Tribal Parenting – How to Heal Our Children*
By Kelly Brogan, MD
Do you wear your baby?
Nurse your toddler?
Sleep in a family bed?
If you do, chances are you’ve been influenced by an obscure little book penned almost four decades ago.
Many of today’s Attachment Parenting principles were first brought to the attention of Western cultures through a slender volume titled The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost. Its author, the late Jean Liedloff, spent two and a half years living with a Stone Age South American tribe, observing them and recording their way of life.
The Yekuana Indians were unlike any people Liedloff had ever encountered. They seemed universally happy and fulfilled. Their children, especially, were remarkably calm and independent. In the entire time she stayed with them, she witnessed no sibling rivalry, no whining, and almost no crying, fussing or tantrums among their infants and small children. She was amazed to see older children and teens confidently performing difficult tasks and making mature decisions, without the defiance or recalcitrance so common in Western adolescents. In her own words: “Amazingly, the children never fought. They played together all day unsupervised, all ages, from crawling, to walking to adolescence. Not only did they not fight, they never even argued. This is not at all what we have been taught human nature is….”
Liedloff observed that in this culture, as in many other indigenous societies around the globe, children were treated very differently than in Western cultures. She began to develop a theory of human social development based on her observations. According to her, every human being is born with an inborn expectation to undergo certain natural social experiences. These begin with being held immediately after birth, and an extended in-arms phase in early infancy.
Liedloff called her theory the Continuum Concept, because she maintained that these experiences should come sequentially (in a continuum), and are necessary for the sustainable continuation of our species. Missing one or more of them, according to Liedloff, can cause an individual to have trouble integrating properly into society. And by extension, one would assume that a society that does not routinely provide these experiences to its members is likely to, eventually, break down.
You may be familiar with many of these Continuum practices as the basic principles of the Attachment Parenting (AP) movement, which Liedloff’s ideas influenced greatly. Several, like babywearing, extended nursing, and co-sleeping are, if not wholly embraced by Western society, at least becoming better known and more accepted. However, most Western parents who follow these practices agree that their families are still far from experiencing the ideal of human contentedness that Liedloff describes in her book.
Assuming that Liedloff’s observations are accurate, how can we continue to improve upon our parenting practices? In other words, once the honeymoon of infancy is over, what then?
In examining The Continuum Concept (and related materials included on the book’s website) for hints on parenting children ages toddler and beyond, three main principles spring forth as very different from the way most of us were raised, and continue to raise our children:
The first principle is a profound trust in the child.
Caregivers in continuum societies understand that the child is an inherently “good citizen,” with an innate desire to please and an inborn sense of self-preservation.
“Nobody’s born rotten,” writes Liedloff.
“You just don’t have bad kids. There is no such thing. But we can make them bad. Ironically, the reason it’s possible…is because we are so social. Our social nature is such that we tend to meet the expectations of our elders. Whenever this reversal took place and our elders stopped expecting us to be social and expected us to be anti-social, or greedy or selfish or dirty or destructive or self-destructive…that’s when the real fall took place. And we’re paying for it dearly.”
Instead of warning the child to behave and laying out consequences for bad behavior, Liedloff advocates simply modeling the “good” behavior, and expecting the child to follow suit. If the child errs, he should be gently instructed to change his behavior, but he should never be judged negatively as a person because of his mistakes.
The second Continuum concept to keep in mind is that the child should not be the centre of attention.
Neither, however, should he be excluded from adult society. In Yekuana society, Liedloff observed that adults were available to the child as needed, but focused primarily on their own activities, not on their role as parents. This approach lets the child learn by direct observation and to begin participating in adult activities as he is ready, without the pressure of being in the spotlight.
Of course, this does not mean that one should never pay attention to or play with one’s child. It simply, in Liedloff’s words, “reflects an understanding of the child’s role as a learner in society.”
The child needs a mother who is confident and calm…a mother who knows what to do, and doesn’t ask permission from her child. If you’re pleading with her (or asking her to lead), then she’s got the power, and it makes her nervous because it means you’re not sure of yourself, and you’re begging her for acceptance (or direction). Any grown-up lady that pleads with a 4-year-old is not to be relied on.
Rather than following the child’s lead, Liedloff suggests telling her nicely but matter-of-factly what you expect her to do, without asking her permission or regaling her with choices or reasons. In other words, instead of saying, “Let’s go have some lunch now, OK? What would you like to eat?” tell your child “OK, now it’s time for lunch. Can you find the spoons? We’re going to have soup.”
Keep in mind, though, that taking the lead is not the same thing as taking control over your child. The parents Liedloff observed never forced a child to do chores. They simply modeled the behavior, and made sure the tools—like a child-size grater—were available to the child. When a child showed an interest, she was allowed to participate as long as she wanted to. It was simply expected that she would naturally want to learn how to do the tasks she observed the adults doing. By the time they are old enough to be truly helpful, Liedloff noted that continuum-raised children will simply and quietly obey requests for help from adults, reciprocating the respect they had been shown when they were little.
The question for modern parents becomes, “Past infancy, how do we continue to give our children the continuum experiences they need in the context of our own society?”
This leads us to the third principle: that a healthy human experience must include interaction between people of many different ages.
It is easy for Stone Age parents to be available to their children without making them the center of attention. After all, they live where they work, and their children spend most of their time freely playing with other children, both younger and older than they are. In fact, every person in their culture is able to model older individuals, and mentor younger individuals in turn. This allows for smooth passage from one stage of life to the next, and reduces or eliminates friction between generations.
In a society which divides its tribes into isolated nuclear families, where adults must often work outside the home, where children are not typically welcomed into the workplace, and where, from preschool to nursing home, our age segregation practices border on the extreme, is it even possible to offer our children—and ourselves—the experiences we apparently need to become truly fulfilled human beings?
Perhaps not to the extent that the Yekuana could. But just as many Western parents have resurrected the practices of babywearing and co-sleeping, why not reclaim the tribal experience as well?
Whether through conscious decisions or instinct, many parents are attempting to do just that—resurrect something of the primal, tribal human experience. In their own ways, they are seeking opportunities to connect with other families in ways that are more natural, organically developing and holistic.
For some families, tribe-building is as simple as staying in place or moving back to live close to extended family. A recent PEW study revealed that 43% of young people ages 18–31 are now living with their parents or other kin. This includes a growing number of families with young children, according to Carmen Wong-Ulrich of Baby Center Financial.
Granted, this is happening primarily as a result of economic pressure, rather than the desire for a more natural social structure. However, many of these families are discovering benefits to this arrangement beyond financial relief. “It was nice to rediscover a relationship with my parents as a parent. I don’t think our vision was ever, oh let’s go live with our parents again when we are older, but you know, it worked out,” commented one young mother who spent a year living with her parents while she and her husband saved up for a home of their own. Other parents report increased feelings of security, carpooling and other shared duties made easier, built-in babysitters, and family bonding as benefits of living with or near family members.
But for the majority of us, living near family is just not an option. What then?
Creating Your Own Tribe
Teresa Pitman’s classic article “Finding Your Tribe” offers one solution. First published in 2000, it has been republished many times since, inspiring parents all over the world to create modern “tribal” relationships with friends and neighbors. It the article, Pitman describes her relationship with her friend Vicki. Starting when their first babies were infants, the two would get together and help each other with household chores or prepare meals for both families to enjoy, while their kids had the benefit of unstructured play time with adults who remained in close proximity, but engaged in their own adult activities. It wasn’t until she read Liedloff’s book that Pitman realized she and Vicki had unconsciously created their own little tribal community.
Pitman points out that tribe-building involves much more than just scheduling regular playdates. You have to spend a lot of time together, and it’s important that it not just be all “visiting time.” Work together. Clean house, work on your car, do projects together, garden, prepare meals, or start a business together. Take care of the children’s needs as they need you; otherwise, let them alone to observe how you’re going about your tasks—or not, as they please.
She also cautions not to be too picky about whom you form your tribe with. Just like family, the people you find available may have some qualities that differ from your ideals. That’s OK; as long as you can respect each other’s choices and beliefs there’s no reason you can’t form a deep and lasting relationship.
It’s very common for parents of young children to get together frequently, and often these relationships result in lasting bonds between families. However, once the children reach school age, time spent together in this way often diminishes. Homeschooling families have a unique advantage in this regard. They are also better able to respond to children’s natural developmental patterns, and more likely to have the opportunity to interact with children of a larger age range than their schooled counterparts—an important aspect of Continuum ideals. In situations where homeschooling occurs between and around running a home-based business, children also get to observe and learn firsthand how the adult world operates in a way that was once a normal part of growing up, but is now no longer available to the vast majority of modern children.
That said, many homeschoolers still find their lives increasingly dominated by schedules and goals, especially as children grow older. If a tribal experience is truly your ideal, you might find yourself drawn to at least partial unschooling.
The School Conundrum
If homeschooling is not an option for your family’s situation, what then?
If you are brave and resourceful, you might consider organizing your own school or other institution.
This is what Natalie Cronin did. She started her home daycare, Under the Tinker Tree, out of a desire to provide her own children with an experience more closely resembling her ideals than would otherwise be possible. Luckily, her vision resonated with others in her community.
“I share my home with a dozen families a day, and we have a saying that ‘We’re all in it together.’ It was an interesting process…I was very upfront about [all my beliefs about childrearing], and people would come, and they were looking for people like me and I was looking for people like them…. [I’d tell them] we aren’t caring for just the child, we’re here for the whole family, and that’s really what it’s become. Our community has become so close. The parents contact each other after daycare, and we all live within a few blocks of each other—I have six families who live in the same apartment building as I do. So we really do have our own little community and we’re very supportive of each other.”
Pioneering a “tribal” style school for older children is more of a challenge than starting a daycare, but is certainly within the realm of possibility if enough parents in a given community are willing to devote time and resources to making it happen.
If starting a school is not an option, you still may be able to integrate some semblances of a tribal existence into the fabric of your family’s life by carefully choosing amongst the schools, churches and other organizations in your area, and/or by advocating for more Continuum-friendly practices within the organizations you already belong to.
Keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to change already existing conventions.
“If you can’t homeschool, the first thing is to seek out alternative schools that have age mixing and aren’t so set on separating and segregating people,” advises parenting coach Scott Noelle, who corresponded extensively with Liedloff while she was alive, and now operates the Liedloff Continuum Network website.
“You can also look for a school that doesn’t grade children; that’s another way to separate people, by ‘good kids’ and ‘bad kids’ and A students and B students and so forth.”
Noelle adds that there are things you can do to protect your child from the less Continuum-friendly aspects of school life. “I encourage parents to let (their children) know that the school culture is like a game that they play, and there are parts of the game that are good to play, like learning and meeting new friends, but that we’ll have to tolerate other parts of the game that are not as aligned with our true nature, like grading for example. You can assure your children that the grading is just a game and we don’t have to take it too seriously. They do take it seriously—they forget that it’s just a game. So tell them, ‘I’m not too worried about [the game]. If what you’re ready for doesn’t align perfectly with their game then you may get low marks in their game, but I know you’ll blossom in your own time.’”
You may find yourself in the position of wanting to introduce elements of modern tribalism into an existing organization. This is challenging, but not impossible. If you want to do this, it’s usually a good idea to become an active, participating member of the group first, before attempting change. Then, frame your suggestions in a way that helps them meet existing wants and needs. For instance, you might volunteer to set up a program to help your organization’s single-parent families network with and support each other.
To some, the ultimate in modern tribe building may well be to start an intentional community based on Continuum and other natural living concepts. However, a quick search reveals very few existing intentional communities that openly base their values on Continuum ideals. (Heart-Culture Farm near Eugene, Oregon, is one.)
Why is this? Surely, there are enough families interested in following an attachment parenting lifestyle to warrant a larger number of communities specifically designed to support it?
Could it be that the very concept of an “intentional” community (at least, as most of us are likely to think of it) is alien to a Continuum worldview? After all, Liedloff herself noted that the Yekuana people were highly reluctant to sway anyone else’s opinion or influence their behavior. Yet most intentional communities are very specific as to what is and is not acceptable behavior.
Noelle recounts a personal intentional community experience which may shed some light on this question:
The Internet was making people more aware, and some people began discussing the idea of having a community of people…where the values were aligned with the Continuum Concept, which all of us were very passionate about.
So I wrote up a long and passionate post to this online community—right around the year 2000—“let’s go for it!” Somehow a lot of people got impassioned about it and we did start organizing. It led to a fairly sizable group of people from all over the world getting together for an organizational meeting.
We accidentally experienced tribe for about two days. We had this gathering in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. People had different travel schedules, and a number of people got there a few days before the big meeting. They camped out in our yard and we kind of had this village we created in our yard, and we were all just waiting and very optimistic. So we actually had this tribal experience, and I can only say it was glorious. It was just wonderful, the feeling of this expanded social circle where everyone is just sort of flowing together. The children had all these choices [of playmates]. They could play with one and when they were done they could play with another and if a child’s mom needed a break there was someone there to attend to the child. And we were living that way for a couple of days while we were waiting for this meeting.”
Then the meeting happened and everyone brought their agendas with them, and their particular attachments that things had to be a certain way, and we started to lose some of that being in the moment with each other. Now it had to be right vs wrong…
We might have weathered that, but I think ultimately a lot of us were recovering our humanity. The thing about community movements, is that people are attracted to communities because they’re failing in some way. I don’t mean that as a criticism. If people are succeeding at the whole separation game in society, they’re succeeding within the rules of that game, and they’re not motivated to change. It’s the ones who are failing who are like, “This doesn’t work for me, so I’m open to trying something new.” And they come across this idea of communitarianism, and they’re willing to try. But then you have a whole bunch of wounded people who are trying to lift each other up. And I could see that in this particular project, including myself and my wife—we definitely lacked the skill set to do that.
Noelle suspects that being well funded could help such a project overcome this issue by allowing participants the security to work out their differences. “When you’re just in survival mode you get defensive, feeling like someone else’s needs may encroach on your own.”
Given this experience and others, it seems that this elusive tribal experience is not something to be sought as a goal, but something experienced naturally when people come together without goals or expectations, simply in the enjoyment of being together.
What about the Internet?
Many people these days are spending increasing amounts of time and energy on the Internet in hopes of connecting to like-minded souls. Without denigrating the very real value many find in their online relationships (this author included), it’s important to note that virtual reality is in many ways antithetical to a Continuum experience.
The Continuum concept is about more than the sequence of human development. It’s about the continuum of humanity across many lifespans, and the play of matter and consciousness amongst and between humans, other species, Mother Earth and the universe itself.
Children, especially, need to experience the world holistically through their senses—the real world with all their senses, not just a pared-down, wired-up virtual semblance with no taste or touch or smell. And believe it or not, we adults need this too. There is no virtual substitute for the connection one feels when one’s eyes meet another’s, or the sensation of a warm slice of homemade bread passing from one hand to another, or the volumes spoken in minute variations in a loved one’s smile.
Seeking Your Own Tribe
Cronin, Noelle and Pitman all offer excellent suggestions for developing the kind of comfort with ourselves and others that appears to be a prerequisite for a Continuum lifestyle.
- Be honest about your feelings and needs, both to yourself and to others—if your children just aren’t up to participating in a play date on a particular day, it’s better to stay home than to force the issue.
- Remember to breathe—you won’t connect well with others until you are comfortable and relaxed in your own space.
- Reconnect with the natural world—even if you live in a city, just going for a walk and passing a tree is connecting and centering.
- Spend a lot of time together.
- Choose options that lead to partnership rather than separation and control.
- Be open to relationships with people who are in different stages of parenthood or life, or whose habits or beliefs differ from yours.
- Focus more strongly on how you’re connected with people than on how you’re different.
Above all, be open about the outcome. Allow your tribe to grow organically, from the inside out. Forget about your goals and focus instead on just the experience of being, right here and right now, with those you happen to be with at the moment. The destination is the journey itself.