfast saying, “would you like to have rice crispies or corn flakes?” to a three-year-old should just put it down on the table, whatever she is serving. What the child needs — and it also happens to be more convenient for the parent — is to feel that the parent is authoritative, calm, self-reliant, and knows what she’s doing. She shouldn’t keep asking the child because at only two years old children don’t want to be expected to know what to do. They want the parent to know.

Giving choices not only looks like uncertainty on the part of the parent, it’s also, a very visible attempt to placate the child who then feels as though the mother doesn’t know how to treat him and is worried and feeling guilty and insecure. So this wheedling or pleading tone of voice makes children angry because they’re trying to get their parents to stand firm. They want them to stand firm because they rely on them, they want to feel that their parents know what they’re doing so that they, the children, can not only feel safe, but will have someone authoritative to follow around and to watch and imitate and assist.

It takes a bit of doing to get the hang of behaving as children expect us to do. The basic need is an understanding that children are profoundly social — not at all antisocial. And, if we expect them to be social, which few of us do because we’re trained not to, but if we expect them to be social and we just assume that they are going to see what’s done and want to cooperate, that’s exactly what they do. But we often have an uncertain voice — and I tell my clients to practice in the mirror getting the tone of voice right so that they don’t look as though they don’t believe the child will obey.

It is possible to learn to do this even if you haven’t been doing it all along — of course, the younger the child, the easier it is. What children want is to know how to do what we do. If your attitude is to assume with great certainty in your heart that that’s what they need, you can let them know in a way that shows them by your very tone of voice that you are their ally and are supplying the information you know they want, with no doubt about it. It works perfectly. But being permissive is almost as bad as being punishing or blaming. It’s not quite as bad because it doesn’t make the child feel so badly about himself, but it makes the child frustrated and therefore angry.

Luckily it doesn’t hurt children to have all sorts of conflicting views and treatments because all they need is one authoritative person, like a parent, to respect their innate sociality and their desire to cooperate and they’ll cash it in because their little radars are out looking for it. When they get it from someone authoritative it gives them a good feeling about themselves — of confidence and competence and rightness that is the object of the whole exercise. It doesn’t matter what other people do. Children will adapt to it much better if they have that confidence.