jean liedloff

from her book The Contiuum Concept

On Being ‘Child-Centred’ or Permissive

A parent whose day is centred on childcare is not only likely to be bored, and boring to others, but is also likely to be giving an unwholesome kind of care. A baby’s need is to be in the midst of an active person’s Life, in constant physical contact and stimulated by a great deal of the kind of experience in which he or she will take part later in life. The role of a baby while in arms is passive, with all his senses observant. He enjoys occasional direct attention, kisses, tickles, being thrown in the air, etc. But his main business is to witness the actions, interactions and surroundings of his caretaker adults or children. This information prepares babies to take their place among their people by having understood what they do. To thwart this powerful urge by looking inquiringly, so to speak, at a baby who is looking inquiringly at you, creates profound frustration: it manacles his mind. The baby’s expectation of a strong, busy, central figure, to whom he can be peripheral, is undermined by an emotionally needy, servile person who is seeking his acceptance or approval. The baby will increasingly signal, but it will not be for more attention: it will actually be a demand for inclusion in adult-centred experience. Much of the frustration shown by such a baby is caused by his inability to make his signals that something is wrong bring about anything that is right.

Later on, some of the most exasperated and ‘contrary’ children are those whose antisocial behavior is a plea to be shown how to behave cooperatively. Permissiveness constantly deprives children of the examples of adult-centred life where they can find the place they seek in a natural hierarchy of greater and lesser experience, and where their desirable actions are accepted and their undesirable actions rejected, while they themselves are always accepted. Children need to see that they are assumed to be wed intentioned, naturally social people who are trying to do the right thing and want a reliable reaction from their elders to guide them. A child seeks information about what is done and not done, so if he breaks a plate he needs to see some anger or sadness at its destruction but not a withdrawal of esteem for him – as though he were not also angry or sad at having let it slip and resolving on his own initiative to be more careful.

If parents do not distinguish between desirable and undesirable acts, the child often behaves more interruptively and disruptively in order to force them to play their correct part. Then, when they cannot bear any more imposition upon their ‘patience’, the parents may vent all their pent-up anger on the child himself perhaps saying they have had ‘enough’ of him, and send him out of sight. The implication is that all the previous behavior they were tolerating was, in fact, bad but that they were misrepresenting their true feelings at the time and that the irremediable badness of the child generally brought their pretence of acceptance of him to an end. The game is defined this way to the children of many a household, who come to see that they are expected to try to ‘get away with’ as much undesirable behavior as possible before the axe falls, when they are revealed in their true colours as unacceptable.

In extreme cases, when parents, often having had their first child late in life, dote so disastrously upon their little darlings that they never show any sign of distinguishing between what is to be done and what not done, the children are nearly mad with frustration. They rebel at every new ‘Would you like to have this?’ ‘Would you like to do that?’ ‘What would you like to eat.., to do … to wear?’, ‘What do you want Mummy to do?’, etc.

I knew a most beautiful two-and a-half-year-old girl who was treated like that. Already she never smiled. Her parents’ every fawning suggestion of something that might please her was greeted with scowls of discontentment and obstinate repetitions of ‘No!’ Her rejection made them even more abject, and the desperate game went on, with the little girl never able to get her parents to set an example from which she could learn, as they were always looking to her for guidance. They would have given her anything she wanted but should not understand her real need to be with them as they lived their own lives as adults.

Children expend an enormous amount of energy in trying to get attention not because they need attention itself. They are signalling their experience is unacceptable and are trying to get a caretaker’s attention only in order to correct that experience. A lifelong impulse to seek attention is simply a continuation of the frustrated child’s failure to get it in the first place, until the search for the initial notice becomes a goal in itself, a sort of compulsive contest of wills So a form of parental attention that prompts more urgent signals bar the child is bound to be an inappropriate one. Natural logic forbids belief in the evolution of a species with the characteristic of driving its parents to distraction by the millions. A look at the other millions in such places as Third World countries who have not had the ‘privilege’ of being taught to stop understanding and trusting their children reveals families living in peace and with an eager and useful addition to the family labour force in every child over the age of about four