About seventeen years ago, I read a book which impressed me greatly and turned upside down my thinking about how to raise children. The book was called “The Continuum Concept” and was written by Jean Liedloff. She was an anthropologist who spent many years living with the Yeqana Indians in the highlands of Venezuela. They were a so-called “primitive” tribe who lived much the way they had ten thousand years previously. What attracted Jean Liedloff to them was the way they lived with the total absence of unhappiness. She also observed that the babies never cried, the children were obedient and a parent only had to ask them to do something and they not only scurried off to do it, they also seemed pleased to be asked to contribute.
What intrigued me the most was that, in the entire book there was only one reference to “growling.” It was rare for a child to do something that annoyed a parent, but when that happened and the parent expressed their annoyance, the child would immediately – and of their own accord – do their best to correct whatever they had done wrong – and that was the end of the matter.
Lately, I have been wondering what circumstances I would have to create so that I rarely growled and if I did, it would immediately be effective and my child would take responsibility for their action.
It seems to me that there are two main factors that create this situation. Firstly, the Yeqana babies and infants have their need for food, sleep, company and exploration met so perfectly, that they rarely if ever cry and operate very independently from about two years old onwards.
Secondly, the children are totally obedient to parent requests and there is no tension between parent and child. How on earth do they achieve that and is it possible to do that within a Kiwi lifestyle?
Support their emotions
Let’s think about total emotional support for our children when they are upset. If we behaved like a Yeqana Indian, whenever our young child rushed to us upset, we would see it as our job to pick them up, cuddle them and do very little else. We would assume that, from the comfort and support of our arms – plus a little walking, back rubbing and muttering of soothing sounds – our child could feel comforted, settle down their feelings, reach a point of equilibrium and then wriggle to get down and get on with the next adventure.
How would we translate for an older child or a teen? When our child came to us to tell us about an upset, we could listen carefully to them. We could ask for further information (“And what happened next?) to show our interest and our concern. Further, we could make our empathy clear by small comments like “How awful for you,” “I’m so sorry to hear that, “ “That must have been dreadful for you.”
It is possible that, if we responded to our children with empathy and without criticizing or lecturing, our children might come to us more often with their problems and would even utter the magic question, “What do you think I should do?” This would mean that they thought we had something to offer and were seeking the benefit of our experience.
Guard their space
It also means that we would understand that some children after a busy day at school, are simply too tired to talk and prefer to have down time on their own. We would not only leave them to it, but we would guard their space from their more social and noisy siblings.
“So that is all very well, Diane,” I can hear you muttering, “but when do we get to the bit where all a parent has to do is ask and the child rushes to get it right?”
That’s the bit I’ve been struggling with. When a child lives within a tribe, there is a continuous example and expectation of how they are supposed to conduct themselves. If they see children slightly older than themselves consistently behaving in a certain way, they will assume that is what is expected of them and will meet those expectations. How does a single parent or two parents at home manage that?
Tribe of two or more
When a Yeqana parent makes a request, it never occurs to the child to do anything other than comply. They have examples all around them of other children doing the same, so compliance seems like normal and expected behaviour. Furthermore, all the adults expect all the children to behave appropriately. We can do a good approximation of this in our Kiwi homes, but it requires determination and consistency. In other words, initially, we are going to work much harder to train our children to meet the expectation of good behaviour.
Mean what we say
Once we have asked our child to do something, we need to be clear in our own minds about two things.
One – We are not going to weaken our case and lose our dignity by arguing, debating, cajoling, threatening or hurrying them along.
Two – The GST approach – We are not going to provide anything in the way of Goods or Services until the task is complete.
If we keep our expectation clear that we are not available (not even to encourage – a thinly disguised excuse for nagging!) until the task is done, our children will soon learn that we mean what we say.
Tribe of three
If we are parenting on our own, it is hard to project enough power to convince ourselves and our child that we mean what we say. On the other hand, there is no-one around to contradict us.
If there are two parents trying to project that they mean what they say, it would be ideal if we can both be saying the same thing. The best way we can do that is to back the other parent. “You heard what your Dad said. Do it now.”
Skills, Companionship and Fun
Once we have children who can rely on us for unconditional support when they are upset and rely on us to expect compliance to simple, reasonable requests, we are free to enjoy their company, spend companiable time and work alongside each other.
That way, our children can learn skills from us and with us, they can feel part of a team (or a very small tribe) and they can feel that their contribution is not only expected but is also valued
And I would love to think that if we are supporting their feelings and quietly expecting compliance, the odd time that we growl when behaviour is inappropriate, our children would take full responsibility, “jump to” and correct whatever they need to.
Nice fantasy or distinct possibility? I, for one, intend to try it.