Revisiting Jean Liedloff and the Continuum Concept

The very first book that I read that set me off and running on the road to “natural parenting” was Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept. Having devoured Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery and militantly given birth to my first son at home, I was off and running. Co- sleeping, using a sling, breast feeding on demand…off we went.
The Continuum Concept was a relavation. I had been a youth worker for many years and had studied child development at college – but here was a new way to conceptualize and bring together parenting practises in a coherent and, to my relief, humane form. The “in-arms” phase made so much sense to me. Having been a Waldorf teacher, the information about not making life centered around the child made so much sense. I loved this book!
But…I did have a few doubts. One doubt grew over the years and that was seeing women who followed the Continuum Concept  becoming, in my mind, punch-bags and door mats to their children. I also witnessed parenting that was very verbal and centered on a child’s choices. People took Liedloff’s writing about the innate wisdom of children to mean that little ones could verbalize this potential – and thus slid toward a child centered approach which often created very unpleasant children, just the opposite of what Liedloff advocated.  It was interesting to me to see, over the years, how those parents who favored the non child centered approach went toward Waldorf education and those who followed children’s choices headed toward unschooling or free school options.
To make a long story short, I have spent 20 years trying to understand child development and a healthy way to bring new human beings into the world. My conclusions? That anthroposophy (ie Waldorf) has the strongest and most healthy way of parenting children but that people like Jean Liedloff have very important contributions to make.
So one of my problems with Liedloff is the core upon which she sets out her work – as a materialist, her methods are based on what I would see as a very limited understanding of human development (if human beings are spiritual beings, then a way of understanding development which takes no notice of the spiritual element is of course going to be restricted). And this is the basis of her work – that human consciousness is a continuum and that modern babies carry their needs which were formulated in the dawn of human awakening with them. Anthroposophy, on the other hand, tells us that human beings, most importantly, human consciousness, has developed over the millennia and that our present modern consciousness is worlds away from that of previous eras or epochs. Liedloff says that what we need to do is to get in touch with our innate wisdom that has been programmed (sic) into us and which is wise. Anthroposophy tells us that we no longer hear the voices of the ancestors and that our task as modern free human beings is to develop heart-warmed thinking which will help us form the correct conclusions.
So we can see that from the start we have two positions which are pretty much opposed. Nevertheless, I still maintain that there is enough in Liedloff’s work which can be of use and that, moreover, I believe that some of her findings can be brought into the light of anthroposophical research and understood in new ways.
For example, in the  article entitled The Importance of the In-Arms Phase, Liedloff makes some tantalizing observations about the effect of being held (or carried) on babies’ energy. She talks about how the adult who is carrying the baby absorbs this excess energy and how this then is the reason why the Yequana babies are so peaceful (the Yequana are the non Westernized Amazon tribe she studied). I am fascinated by this – I too have observed that by carrying a baby, by not making him the center of attention and, critically, by that adult being peacefully centered and busy working with her hands, that this creates happy, content babies. In my anthroposophically-enriched terminology, this is a living example of the Madonna Cloak at work. This is the etheric link between the mother and child which nurtures and supports the baby and then young child, especially in those critical first three years.
Another example: near the end of The Continuum Concept, Liedloff talks about the phenomena of extreme sports and of children and then young adults who do not seem to be able to settle down, to be content in their bodies, who crave (or reject) stimulation. Whilst of course acknowledging that there are many reasons for this, I am intrigued by Liedloff’s assertions regarding the need every baby has to absorb movement passively from his mother and, should this need not be met, that later in life, children or adults will find other ways to meet these needs. With the overwhelming number of children having some sort of issues with sensory integration, restlessness and basic uncomfortableness in being in their bodies, I wonder about this need and about how something as simple as wearing one’s baby might help dramatically with this.
However….. as a Waldorf educator, I need to stress that another fundamental need of little children and babies is to not be over stimulated by sense impressions. So here we have a problem – how can one wear one’s baby all day long and be engaged in movement and yet live in the modern world? We are not Amazon tribes people. We use cars or public transportation; we could have new experiences every day instead of walking down the same forest tracks that our ancestors made; we are surrounded by the hustle and bustle of modern technological life. We flip a switch instead of working from dawn to dusk engaged on tasks for our survival. And as I certainly do not advocate a rejection of all that is modern and technological, we have a potentially monumental challenge in front of us!
So wearing a baby is not an end unto itself – it is wear the baby AND nurturing the senses. And that can be very difficult. We need to demechanize our lives so we can spend more time in healthy active occupations at home; we need to slow down and make our lives more human-friendly; we need to let go of our driven modern go get ’em consciousness and instead Zen-out, bringing peace and centeredness to our mindful daily existence. And somehow, we need to not totally isolate ourselves while we create our lives.
There’s much more to be said on this. As I’ve mentioned a number of times recently, we are creating a new website and there will be sections devoted to conversations like these. I hope to stimulate research and study on how we can bring health to our babies and little children and find new ways to nurture our children, based on modern consciousness and freedom.
By the end of the month (June 2009) our new website should be done. Please visit us and have a look and contribute to the discussions in the Madonna Cloak section of the website, which will host these explorations.

Posted on June 12, 2009 in Kindergarten (and pre-K)

  • Polly Miriam says:

    Ahhhhh, this is so good! I too read The Continuum Concept when I was a new mother, and though I liked it when I read it, something I couldn’t express so clearly as you have, troubled me and I have found myself drawn to Waldorf. I’m still having trouble with the isolation part of being involved in Waldorf, so many families using the TV makes me feel uncomfortable hanging out with them! Anyway, thank you for this post! And thank you for all of your work, which I am just beginning to explore. I have a newly six year old, and an almost four year old, both boys.
    Polly Miriam

  • Louisa says:

    This is also a topic very close to my heart – I read Liedloff just before I gave birth to my first child and cried and cried, it made me feel very, very sad for my own childhood and dug up issues I never thought I had, let alone could recall about my mother and her method of bringing me up.
    I then went on to follow Liedloff’s principles with my first child, and have to say now that it was very hard. You hit the nail on the head when you say that we live in the modern world with all its manic stimulation how easy can that be for a child? It must be so disruptive for the small babe in arms.
    My first born grew up demanding, sensitive and needy compared to my second child who spent more time in her baby seat or on the play mat (because I had a problem with my back after her birth and could not stand with her for long periods) and is now totally calm, resourceful and centered.
    I was under pressure to hold my first child constantly (and in fact, I hardly put her down) because I thought I needed to do what was right, and although it was great when the babe was small, a year later when I was still carrying her, I had to give up – she was just too heavy, but then I was making huge trips to the shops, trying to do everything a modern mother does with that added disadvantage of a babe slung round my hips! Impossible!!! She was totally involved in the hustle and bustle of modern society, cars, public transport, faces everywhere. I thought nothing of it.
    So my second child was born in the country, in a small village, never really seeing a car for her first two years of life, running around in freedom from me all the time (she never ran away from me once, she didn’t need to! – not like the eldest one who used to run away at every opportunity) and totally present.
    I believe that child centered parents can be unbelievably clingy and self centered, thinking they know absolutely what is best for the child, and in turn they can make their own children feel as if they are the centre of the world in a very needy way. Looking back at myself I knew I was just that kind of parent, in addition I hated the idea of imposing a routine on my daughter, who never had one until I discovered Waldorf. In a way I was ‘frightened’ to do anything that I perceived as unnatural. Looking back on it, I see that she actually was raised in a very unnatural way altogether, with an overbearing parent who never allowed her child to find her own centre herself.

  • donna says:

    A quick note: we will not be creating a new website for the Madonna Cloak Project yet (August 2009). It will be part of the Christopherus website until it – the Madonna Cloak Project – is up and running.

  • Lea says:

    I think something that is often overlooked in what Liedloff describes as the in-arms-phase in the Yequana tribe is that this phase ends when the child becomes mobile. So we are taking about maybe 6 months, maybe 8 – and then the child takes the lead in when to be with his/her parent or caregiver and when to crawl/toddle off on his/her own. Not that the child is not carried anymore at all, just not all the time – only when the child comes to request it. That is how I understood the book. My daughter is now 4 1/2 months old, and has been carried a lot, but also given ample “floor time” to play uninterrupted. 6 Months is not long at all! She is already starting to scoot and tries to get up on hands and knees. I do plan to carry her still rather than use a stroller, but I am committed to letting her crawl/walk on her own as much as possible. Moreover, I believe this is all within Liedloff’s approach as well.. I’d be interested in your comments!

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