Where’s My Center?
A closer look at child-centered parenting
and the continuum concept
We were clueless.
That, in a nutshell, describes how much my wife and I knew about parenthood when we started on this path. Fortunately, we knew enough to question conventional parenting wisdom, and our research led to unconventional choices like homebirthing, cosleeping, and natural-pattern breastfeeding.
We also had the very good fortune of finding an unconventional pediatrician who — when we couldn’t figure out why our baby cried whenever she wasn’t being held or carried — wrote a prescription to read Jean Liedloff’s classic, The Continuum Concept (TCC). To say that TCC changed my life is an understatement. I wouldn’t be writing this article or working as a parenting coach if not for the shift in perspective and the passion for progressive, natural parenting ignited by that book.
If you haven’t read or heard of The Continuum Concept, you can check out the links at the end of this article. For now, suffice it to say that TCC is about Liedloff’s experience of living with a tribe of Yequana Indians in the Amazonian rain forest, and how it radically altered her view of human nature and child-rearing. She recommends natural parenting practices that are more consistent with the conditions under which humans evolved — practices which are normal for the Yequana and most so-called “primitive” cultures, like carrying infants constantly.
We felt a lot less clueless after reading TCC. Now we had a framework with which to understand our baby’s cues and cries, and to meet her needs in accord with her true nature.
Soon after reading TCC, my mind was opened another notch when I found a related article by Liedloff, entitled Who’s In Control? : The Unhappy Consequences of Being Child-Centered. Liedloff noticed that Yequana parents rarely focused their attention directly on their children, yet they were the most well-behaved and happy children she had ever seen. In contrast, she saw that Western children with highly attentive, “child-centered” parents were often the least happy and the most contrary. How could that be?
Liedloff concluded that child-centeredness was the problem. The article describes how being child-centered makes our babies and children feel as though we don’t know what we’re doing — that we are literally looking to them to tell us what to do. Despite our good intentions, child-centeredness can leave our children feeling anxious and insecure, and it can be the cause of inexplicable fussiness and recalcitrance. Liedloff recommends we avoid child-centeredness by focusing our attention on our normal, adult activities while carrying our babies and/or including our children in such a way that they can observe and eventually participate.
When we applied the ideas in the article, our baby seemed to change overnight from fussy and irritable to content and relaxed. We were sold on the “non-child-centered” concept and — in typical, new parent form — began pushing the idea on everyone we knew! But it wasn’t long before we discovered that the non-child-centered approach is not a panacea. In fact, it has some potentially disastrous pitfalls. This article is intended to help Liedloff’s readers navigate around those pitfalls and thus benefit more fully from her insights.
Child-centeredness has been discussed many times on the Continuum List, an email-based support group for parents who’ve read TCC. I recently received an email from one of my clients who subscribes to that list. She wrote,
I’m having trouble with the idea of not being child-centered. It feels wrong to make a conscious effort not to pay attention to my children. It seems to run along the same lines as letting a child “cry it out” or doing something similarly appalling.
My response to her: You’re right. If it feels wrong to withdraw all attention from your children, that’s because nature’s design is for parents (especially mothers) to be constantly attuned with them, in both subtle and unsubtle ways.
Now let’s dig a little deeper into the issue...
The importance of “languaging” a concept like this should not be underestimated. In order to wrap your brain around a complex concept and recall it when needed, you need a word or phrase to encapsulate it. In the case of Liedloff’s article, we have a brilliant description of healthy dynamics, but the only terminology offered is a negation of unhealthy dynamics: not child-centered. This kind of “double negative” languaging does little to encourage the desired parental behavior and attitude.
The confusion is increased by the fact that before you ever saw the article, you probably would have thought “child-centered” was a good thing. The term has been used for decades in the field of education, signifying concern for children’s individual needs and interests. So the thought “don’t be child-centered” may carry a subliminal message: “Don’t concern yourself with their needs.”
Furthermore, the title “Who’s In Control?” is a phrase that is often used to shame parents into controlling their children “by any means necessary.” We have all experienced the societal pressure to show the world “who’s the boss” in adult-child relationships. We’ve heard the endless sarcastic remarks and criticisms:
“That kid has you wrapped around his finger!”
“Are you gonna let her get away with that?!”
“That child needs to be shown who’s in charge!”
Whether the title was chosen by Liedloff or by the editors of the magazine that originally published the article, there is no question that TCC opposes the use of coercive tactics:
Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence — let alone coerce — anyone. ... The Yequana do not feel that a child’s inferior physical strength and dependence upon them imply that they should treat him or her with less respect than an adult. [TCC, p. 90]
Nevertheless, it is difficult for us “civilized” folk to embrace an article called “Who’s In Control?” without allowing the culturally entrenched meaning of that phrase to infiltrate our thoughts. In the heat of the moment — when your child is hitting, biting or yelling at you, and you can barely stop yourself from striking back — the thought “Who’s in control?” is unlikely to help you choose compassion over coercion! Likewise, the thought, “I shouldn’t be child-centered” is not going to help you become more aware of their needs so you can meet them appropriately.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that many well-meaning parents seem to have a hidden desire to detach from their children, despite a conscious desire for healthy bonding and attachment. I experience this impulse in myself, too, and I believe it’s rooted in the pain of our unmet childhood needs as well as the competitive, zero-sum, win/lose mindset that permeates our culture.
The stealthy, insidious voice behind this neglecting impulse says, “Why should I give what was never given to me? If I didn’t deserve the attention I wanted, then neither does my child,” and so on. Under the influence of these lurking thoughts, the “don’t be child-centered” directive is readily distorted into a kind of subtle neglect or detachment that is justified by its superficial “continuum correctness.”
You can shed light on this shadowy impulse and transform it into a gift by asking the question with genuine curiosity: “Why should I give them more attention than I received as a child?” My own answer to that question is two-fold: (1) Because they need it now, just as I did then, and (2) because giving what I was deprived of heals me.
The latter, ironically, often leads to unhealthy child-centeredness when we try too hard to heal our past vicariously through our children. Liedloff alludes to this pitfall in her article when she describes the anxiety felt by parents who don’t want to “subject their offspring to the kind of alienation they suffered at the hands of their own usually well-meaning parents.”
The word “alienation” is befitting. The problem with child-centeredness is not that the child is getting too much attention, but rather too much of the wrong kind of attention and not enough of the right kind. Both of these imbalances tend to weaken the parent-child connection and lead to feelings of alienation.
When we give the kind of attention in which we are constantly asking our children what they want or need — when they sense our feelings of uncertainty or fear of failing to meet their needs (and our own projected needs) — then naturally they will feel unsettled if not completely freaked out!
This is no different for adults. Think how you’d feel if you needed brain surgery and the surgeon seemed to lack confidence in his or her ability. Of course, you’d seek another surgeon with whom you felt secure, but self-confidence alone would not be adequate. You’d want someone who would also pay close attention to your needs throughout the process.
But why, then, does it appear to us that mothers in “continuum cultures” rarely pay attention to their children? Why do they seem to be attending only to their adult-centered activities? Well, just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Anthropologist Richard Sorenson pioneered the field of visual anthropology, using film and video to document behavior and conditions in other cultures. Through frame-by-frame analysis, Sorenson has shown that there are many subtle cues exchanged by these mothers and their children — cues which are invisible to Western eyes. The ability to read these and other subtle cues (including “extra-sensory” cues that even a camera would miss) is taken for granted by hunter-gatherers. They rely on it for their survival in addition to their sense of well-being. Sorenson (1996) calls it liminal consciousness, an awareness which is “betwixt and between” the unconscious (subliminal) and our familiar, Western/Cartesian, rational worldview (supraliminal).
In Western societies, we’ve lost that expanded awareness while coping with the problems of high population density, technology, rapid change, and other modern conditions. Our coping strategies require a level of intellectual abstraction and communication which is not accessible to babies and small children, and we often inadvertently force our children to make sense of these abstractions far too early. For example, asking a baby what she wants, which would seem to be helpful and generous, pressures the baby to conceptualize her separateness and individuality before her mind/brain is ready to make that leap. Our culture demands so much heady abstraction that we rarely develop the kind of liminal, intuitive rapport which informs our “uncivilized” contemporaries.
The Native American hunters’ art of tracking is an example of the liminal consciousness that’s so alien to Western minds. A handful of Westerners have studied this art and discovered another whole world of awareness. But the native mind doesn’t put this kind of awareness in a box labeled “For Hunting Only.” Rather, it enhances their feelings of connection to everything, including each other.
The increasingly popular practice of Elimination Communication is another example. After practicing EC for some time, mothers often know when their babies need to pee, even when they have not been paying attention in the conventional way. But their constant attunement with their babies is a kind of attention, and it affords a feeling of connection that far exceeds that which is possible through conventional attention alone. The absence of this profound sense of connectedness is at the core of our society’s widespread alienation.
However, we need not forsake our rationality to regain our liminal faculties. To best make use of these underutilized abilities in a modern context, we need to reconnect with them first and then integrate them with our rational worldview.
Many parents do have a highly attuned connection with their children, yet still their kids demand direct attention and interaction. “Look at me! Watch me, Mama, watch!” Are they somehow exceptions to the rule?
I believe our children seek more direct attention (compared to children in continuum cultures) in part because they need that experience to thrive in the only culture they know: our civilized, individualistic, Western culture. They need to develop a strong ego just to exist here. It’s not a conscious process; children and adults alike have a sense of their psychological environments, and we intuitively know what inner resources we will need to succeed in a given context.
Now, those of us who consider ourselves “cultural creatives” may not want our children to “thrive” by the dominant culture’s standards. We see the environmental destruction and human suffering wrought by our culture’s institutionalized narcissism, and we want to raise our children to be a part of the solution, not the problem. But unless you have managed to create a cohesive, collective subculture around and within your family and you’ve transcended your “normal” sense of separateness so much that the words “mine” and “yours” rarely enter your mind, then your child really has no choice but to develop his or her ego more vigorously. And that requires more direct attention than might seem natural.
Tragically, our well-meaning attempts to prevent children from becoming egotistical or narcissistic can actually cause those very conditions later in life. If you really want your child to develop compassion, concern and a desire to serve others, there’s no way out but through! This is not to suggest a return to unhealthy child-centeredness, but neither should we deprive our children of direct attention just because children in more collective cultures don’t need as much.
Sorenson (1976, p. 177) notes that among the Fore people of New Guinea, adults rarely go out of their way to “rescue” a toddler or older child who is crying or upset. Children are generally expected to seek out the comfort they need. But be careful not to confuse this reluctance to force comfort on a child with reluctance to provide comfort at all. Sorenson adds that “comfort was virtually never denied when sought.” And I would add that we shouldn’t assume our children will always know when and how to get the comfort they need, especially those who’ve grown to expect being rescued.
When your heart tells you that your child needs direct attention, trust it. You can help your child develop a healthy sense of self simply by knowing who you are — your own needs, values, boundaries, centeredness, and connectedness — as you give him or her your attention and presence.
My first suggestion is to reclaim the positive connotation of “child-centered” and accept the label proudly: “I am child-centered because I am committed to making sure my child’s needs are met.” Then give him your direct attention when it feels right to you. (When you’re attuned, it won’t feel right to you if it’s not right for him.) If you don’t have it to give, look for creative ways that everyone’s needs can be met, and be willing to ask for support from others when you need it.
Next, let’s call unhealthy child-centeredness what it really is: an expression of low self-esteem. It’s behavior that results from a lack of faith in our ability to parent — an over-reliance on our children for guidance when we don’t trust our inner guidance. Perhaps a more useful term to embody this concept is role reversal. When you realize you’ve fallen into a role reversal you can set things straight by asking yourself, “What is my role as parent?” The answer will vary from one parent to another, but it usually includes protecting, comforting, nourishing, informing, facilitating, and most of all attuning.
I often remind my clients that as we navigate the uncharted waters of progressive parenting, we can be uncertain and still be confident. You can stand upright and say, “I am absolutely confident that I have no idea what to do!” And believe it or not, this attitude will comfort your children! Such confidence carries the implicit message that you are capable of handling uncertainty and finding your way to certainty.
If you realize you’ve been a compulsive “rescuer” — inadvertently blocking the development of your child’s ability to seek and find comfort — then I suggest a gradual transition from reactivity to availability. When your child is upset, focus immediately on attuning and opening your heart to her, but wait a bit before overtly offering help. See if she will come to you on her own. Give her opportunities to rediscover and enhance her comfort-seeking abilities, but don’t hesitate to offer comfort immediately when your intuition is that she needs you now. Babies especially need immediate comfort, which is one reason why they instinctively prefer to be in direct physical contact with a familiar caregiver, 24/7.
Lastly, if you find yourself in role reversal — too often asking what you should do or pleading for your child to do something — try doing this simple, two-step centering technique:
1. Ask yourself, “Where’s my center?” Breathe deeply and remain curious until you feel yourself getting centered again.
2. Respond to your child with silent presence. In other words, just be there for a while, and don’t let words come between you and the child. Some words may be called for, but wait awhile to let simple presence do its magic.
What our children most need — after the basics of food, air, water, shelter and such — is parents who are present, centered, and attuned. Unfortunately, our culture teaches us to believe that such inner peace is dependent on outer conditions. But every day, more and more people are learning that they can choose peace even when it is not “justified” by circumstances.
In other words, you can be clear, calm, creative and confident — even when you’re “supposed” to be upset — for no reason other than your own desire to be at peace. Your children may not make the same choice right away, but as you improve your ability to create peace from within, they’ll begin to sense your authentic power and, naturally, they’ll want to follow your lead.
Liedloff, Jean (1975) The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost.
Liedloff, Jean (1994) “Who’s In Control?” Mothering 73:33
Sorenson, E. Richard (1976) The Edge of the Forest: Land, Childhood and Change in a New Guinea Protoagricultural Society. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press
Sorenson, E. Richard (1996) “Where Did The Liminal Flowers Go? : The Study of Child Behavior and Development in Cultural Isolates.” Anthropology of Consciousness
The Continuum List, email-based support group for parents and others who are applying Liedloff’s continuum
Web address of this article:
Copyright©2004 by Scott Noelle. All Rights Reserved.