Jean Liedloff

Liedloff is the author of the  "The Continuum Concept", recommended in the reading list for Module 1, as this model is an excellent example of the "Learning from Nature" principle and as such can inform our social designs.  It is totally coherent with the Action Learning model, in some ways the infant version of it.

Each human being is born with millions of years of intelligence.   We are that continuum which is designed to conform to our elder's expectations.    What if their expectations are wrong? 
That vast intelligence is denied, warped, and repressed harming generation after generation. Jean's passion was to awaken in each of us and align with our true nature.

There's additional information in our spanish page

The importance of Continuous Physical Contact

The Continuum Concept highlights how babies are born 'expecting' continuous contact with the body of a parent.     Sleeping with the baby is part of how 'contact parents' apply the Continuum model, but accompanying the mother (or father) in their daily work is an important part of the socialization of the infant, as well as physically crucial to development, Liedloff has found.

Most traditional cultures raise their infants in this way, which 'developed' societies often tend to consider 'primitive' & not good for the child.

This constant contact then gives way to a spontaneous independence of the toddler & older child, which the adults don't need to 'entertain' or even supervise.    All of this contributes to the infants becoming sovereign, secure teenagers & adults, without many of the personal traumas westerners carry, Liedloff argues.

Touch the Future

This interview with Jean Liedloff by Michael Mendizza (Touch the Future) is a short summary of The Continuum Concept. 

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Trusting Children

The 'contact parenting' & 'no nappies' aspects of this work are the better known parts, but another important component of the Continuum Concept - and the one that presents carers with the biggest challenges - is actually the 'non-attachment' part.

Liedloff observed how independent and un-supervised native children are, even noticing things like toddlers happily playing on the edge of precipices and in other situations which most western parents would find intolerably frightening, without the adults intervening in any way (once the child has spontaneously decided to start leaving the safety of the 'in arms' phase), but simply remaining a relaxed presence.

Liedloff says we easily transmit our own fears & anxiety to children and so - very counter-intuitively for us - actually put them in more danger if we are anxious to protect them, than if we trusted them: because the child's innate social drive is to fulfill the expectations of the adults around it.   

So a "don't do that, you will fall" message (verbalized or not) is 'translated' by the child into "I want you to fall", or "I want you to stay still and don't move much" - either of which severely limit the safety and learning potential (especially self-confidence and physical / emotional development) of the child.

The native adult expectation (which turns into increased self-confidence in the children) is that children can tell for themselves what's safe and not: that their own bodies, instincts, senses and intelligence can handle the challenges that they will inevitably encounter.  

This means they get a strong constant message that they don't need 'protecting' from their environment, or need others to tell them what to trust (but yes, always adult availability, for when they themselves feel they need it) in order to thrive.   And this actually sets them up to become more secure, able, adventurous and balanced people who trust themselves.

YouTube Video

As you will see, having complete trust in your children seems to be extremely beneficial. 
For example, in the continuum concept, in tribal communities children were trusted completely and very little fear from the parents are placed upon them.

Understanding The Continuum Concept

According to Jean Liedloff, the continuum concept is the idea that in order to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, human beings — especially babies — require the kind of experience to which our species adapted during the long process of our evolution. For an infant, these include such experiences as...

  • constant physical contact with his mother (or another familiar caregiver as needed) from birth;
  • sleeping in his parents' bed, in constant physical contact, until he leaves of his own volition;
  • breastfeeding "on cue" — nursing in response to his own body's signals;
  • being constantly carried in arms or otherwise in contact with someone, usually his mother, and allowed to observe (or nurse, or sleep) while the person carrying him goes about his or her business — until the infant begins creeping, then crawling on his own impulse, usually at six to eight months;
  • having caregivers immediately respond to his signals (squirming, crying, etc.), without judgment, displeasure, or invalidation of his needs, yet showing no undue concern nor making him the constant center of attention;
  • sensing (and fulfilling) his elders' expectations that he is innately social and cooperative and has strong self-preservation instincts, and that he is welcome and worthy.
In contrast, a baby subjected to modern Western childbirth and child-care practices often experiences...
  • traumatic separation from his mother at birth due to medical intervention and placement in maternity wards, in physical isolation except for the sound of other crying newborns, with the majority of male babies further traumatized by medically unnecessary circumcision surgery;
  • at home, sleeping alone and isolated, often after "crying himself to sleep";
  • scheduled feeding, with his natural nursing impulses often ignored or "pacified";
  • being excluded and separated from normal adult activities, relegated for hours on end to a nursery, crib or playpen where he is inadequately stimulated by toys and other inanimate objects;
  • caregivers often ignoring, discouraging, belittling or even punishing him when he cries or otherwise signals his needs; or else responding with excessive concern and anxiety, making him the center of attention;
  • sensing (and conforming to) his caregivers' expectations that he is incapable of self-preservation, is innately antisocial, and cannot learn correct behavior without strict controls, threats and a variety of manipulative "parenting techniques" that undermine his exquisitely evolved learning process.

Evolution has not prepared the human infant for this kind of experience. He cannot comprehend why his desperate cries for the fulfillment of his innate expectations go unanswered, and he develops a sense of wrongness and shame about himself and his desires. If, however, his continuum expectations are fulfilled — precisely at first, with more variation possible as he matures — he will exhibit a natural state of self-assuredness, well-being and joy. Infants whose continuum needs are fulfilled during the early, in-arms phase grow up to have greater self-esteem and become more independent than those whose cries go unanswered for fear of "spoiling" them or making them too dependent.

Liedloff based the Continuum Concept on many years of observation of nativa people's lifestyles, much keen noticing of detail of how their ways of raising children differ from ideas in the west, as well as noticing the results in terms of cooperativeness, psychological & physical health of the children & resulting adults.  

Here are some excerpts from the book which define the continuum concept:

...It is no secret that the "experts" have not discovered how to live satisfactorily, but the more they fail, the more they attempt to bring the problems under the sole influence of reason and disallow what reason cannot understand or control.

We are now fairly brought to heel by the intellect; our inherent sense of what is good for us has been undermined to the point where we are barely aware of its working and cannot tell an original impulse from a distorted one.

...[Determining what is good for us] has for many millions of years been managed by the infinitely more refined and knowledgeable areas of the mind called instinct. ... [The] unconscious can make any number of observations, calculations, syntheses, and executions simultaneously and correctly.

...What is meant here by "correct" is that which is appropriate to the ancient continuum of our species inasmuch as it is suited to the tendencies and expectations with which we have evolved. Expectation, in this sense, is founded as deeply in man as his very design. His lungs not only have, but can be said to be, an expectation of air, his eyes are an expectation of light... [etc.]

...The human continuum can also be defined as the sequence of experience which corresponds to the expectations and tendencies of the human species in an environment consistent with that in which those expectations and tendencies were formed. It includes appropriate behavior in, and treatment by, other people as part of that environment.

The continuum of an individual is whole, yet forms part of the continuum of his family, which in turn is part of his clan's, community's, and species' continua, just as the continuum of the human species forms part of that of all life.

...Resistance to change, no way in conflict with the tendency to evolve, is an indispensable force in keeping any system stable.

What interrupted our own innate resistance to change a few thousand years ago we can only guess. The important thing is to understand the significance of evolution versus (unevolved) change. ... [The latter] replaces what is complex and adapted with what is simpler and less adapted.

There is no essential difference between purely instinctive behavior, with its expectations and tendencies, and our equally instinctive expectation of a suitable culture, one in which we can develop our tendencies and fulfill our expectations, first, of precise treatment in infancy, and gradually of a (more flexible) kind of treatment and circumstance, and a range of requirements to which adaptation is ready, eager, and able to be made.

pp. 22-27, The Continuum Concept, Revised edition ©1977, 1985 by Jean Liedloff, published by Addison-Wesley, paperback, 20th printing.

Related Articles by Jean Liedloff

Portion of Interview

Jean talks about the Yequana and her amazement at being in the Stone Age, with John Travis, MD on her houseboat in August 2008. Sponsored by the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children

Giving Answers to Kids

nterview with Aviram Rozin, about his views on kids education.
Particular experience with his daughter learning the alphabet.
Recomended book:  The Continuum Concept - Jean Liedloff

About the Continuum Concept
"I don't know whether the world can be saved by a book, but if it could be, this might just be the book."
John Holt

"This book is the work of a genius."
Robert Epstein, PhD
Psychology Today

There's a dialogue related to this page in the Integral Permaculture FB group (click icon to go there)

There's a dialogue in our FB group on this topic (click icon to go there)

Work and Play

Liedloff was struck by how contented and relaxed the Yequana indians were in comparison to the stressed and neurotic inhabitants of cities in America and Europe. 

In one chapter she comments on the very different attitudes to work and recreation between these Amazon natives and inhabitants of consumer societies. 

The Yequana enjoy useful work and therefore have no need to invent separate activities for physical recreation. 

There's no gap to be filled in as far as excercise and enjoyment are concerned. 

Parents Needing Children

The difficulties we have in implementing this model is of course that most civilized adults - who become parents - carry deep hurts from not having had the kind of parenting that Liedloff identifies as the natural expectation of human babies & children.   And unfortunately these hurts are often not healed (or even conscious) by the time the baby comes along.

So these emotional wounds are - unwittingly - passed on to the children, often in the guise of 'giving loving attention to the baby', when really it is the parent that has the need for attention.  

 The infants, programmed as they are to fulfill the expectations of the adults around them, then learn to give the care and attention (or the need to be needed) that the parent is longing for, creating strange - but common -  inter-generational dynamics which cause a great deal of pain to us as civilized people, but that we then consider 'normal' and 'part of human nature'.

Liedloff often points out that making the baby the centre of the parents' attention is actually harmful to the baby, whose natural expectation is to be a passive observer of the life of the village, whilst  the carers get on with their normal every-day life.   She traces the 'terrible twos' (anxious, attention-seeking, angry  toddlers) we often see in western infants as resulting from this kind of reversal of attention - that is not found in native toddlers.

So, ironically, the term 'attachment parenting' is often used (and understood) as synonymous with the (more accurate) 'contact parenting' used to describe the first 'in arms' phase required for healthy baby development.

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.

Other related pages

in this Manual

(how to repair the damage)