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, co-sleeping, 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. To say that The Continuum Concept 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 find out more at continuum-concept.org. For now, suffice it to say that The Continuum Concept is about Liedloff’s experience of living with a tribe of Yekuana Indians in the Amazonian rain forest, and how it radically altered her view of human nature and childrearing. She recommends natural parenting practices that are more consistent with the conditions under which humans evolved—practices which are normal for the Yekuana and most so-called “primitive” cultures, like carrying infants constantly.
We felt a lot less clueless after reading The Continuum Concept. 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 The Continuum Concept, my mind was opened another notch when I found a related article by Liedloff, titled “Who’s In Control?: The Unhappy Consequences of Being Child-Centered.” Liedloff noticed that Yekuana 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-childcentered” 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-childcentered 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 e-mail-based support group for parents who’ve read The Continuum Concept. I recently received an e-mail 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…
Watch Your Phraseology
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 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 The Continuum Concept opposes the use of coercive tactics, as seen in this excerpt:
Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yekuana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence— let alone coerce—anyone…. The Yekuana 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.
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.
Lurking in the Shadows
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 twofold: 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 childcenteredness 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.