Imagine a place where babies don't cry and children never fight.
Jean Liedloff found such a place. She spent a total of two-and-a-half years living with the Yequana Indians in the Venezuelan jungles. She describes them as an isolated Stone Age tribe, yet, on every measure of well being that she could think of, Liedloff found the Yequana to be better off than Westerners.
After babyhood, Yequana parents and other adults don't initiate contact or activity with their children but are readily available when the children need them.
Their daily lives were spent in what she calls a party atmosphere, with a lot of laughing and joking. Their relationships were non-judgmental and respectful, and she never witnessed any arguing, fighting or sibling rivalry. In her book The Continuum Concept - Allowing Human Nature to Work Successfully, (Addison Wesley, 1977) Liedloff claims that even the children never fight.
Competition of any sort, even in games, is unknown. Joy, rather than the unhappiness often found in Western culture, prevails.
WHERE BABIES DON'T CRY
Liedloff attributes the joy, serenity and peace of the Yequana to the fact that babies, from the moment of birth until crawling age, are constantly carried.
Perhaps the most stunning of her findings is that Yequana babies rarely cry. They are relaxed and quiet and, if we are to believe Liedloff, they never spit up! Boys are given small bows and arrows from the age of 18 months, but are not warned to be careful. The adults, Liedloff says, have complete faith in their children's instincts for self-preservation and don't warn them about rushing rivers, scorpions, snakes and other dangers of the jungle. A mother walking on a jungle path with a toddler following her will not turn around to make sure he is near. She just expects and assumes he will be, and, according to Liedloff, he always is. In the time she spent with the Yequana, Liedloff says she saw only one accident.
After babyhood, Yequana parents and other adults don't initiate contact or activity with their children but are readily available when the children need them. Children spend most of their time with their peers and adults spend most of their time with their peers.
Liedloff attributes the joy, serenity and peace of the Yequana to the fact that babies, from the moment of birth until crawling age, are constantly carried. The mother, other adult or older sibling, will carry a baby - either in their arms or in a sling -- at all times while they are working, cooking, dancing, bathing or walking. Babies sleep with their parents.
Liedloff believes that this "in-arms" phase is as old as evolution itself and that humans and our evolutionary antecedents treated babies this way for millions of years. It is only in the past few thousand years -- a tiny dot on the evolutionary map -- that we have strayed from this practice with, Liedloff claims, dire consequences.
HELD CLOSE BUT NOT AT THE CENTER
Liedloff and the Yequana Indians believe that a baby's rightful, natural place is in the arms of his mother or other caretaker. This constant closeness to the mother's body gives the baby a feeling of security, wholeness and being "right" and influences his whole life as well as that of his society. Westerners who miss this phase never lose their sense of not being "right," their longing for something they can't quite name.
While they are constantly with the mother or other caretaker, Yequana babies are not the center of attention. Instead, they live on the periphery, present at all activities but not at their center. From their safe and protected vantage point, they learn about life and get all the stimulation they need. Infants' signals are immediately responded to and they are put down only when they signal that they want to be, when they are ready to crawl.
Liedloff believes that the Yequana's joyful life is due to the fact that they are still in touch with their "continuum" -- the built-in instinctive knowledge with which we are all born -- of the way human beings are supposed to live. She attributes Western ills, from alienation to drug addiction, crime and violence, to the fact that we have been cut off from our natural continuum.
A HELD BABY IS A CALM BABY
"It is understandable," she writes "that Western babies are not welcome in offices, shops, workrooms, or even dinner parties. They usually shriek and kick, wave their arms and stiffen their bodies, so that one needs two hands and a lot of attention to keep them under control. It seems that they are keyed up with undischarged energy from spending so much time out of contact with an active person's naturally discharging energy field. We need to recognize that treating babies the way we did for hundreds of thousands of years, can assured calm, soft, undemanding little creatures. Only then can working mothers, unwilling to be bored and isolated all day with no adult companionship, rid themselves of their cruel conflict.
"Babies taken to work are where they need to be -- with their mothers. And the mothers are where they need to be -- with their peers, not doing baby care but something worthy of intelligent adults," Liedloff writes.
The Continuum Concept was re-issued with a new introduction in 1985 as part of Addison Wesley's Classics in Child Development series. In it, John Holt, the noted writer and educator, wrote, "If the world could be saved by a book, this just might be the book."
While Liedloff seems fairly subjective in her descriptions of both the Yequana and Western baby care practices, she offers fascinating insights that could go a long way in improving our babies' - and our own - lives.
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000