Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Continuum Concept

Jean Liedloff's book was published in 1975. And here is what I thought:

Jean says: babies are happier in the short term and become happier adults if they are mostly held.

Babies are happier when they are mostly held - no question; I agree entirely. This is the main point of this book and the only sad thing is that any parents need telling it. With the arrays of prams and car seats and buggies and cots and vibrating chairs and baby gyms that some parents surround themselves with, I suppose their children do end up out of arms most of the time. The heartbeat, the warmth, the vibration of the voice, the in-focus eye contact, the movement - all provide a safe place from which to view the world.

But what about in the long term? Liedloff lists many of the "woes" of the world - criminality, persistant illness, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, failure to build close relationships, child battering and homosexuality [yes, that's really on the list - well, it was 1975, I suppose] - and attributes them to a lack of mothering. There's a lot of blame in this book, a friend of mine said. Yup. And it's all being aimed at parents. Even if people haven't been held enough as children, are their (presumably well-meaning but not very responsive or spent too much time and too little attention reading Dr Ferber) parents accountable for all ills that may befall them in later life? Can parents never find ways to make amends, and are their offspring passive victims of their upbringings rather than responsible for their own actions and happiness? I say no to both questions.

Jean says: if babies are held all the time they will always be happy

Someone reminded me recently that Liedloff did not have children herself, and it shows. Her strong implication is that if a baby cries, is sick, sucks hir thumb, has colic, sometimes prefers to sleep alone, or ever has a wet nappy for more than 35 seconds, the mother is just tilling the ground for her child to grow up with psychological problems. All I can imagine is that the Yequana babies, who Liedloff studied, never grew teeth, and were condemned to lives of eating well-mushed breadfruit. Don't tell me that breadfruit doesn't grow in the Amazon. I don't want to know. And why are western babies more sick? Well, it might be that they are more stressed, or it might be that western mothers are so well nourished that their milk tends to be more plentiful and richer than the baby strictly needs so the baby goes on sucking after se has reached "wafer-thin-mint" stage. Or maybe Yequana babies have a mutation making the muscles at the top of their stomach become strong earlier, thereby avoiding positing. I don't know, but neither does Liedloff, and one of us isn't trying to make mothers feel like failures every time their child puts hir thumb in hir mouth.

Jean says: Preindustrial societies are filled with happier people than post-industrial ones.

Brace yourselves for the myth of the noble savage. The Yequana are definitely noble savages although, interestingly, the Sanema indians are hardly mentioned at all, and the behaviour we do hear about is somewhat less noble (pillaging neighbouring villages etc). So even Liedloff knows that not all savages are noble.

There are some strong advantages to living in pre-industrial societies. In my opinion, these include:
- being in a community small enough to be easily self-governing rather than developing a centralised government
- people of all ages being in regular and close contact with each other
- children being integrated into daily life rather than put into "child care"
- physical activity being a normal part of life. This is an advantage because babies like being carried around, and also because of the parent's endorphin high.
- work is a welcome part of life rather than being a necessary evil.

But you don't have to reject the microwave and the freezer to achieve any of these things in western society, it just takes a little creative thought. And there are disadvantages to living in preindustrial societies which Liedloff does not ackowledge. Like... um... dentistry (hello, Alice!). It's hard to grow knowledge when most of one's energy is expended on surviving. Of course, I'm assuming that growing knowledge is a good thing - perhaps I need to put a justification of that on my wish list of posts to write.

Jean says: Western society puts many obstacles in the way of children

No question. We need to find ways of helping children pursue their own goals, without controlling them through praise and blame, and without either neglecting them or stifling them with protection. It's not easy with most of our peers looking askance, but that is no reason to despair.

Jean says: being held is an evolutionary expectation of babies, and therefore we should hold them

Lack of technology and prevalence of predators do mean that pre-industrial babies will have been largely carried around. But this, in itself, is not an argument for babies to be constantly held in arms now. The human body was designed to eat meat; is that a reason that vegetarianism is wrong? Our bodies have not been primed in evolutionary time to use computers or read books, to use telephones or the combustion engine. Must all these things be avoided to ensure psychological well being? Relying on precedent is a weak argument. And dropping in quasi-scientific justification (what is an evolutionary expectation, anyway?) isn't strong either.

How would I argue it?
- Held babies tend to be happier
- Mothers holding the babies are happier because the babies are happier
- everyone they meet says "what a calm baby" and is happier
So why wouldn't you co-sleep and baby wear?


alice said...

The accuracy of Liedloff's claims about the Yequana has been questioned. It seems that she misrepresented things in order to reinforce her arguments- they did put their babies down sometimes, and probably did cry as well.

Some babies can't handle being in the sling for too long, seem to feel constricted and definitely prefer to be put down somewhere safe instead (with their mother nearby). They even sometimes prefer carrying without the sling, although others like the feeling of protection it provides. Modern buggies etc can be a useful addition to the repertoire for various reasons, but depending on the child one might find one never uses the buggy, or one might find it very much preferred for several years (I've known both).

I think Liedloff's book encouraged people to question the modern parenting practices that treated early parenting like some kind of production-line, and also suggested some more humane practices than the ones that were popular before (and, still are) in the West.

It seems at first bizarre that some older cultures are better at early parenting than our more evolved Western culture, but the West is not perfect, and I think it is very interesting and worthwhile to consider this conundrum and figure out what can be done to improve early parenting in the West.

Nuclear families and women's desire for bodily autonomy from their babies are two big difficulties for humane early parenting: one needs to nurse, carry and be available *all* the time, and also have someone good enough available to do the same while one takes a shower! But these are problems to be solved, not signs that our entire culture is evil, as some Liedloff-followers would argue :-)

PS Sorry this is so long, maybe I should have asked if you'd like a guest-blog post here instead... and congrats on the new blog!

emma said...

Dear Alice,

Thank you! Ooh, you can guest blog any time you like.

You're absolutely right - some bables want to be in a sling all the time, some want to lie down and kick their legs in the air, some like buggies... I should have made clearer my advocacy of tuning into the baby's cues and finding ways of keeping both them and their carers physically comfortable. Thrift shops are a great way of trying out all sorts of equipment with children; if the children don't like the bouncy chair (or whatever), it can be returned to the shop with the self-righteous glow of having donated a few ££ to Age Concern.

"Nuclear families and women's desire for bodily autonomy from their babies are two big difficulties for humane early parenting... But these are problems to be solved"

Mmmm yes *wanders off thinking about some possible solutions*

Elliot said...

"Held children are happier"

possible explanation: holding helps children

alternative explanation: there are things that cause holding children and also cause those children to be happier.

examples of alternative explanation include: parents who care, parents who are not distant, etc

thus there is no evidence holding itself does anything important.

and if you doubt this, just imagine: if you forced crappy parents to hold their children, would things suddenly get better?

Anonymous said...


You're making the classic mistake of arguing that if no explicit explanation for a tradition adopted by good people can be found, then no such reason can possibly exist. Of course, this is false, because traditions embody inexplicit knowledge as well as explicit knowledge. If there is a correlation between happy children and being held a lot, then you need to explain the coincidence before disregarding holding as an essentially useless idea in itself.

There are rational reasons to regard some traditions and not others as embodying beneficial knowledge that has not been made explicit yet, and to adopt the practices of those traditions oneself. If a tradition is practised by good people who find it beneficial, then it is very likely to embody good inexplicit knowledge. In the case of parents who hold their children and whose children are happier than the average same-aged child, this is clearly the case.

There may well be very good reasons why being held is beneficial for children's growth. For example, I have come across various theories and studies about the ways in which babies learn to use their senses, communicate and exercise their bodies, which indicate that close physical proximity with a parent is highly beneficial. But that is really beside the point: attachment parenting methods are a tradition which we should assume *does* embody meaning until it is discovered otherwise, which has not happened.

The possibility that the benefits of attachment parenting methods might be simulated by machines does not make the tradition useless until that has been positively demonstrated, and shown to be *better*. And the fact that a nasty person's child is not going to gain anything from being held often by that person does not make holding irrelevant either: it just means that people should be good, and should want what is best for their child- it doesn't indicate *what* is best for children.

If attachment parenting is redundant, the anomaly that children held often seem happier needs some other explanation. If their parents care more, there must be a reason why caring parents are more likely to choose attachment parenting than uncaring parents. We may not have strong enough evidence to demonstrate explicitly why attachment parenting works, but we also have no evidence that it doesn't work. Until we do, it is better to use those methods, and for people who don't enjoy them to change their preferences in a better moral direction so they can use them properly.

In any case, attachment parenting is not something parents force on children: it is nothing but a series of extra choices that children are able to make if they prefer. I cannot see any justification whatever in deliberately limiting children's choices. One does not even have to believe that the tradition contains knowledge to regard the practises as choices children should be given, and allowed to decide for themselves about. This seems to me the most important point of all. If children *want* to be held, they should be held: attachment parents do not grab unwilling children and force them to cry in slings.