Jean Liedloff & Continuum Concept

Recently I was asked by a friend to check out Jean Liedloff’s work on the “Continuum Concept.” Jean Liedloff is an esteemed cultural anthropologist who is largely known for her work among primitive tribes, studying parenting and baby-raising. She is perhaps most famous for her work in Bali, and also the Yequana tribe. Much of her work has become the foundation of attachment parenting, which in America has taken the form of numerous books on slinging, co-bedding, breastfeeding on demand, etc.

I have to say I was fascinated by her articles. She is clearly good at what she does and committed to her work. And she has not, at least from what I can tell, overstepped her bounds as an academic by going into political arenas. In this sense, I give her work the benefit of the doubt that she is truly trying to help Western society deal with their dysfunctional childraising techniques… as a counselor she sees tons of problems that she doesn’t see in her anthropological missions. Why is that?

She says, as all attachment theorists do, that it is because primitive societies use child-raising techniques which do not provoke anxiety. Specifically, they carry their babies all day, feed them on demand, and co-bed. And with their little children, they do not take an authoritarian stance or discipline them. Rather, they encourage the child to do adult tasks (like carry babies and help with the chores) and direct them only when necessary without an attitude of moral high-ground. Techniques such as these honor children as naturally social beings, says Liedloff, and therefore stave off rebellion, disobedience, and other less desired behavior that we see in almost every Western family.

It sounds heavenly… get rid of disobedience and rebellion? Who wouldn’t want that? Unfortunately, for those who think they can just co-bed and sling, and raise an anxiety-free child, there will be glaring disappointments. Here are some of the deceptions which underlie Liedloff thinking…

“The World is My Oyster.” You cannot pick and choose elements of one culture, put them in another, and get the same results. While it is important to be open and learn from other cultures, you cannot pick what you want and leave the rest. Well, you can, but don’t expect the same results! Anthropologists have admired traits from all cultural and ethnic backgrounds: joy in Africans, social benevolence in Pacific Islanders, diligence in Asians, earth-tenderness from Native Americans… just to name a few. But if we think we can be the Super-Race by picking and choosing while we still live in our normal American context and geography, we are mistaken. Trust me that the average wars over Cocoa Puffs and X-box limits will compensate for any anxiety missed in the earlier years =) Our babies are going to grow up American, like it or not, because we live in America and have an entire system with unique pressures and rewards that aren’t going to change whether or not we co-bed.

“I read half of it…” Most people who read Liedloff pick and choose only the elements they like from her observations. While she does advocate the standard attachment parenting practices, she also advocates unpopular principles: having a parent-centered regime, giving the baby a passive experience of life in the early months, having a non-entertainment worldview, etc. Rather than endorsing the permissive parenting style so common in America, she actually endorses a kind of authoritative one (with a spin on the traditional understanding). She also observes primitive parenting which is kind of startling at times, such as the responsibility given to preschoolers around fire or with younger siblings. And she refuses to endorse aspects of her observations which are not politically correct, such as very distinct gender roles, limited (if any) education, corporal punishment, religious beliefs and practices, and teasing or other tribal social dynamics to enforce conformity. But if you really want the premodern, “uncivilized” results, you need to have premodern, “uncivilized” package… they all go together.

“The Grass is Always Greener.” There is nothing wrong with appreciating other people groups! But there are admirable traits in the West too, and to think that another group has it all right while we have it all wrong is an illusion. All groups have strengths and weaknesses, crimes and altruists, and good times and bad. Travel internationally just a little bit, and you will understand this at a gut level.

“Down with the West.” While it is good to try and reduce anxiety and dysfunction, we can’t forget that we value traits which are essentially non-Eastern and modern. Look at our heroes and icons, what we want our children to be when they grow up: statesmen, musicians, doctors, thinkers… these are Western and modern ideals which have given joy and blessing to multitudes of people. And no matter how we raise our babies, most of us switch over to raising modern Westerners at some point. (Orthodox communities such as Hassidim and FLDS are exceptions, of course). Most of us value, for example: creativity, imagination, individuality, expression, inventiveness, popularity, self-actualization, education, classical training (i.e. including art, music, sports), materialism/possessions, romanticism, achievement, citizenship, humanitarianism, contribution, travel, or science. These types of things cannot co-exist with primitive or pre-modern cultures, which is why democracy, urbanization, and industry always transform a culture. And why hospitals, welfare, charity, architecture, medicine, and other advances have only grown from Western soil. If we aren’t going to be hypocritical, we have to acknowledge Western contributions to the world scene and not toss out the baby with the bathwater.

“Freud was right.” Freudianism has been largely discredited. Liedloff, and her colleagues, are basically Freudian anthropologists (neo-Freudian, actually), but Freudianism has been largely disproved by science and discredited in psychology. Of course it has a prestigious history and esoteric counselors still charge a million dollars to the rich and famous for psychoanalysis. But the best points of Freudianism have been sublimated into other psychology paradigms which make much more sense. And most points have been dropped entirely.  The idea, for example, that anxiety can cause neurosis is essentially true. But to say that morally training a child causes anxiety that will lead to a neurotic adult is a false conclusion. First of all, moral training is right whether or not we like the idea of it. Second of all, moral training can be done in a non-condemning way. Thirdly, anxiety can be caused by all kinds of things not related to moral training, including personality and environment. Fourthly, much of childhood experience is forgotten or reworked by adulthood when an individual has a chance to reflect on his or her life. Fifthly, any moral training that has caused anxiety can be addressed when one is an adult. And lastly—most importantly—moral training actually prevents neurosis by providing a good path for an individual to walk (i.e. a life of sexual freedom and promiscuity will cause more dysfunction in a twenty-something girl than a life of purity and chastity). False reasoning runs throughout Freudianism, which is basically a paradigm that blames Protestantism (with its strict moral codes, assumptions of sin and evil, and promise for judgment) for Western Culture’s weaknesses.  This perspective, while shared by many in academia, is a faith statement not a scientific one… an opinion. And the “science” purported to explain Freudian notions of sexuality, wish fulfillment, complexes, neurosis, etc., is very soft at best.

I would submit to the attachment parent that they have bought into some of these deceptions, which are worth carefully considering. While there certainly are child-raising practices which are bad, and a lot of personal dysfunction in Western society, we should be careful what we point to as the culprit. Is it morality? Authority? Nationalism? Industry? Education? Individualism? I would submit to the attachment parent that while these things can be abused, the biggest benefits to mankind have results from a proper implementation of these things (which Liedloffism is, by association, against). I would also argue that the disproportionate number of anxious and depressed Westerners in the last fifty years has been due to existentialism, or an abandonment of those culprits which Liedloffism targets. What we need is a more scientific and specific approach to fixing our civilization and its discontents. And we need one that recognizes the importance of the individual, the adult, and agency… not culture, the baby, and victimization.


One thought on “Jean Liedloff & Continuum Concept

  1. This is a wonderfully reasoned article. Having subscribed to your blog recently I’ve found your reflections inspiring.

    We’re raising a delightful and hugely inquisitive two year old daughter, and with a religious orientation (in this case Muslim) one feels constantly having to justify our parenting philosophy.

    On the plus side it’s a motivation to explore issues from within a faith paradigm in greater depth.

    Thank you.


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