Continuum Concept: A Jean Liedloff Interview

The Continuum Concept is an amazing adventure that points out that what's "normal" is not necessarily "natural". This is an interview with Jean Liedloff, the author of The Continuum Concept, Jean spent two and a half years living with Stone Age Indians in the 70s which completely changed her life and her perception of how we live. As she points out in her book, it wasn't until she was on her fourth visit that she realized she'd never seen a fight between parent/child or between children. I first discovered her online and immediately resonated with the realizations that she was pointing out, I also immediately wondered what their birth must have been like, because I knew it would be nothing like our Western Civilized birth. Her insight is vast, in this interview we start with what birth was like, then we move on into practical application of raising our babies and what's most important, and what we can do if our children are older... but this is only a starting point. Become inspired, take what you want and mostly learn to trust that the cries of our children are a sign that what is being done to them may be natural according to our societies standards, but that doesn't mean it's natural or good for them or us! Ashley: When I was reading on the continuum concept website I thought I know their birth must be incredible and completely different than our birth. So, that is a major thing that I would like to talk to you about, but also just any other things that you think are really important for moms to know. Let me ask you about the birth because I know you didn’t see a birth, but you heard about a couple, like one going on right beneath you.

Jean: Yeah.

Ashley: So, tell me about that.

Jean: Well, the interesting thing is I didn’t witness it because it was so quiet and so easy and I think I told you about afterward when I asked, “well why didn’t you tell me?” and they said, why would they? And I said, because I’m your doctor, because they always said that. And they said, “Well, nobody was sick!” In other words it’s not a medical matter when somebody has a baby!

Ashley: Right.

Jean: So, it’s quite the essence of what I’m talking about.

Ashley: Right. It’s definitely… what I found so interesting about your experience and the continuum concept is how little by little you found your own ideas of society just kind of “oh, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way!” So, when I look at birth and think, it doesn’t have to be that way, the way we are doing it in the United States specifically, since that’s where we are.

Jean: Well yeah.

Ashley: It’s just so different an idea.

Jean: And when you think of it, it so clearly the way human beings are designed to give birth, because they (the Indians) are the natural way. Because it’s so obvious that what they are doing is what we are designed to be as human animals and what we are doing is the variation with people always saying that my ideas were so radical because they were different from the norm, but it’s the norm that is radical. As the New York Times book review said, the reviewer had the wit to say in the light of what I call the continuum is the long history of human experience our way is radical! Our way, the so-called “normal” way, so I’m against normal. And to say we’re natural.

The Continuum Concept Defined

Ashley: Yes! And I think is really interesting is not natural compared to what we think is natural, but natural compared to what you find in nature and what our long-ago ancestors did, not our grandmothers, but long before that.

Jean: Yeah, but if you just want to look around it’s not just what I’m talking about; the continuum concept, the one that I sort of axiomated and given this name to is about the way, it’s not the human animal, but all other animals behave according to what I’ve observed and I call expectations and tendencies. And the expectations that we have are based on hundreds of thousands of millions of years of experience. So, when the little maggot baby, or human baby, or monkey baby or crocodile baby is born, the expectation which is built into is, is that it will have the kind of experience to which it’s species is adapted over hundreds of thousands of years, or whatever.

Ashley: So, what would you say for the human birth, what would the expectations be?

Jean: Well, it’s interesting because the baby isn’t really keeping it a secret, if you do something that’s outside or in variance with their expectation, they have signals… they cry or wave their arms and look distressed and turn blue and rock their heads back and forth. And we don’t need a dictionary to know what they are saying! I mean it’s perfectly obvious to us for the members of the species that they are not having what they expect, what they want, what they need, if you like. You can’t say they need, because they don’t die if they don’t get it, but they are very unhappy. And so there are life-long repercussions as I tried to point out a little later in the book from not having your own needs, desires, expectations met. Because one has a tendency to keep on looking for that fulfillment. In all these sort of weird ways, you know.

Continuum Concept: Crying Is Distress

Ashley: Right. So it’s relying on the fact that distress is not normal or not natural.

Jean: Well, you know they say, “oh well, all babies cry”, you know. Well, no, if we don’t know that it’s a sign of distress there’s something wrong with us! We don’t need a dictionary to know that.

Ashley: No, but we have gotten a way from that, I mean even with birth. I’ve watched many homebirths online, what we consider natural home birth videos and they are still waiting on the cry. We’re still “give me a good cry and I’ll feel better.” (Even if baby is breathing and looking quite content).

Jean: There were all these films where the men are there, the babies are crying upstairs and the men are having their cigars, but the baby’s breathing. But the point is, with natural, you don’t even have to be a parent, you don’t even have to be of the same species to recognize that crying is a sign of distress, is a signal of need, want. And that experience.

Ashley: So tell me a little bit more. I think you said when the mothers would birth I think you said a couple of times where it happened and then they told you about it later, they were assisted by a friend or they were by themselves? Or alone in the woods or surrounded by everyone else? Or what would they do?

Jean: They were some that I’d read about and they weren’t particularly the ones I was with. The gal who was about to give birth would go out into the woods by herself and come back with the baby. But that wasn’t what I experienced directly.

Ashley: And these were from the same tribe you were with?

Jean: No, but it doesn’t matter which tribe they were with they were human beings. In other words, it was so not considered an emergency they didn’t even need to have their girlfriends help or their sister or their mother or their husband, you know.

Ashley: Right.

Jean: But if I had to guess (with the tribe I stayed with) you know the gal who gave birth underneath my hammock that night, probably had somebody around to catch the baby.

Ashley: So, how do you help parents to make their way back to this, this natural place?

Jean: Well, the thing is, the thing I’ve found most about it, which made The Continuum Concept most influential was not the book. I mean I myself never read and there are probably a lot of other people who don’t either. But the thing that, the power of it is when they recognize it as something they’ve always known. They know it by nature, inside of them is this knowledge. And somebody like you or me tells them, this thing I’m telling you, and they say, “oh yeah, of course! I’ve always felt that”. And that’s the greatest ally the Continuum Concept has. It’s not that people say “oh how interesting”, but “oh yeah! I’ve always felt that to be true! But I just needed someone to put it into words for me!”

Ashley: Well I definitely relate to that, you know I read The Continuum Concept and it really hit that chord that yes! That’s what I’ve been looking for!

Jean: Yes, but that’s what I’m saying, you’ve always known it on some level. It’s recognition.

Ashley: Yes, right. So, some of the other concepts are the in-arms period.

Jean: Well, what did you think?

Ashley: Well, I thought it was in credible. So you say to wear the baby constantly…

Jean: Somebody else put it that way; it’s kind of a weird way to put it!

Ashley: …physical contact with the baby, I should say…

Continuum Concept: 24/7 In-Arms

Jean: Yes, 24/7. Sleeping with them, all of that. It doesn’t have to be the mother, but somebody alive.

Ashley: So, you said with the continuum concept the mothers provide this constant contact for the baby until the baby is ready to venture out on their own and then they would just let them and just be there when they need it. So, the baby would come back. You talked about if you go to our parks you see the mother running after the babies and trying to reign the babies back in, whereas there, it was very much they are going to follow the mother and they are going to venture out a little on their own, it’s a little like a mother duck.

Jean: They do, they do like lots of other animals. They were the ones who followed the mother duck or Conrad Lorenzo. And that is species-specific, built-in behavior. Because the baby is not independent yet, they naturally follow around their elders, either the parent or another elder of it’s own kind, or one of its older siblings or an older person. And then what they do naturally is imitate them. That’s what we do, we are people. So, what’s great about the behavior as it goes on is imitating what looks like authority, you don’t have to teach a child to “follow authority”, they do naturally.

Continuum Concept: Life Centered

Ashley: What I thought was interesting was how you described how they would as parents, their focus wasn’t on the baby, even though the baby was there, in contact and having it’s needs met.

Jean: Right they weren’t child-centered.

Ashley: Right, which is so fascinatingly different than again what we are doing, or what’s considered normal here in western civilization.

Jean: Well, very often Ashley there’s this… either one is sort of child-centered and it’s all about “what do you want mommy to do now?” and the baby is of course expecting the parents to behave like people doing their lives. They want to be there and they want to be in the middle of it, and their nature is to watch and see what’s going on, a natural place for them to be is on the hip; it could be the mother or an older child or whatever. But it’s looking out from this position, held by an elbow, looking out to see. With one leg on each side of the hip, you know, one front and one back, it could be supported by a sling, which the Indians usually have. Sometimes only one sliver of a split vine, that’s like an 1/8th of an inch or a 1/4 of an inch. So, it looks like it could be cutting into their round little bottoms, but it doesn’t seem to be, it’s holding their entire weight. But mostly they had something more comfortable like a sling, a piece of cloth or whatever over the mother’s shoulder and holding the baby’s bottom. But what they are doing (on the hips) is witnessing life passively as they are going to enter into actively when they are ready, when their stage of development calls for it. And then nobody is stopping them. When they are ready at 6-8 months, when they start to crawl off the lap and people say, “how long do you have to carry them around?” well, the thing is the greatest baby-care expert in the world is the baby! And if you believe them and it’s like crying, if you believe the crying, and you believe when the baby is ready to go and starts crawling off your lap and it’s the same with breastfeeding. You don’t have to give them a whole lot of stuff you just need to wait until they signal and plug it in.

Ashley: Right! It seems natural enough right, common sense enough that we would understand that!

Continuum Concept: Breastfeeding

Jean: That’s what I call the grunts and gropes school! The baby grunts and gropes and then you know! You know it’s what happens. We say, they’re trying to sleep and they can’t sleep and the baby uh… Well, you don’t have to really wake up and get up and go through a whole song and dance… role over when the baby grunts and gropes and plug it in. So then go back to that sort of lovely, half-asleep dreamy place when you’re nursing.

Ashley: It does seem rather peaceful like that, and not so complicated. What, it’s just so amazing to me and I really am grateful that I found your work on The Continuum Concept. So, I really want to thank you for that by the way. What is it, if you were just meeting a mother on the street that you’d really want her to know the most? What do you find most important in your experience with the whole thing.

Jean: Oh dear. Well, when I see a mother in public in a café who happens to be breastfeeding, I make a point of going over to them and congratulating them and saying good for you, you’re setting such a good example. Because they are people who frown at them and scold them, you know and think they are doing something sexual or naughty or primitive. So, I think it’s worthwhile to ask people to do that, if you agree with us. Go and congratulate girls who are breastfeeding because they are setting such a good example. That’s a great thing about breastfeeding, but what I would say also in answer to that question about The Continuum Concept is the 24-hour contact. Which is to say, suppose you are frying something and you don’t want baby to be spattered with grease, so turn your body so that your body is between the frying pan and the baby on the other side. And as you peel potatoes, put your baby on your lap, just use your imagination, but make it a priority not to put the baby down for some reason. And all the activity that’s going on, like dogs barking and jumping up and you chatting with others… And another thing, when you talk with your friends or whatever, singing or dancing, have the baby in the middle of it!

Ashley: That’s great for just absorbing the energy and not excluding the child.

Jean: Yeah, and the thing is the child is much better off. I used to see these Indians when they were having a party or whatever it is. They were very often celebrating something like building a house or something like that and they are putting on the roof and they are having a little something and they have what we’d call dancing, but it was more like stomping, and they were just kind of hopping from one foot to the other, and the ones that were holding babies, which were quite a lot of them, the baby’s head is bouncing up and down, and not one single head ever fell off! Nor did they ever wake up! It’s amazing. Oh and the other thing I’d say is if you’ve got a baby in the house and it’s falling asleep and you think of putting it down somewhere else to sleep. And I’m saying, supposing that you’re in the living room with your husband, and/or some friends, and the television or lights on, have the baby there and not somewhere else. And don’t think that it needs quiet, it doesn’t. What it doesn’t need is the silence of isolation. So, just let it sleep in the noise and the light. It can be sleeping half on your lap and half on the sofa, or whatever. But don’t tone it down, just keep talking or singing or laughing or whatever.

Ashley: It’s just this general making your life still the priority and then having baby near you. It’s still enjoying your life and living your life, with your baby near.

Jean: Right, well, what could be more enjoyable! It shouldn’t feel like a chore and stuff all your shenanigans because there’s a baby. I think I mentioned in the book, but maybe I didn’t about this business of tiptoeing past the baby after they put the baby to sleep. Somebody tiptoes past the room and the baby cries. “Oh we woke the baby! How terrible!” Well, the point is what you did was arouse hope in the baby that there was somebody alive on the planet.

Ashley: Isn’t that sad.

Jean: Isn’t it? You know we say don’t disturb them by acting like somebody’s there!

Ashley: I did really enjoy the part of The Continuum Concept where you said if we really thought about what distress the baby is in being in it’s own room, being in a crib, being bored to tears, wanting that human touch, really understanding all that…

Jean: Well, bored isn’t the word that really fits…

Ashley: It’s not all encompassing, but I think it includes it. What else could it be but boring and many other things?

Jean: Boring is like an absence; it’s dull. In fact it’s an active longing, a craving to be either with live people, the parents or whatever. It’s not just an absence of experience but a strong urge to experience more, which is why baby’s cry when we put them to sleep. They cry and they cry and eventually they give up and fall asleep with their little tear-stained faces. Or they’ll put it onto something inanimate, like a teddy bear or a blankie or something.

Continuum Concept & Older Children

Ashley: So, what about those of us who have older children who didn’t start with the continuum concept. I know one of the things that you recommended is if they are still toddler age to bring them back into your bed and to let them make that choice to leave and…

Jean: What age are you talking about?

Ashley: Like four and six.

Jean: Yeah, four and six, aren’t they usually trying to get into your bed anyways?

Ashley: Yes.

Jean: Well, let them.

Ashley: And then what can we do in the day? The physical presence and then what else? One of the things I really liked that you mentioned was not getting into a power struggle, ever! Would you recommend anything else?

Jean: Yeah. Well, when it comes to talking to a four year old or a six year old, or whatever, one of me rules, people are always surprised when I have rules, but one of my rules is never repeat anything. Say it once. What would you say?

Ashley: Say they’re running crazy in the house and you said stop running, or go outside and run.

Jean: Don’t say it twice. What happens is this thing that I call jousting.

Ashley: Right, this back and forth.

Jean: Yeah, but it’s about repetition you see. They don’t go outside, they are still bashing around the house and you say, “I told you to go outside” or if you want to be patient a little longer you say, “Sweetie, what did I tell you, would you please go outside.” And they still don’t do it. And you’re just repeating it. So, I’m saying don’t repeat anything, only once. And after that, I mean unless they are deaf, dumb and blind. Once they understand English and you know they understand what the command was, to repeat it is only weakening it. Whereas if you have a reputation, in their mind, that once you say something that you mean it… and not in a ferocious way, or a threatening way, in the same loving way that you talk with them all the time. Their ally, not there enemy; you are on the same team; remember that you’re on the same team. And let me go back a step because I sometimes talk about the 3 ways of behaving toward children. One is the punishing and scolding way, which we all know about. The other one that some people who don’t read my book but hear about it and get it all wrong is permissive, in other words, everything is okay, what do you want mommy to do? Just walk on mommy, it’s perfectly okay. And what do you want me to do now? Permissive, you know. It drives children right up the wall because they don’t want to live in the house run by a 2 year old or a 6 year old. They expect you to be the one who knows and to be the one in control, to be the boss. So what I’m saying is there’s a third way, that I advocate, which is not being permissive. Because what they really want to know is what we do, what our people do, what our family does. So, the third one I call information. What they want from you is information: they want to know what we do, what’s done, what’s the right stuff. And also, to make them feel these two words: worthy and welcome! And whatever you do from the first minute onwards, ask yourself does this make them feel worthy and welcome? If so, you are on the right track because a person, a baby, a child, an adult, should feel about ourselves in order to function correctly is worthy and welcome.

Continuum Concept: As Social Beings

Ashley: Okay, so go back to the idea “go outside to run and play”. So, once you’ve said that without negative energy, without yelling, and with the continuum concept it’s just information and then if they don’t do it, you don’t keep repeating, but what do you do?

Jean: Let me give you two examples. Let me just say one, say you say to a muggins, a baby or child, “sweetie, would you please take this book to daddy?” But not as a question, just say, “sweetie, take this book to daddy.” And the child doesn’t do it. You just don’t make faces, or look judgmental toward him, you just take the book to daddy yourself and you bypass the child. So, what you’ve done is leave the child out of the action and they can’t bear that! They want to be in the middle of the action, all children do, it’s their nature. But they can see that they had a chance and they missed it.

Ashley: So next time they don’t want to miss the chance, or a few times down the road they don’t want to miss the chance.

Jean: If you get a handle on their nature, and understand that they do want to be in the middle of the action and if you say, “Go outside and play” or whatever, and they don’t do it, what you do is quietly pick them up and put them out.

Ashley: Huh.

Jean: Just transport them from indoor to outdoors, and then they start banging on the door don’t open it.

Ashley: Okay.

Jean: But the thing is, they got the message and they know what’s going on, so it’s not a secret. And when they stop banging and screaming, then you can let them in.

Ashley: I love it, I love that it’s based on information and that it’s based on them wanting to be social and be involved.

Jean: Exactly. Once you understand that the nature of human beings are social and not anti-social or asocial.

Ashley: That’s great, there is one other thing that I wanted to ask you about and that was how the Indians did with elimination, did they do diapering or what you saw? I’ve heard some in tribes that they don’t have what we’d call a diaper, so how did they do that?

Jean: Well, they’ve got dirt floors and that helps! They’d just sweep it up or let it sink in. But, there’s somebody, Ingrid, what’s her name?

Ashley: Ingrid Bauer with elimination communication.

Jean: That’s a good idea; it makes sense.

Ashley: Yes, I was wondering if that’s something similar to what you’d seen or experienced.

Jean: I think that makes sense because there is, what happens, in fact it worked with me when I had pet monkeys, just before they start peeing, there’s this sort of squiggling going on, this sort of little struggle thing, a little signal. And when the mother tunes into it, what I used to do with the monkeys, and the Indians used to do this with the babies, when they actually started peeing they’d just hold them out at arms length and let them start peeing on the floor and if they got hit you see they’d laugh and everybody would laugh, they’d got caught.

Ashley: That’s fun.

Jean: And then there was one I’d seen in Bali in one of these villages, they are the best example of civilized people being in a continuum correct way. It’s quite amazing if you ever want to see people go look at them.

Ashley: You know I did read The Continuum Concept and decide I needed to go to Bali!

Jean: Oh really?

Ashley: Yes, I decided I want to take a trip there and meet those people!

Jean: Well, I made some tapes of people while I was there.

Ashley: Video right? Is that out?

Jean: I think, yes I still have some.

Ashley: You made it to sell it? Was it educational?

Jean: They made copies of them and I don’t know I used to have an assistant who would send them out. I guess I could send you some if you want, they’d be $29.95 each or $50 for the two. But I want to tell you this thing about peeing, but I don’t think it’s in these tapes. But there was this baby, some months old, maybe a year, a walking baby and it started dampening the floor in the house and the mother said, “go outside”. Which is to say outside the door, not in an angry way, but in an information way. And the baby walked outside and peed over the edge of the platform of the house. So, easy. It’s just a question of; it’s an assumption, an assumption of sociality. Instead of this unfortunate assumption that we have in the western society that babies are naturally bad, naturally naughty, the assumption that they are born social or are innately social. They want to do the right thing; they just want to know what it is.

Ashley: So they want to cooperate.

Jean: Showing them that you expect them to be social. The power of what it looks like to be normal is huge for children. When they see what you want, what you expect. Actually it’s not so much what you want, but what you expect. Like for example, the difference between wanting and expecting, if you are in the park and you are saying to the baby, “don’t run away, don’t run away. Stay near me. Stay near mommy.”

Ashley: Right you keep repeating it.

Jean: Right and you say that because that’s what you want, but you can show the baby that you expect them to want to run away. And not only that but to run away. And then he starts running away and you run after them, catch up with them. So the key is to show what you expect because it’s so much more powerful than to say what you want if you see what I mean.

Ashley: I do, so it’s information, socialization, assumption of cooperation and expectation.

Jean: Well, but socialization is expectation, to expect them to be social. Socializing (as you said) is the more recent word for taming, or whatever they want to call it.

Ashley: No, no, I just mean like a social being, wanting to be with the family.

Jean: Yeah, but you know they are using this word “to socialize” a child, which is to say…

Ashley: take away their spirit.

Jean: And another thing a perfect example of this is when you say to a child, “be good”. But you know what that means?

Ashley: I expect you to disgrace me.

Jean: Yeah, be good because we know what you’re really like so please pretend to be good. It really means pretend to be good, doesn’t it.

Ashley: Yes, please, just for me.

Jean: Because if you thought of the child good by nature, you wouldn’t say that.

Ashley: Right, it so make sense and I really was just looking for your work on The Continuum Concept and looking for a reminder of what we are like. And I so appreciate you putting it out there!

Jean: Thank you darling. And just do your best to get it to the maximum number of people.

Ashley: Well, that’s what I’m doing and thank you again. Continuum Concept to Interview Main Page.