The Continuum Concept And Choices For Children

It is a regular question I hear parents ask:

Should I give my child choices and if so, how often and in what circumstances?

It is a question that is answered in many extremes across the world of parenting advice, but how is the subject approached from a Continuum perspective?

Jean Liedloff once said on the subject of choice:

We give far too many choices and we give them far too early. It leads to frustration and fury and parents then trying to figure out why their children are so angry. We keep giving them more choices, saying, “well, what would you rather do?” and the children get even more furious because that’s what’s making them angry and they can’t explain themselves. As to alternatives to giving choices, it’s hard to take it out of context. Let’s just for the moment talk about one child and one parent. A mother at breakfast saying, “would you like to have rice crispies or corn flakes?” to a three-year-old should just put it down on the table, whatever she is serving. What the child needs — and it also happens to be more convenient for the parent — is to feel that the parent is authoritative, calm, self-reliant, and knows what she’s doing. She shouldn’t keep asking the child because at only two years old children don’t want to be expected to know what to do. They want the parent to know.”

To those who are not familiar with the Continuum Concept, this may come across as a particularly dictatorial style of parenting, preventing children from freedom over their own choices. However, freedom over ones self is an integral aspect of The Continuum Concept, so I want to delve further in to the way freedom and choices are approached from a Continuum perspective.

Yequana children ARE free. They do not just have set opportunities to exercise freedom of choice “given” to them by their elders, instead their whole lives are filled with choice and freedom. They decide when to sleep, where to go, who to follow. They never experience coercion or force to try and make them change their minds, or do anything they do not want to do. They are indeed free.

Yet on top of that, they are also socialised. They are aware of the normal practices of their families and as such, being social beings who instinctively yearn to integrate and belong, they desire to join in with these social practices.

To offer them to choose to eat something different from the rest of the family would single them out and separate them as different. This is not only inconvenient and stressful for the mother who has to find, prepare and offer an alternative meal, but also feels confusing and stressful for the child. It gives the child the impression that the mother is not in control – not as a dictator as the word is often used, but as a confident leader and role model.

This too applies to sleep, as although the child would never be forced or coerced in to sleeping against their will, in their desire to integrate and belong, they will naturally choose to fall into the natural sleep cycle of the rest of the family.

Opportunities for choices are not artificially manufactured for children to feel that they have some semblance of control over their lives, because the children know without a doubt, that they are the master of themselves.

This sense of freedom can be difficult to recreate in our modern parenting.

Bringing up children in pairs or solo, we have a much more difficult time enabling children to have total freedom over themselves. If we need to go out and the child does not want to come, we are put in a difficult position. We cannot leave them alone, so we are faced with compromise or coercion, neither of which are entirely natural choices. In living in a non-child centred manner combined with a child’s natural desire to be with others, we can avoid many of these struggles as our children do not even question that they will join us. But in the incidences where we have to force our will over theirs, as gently and respectfully as we do it, it doesn’t change the fact that we are taking away their freedom of choice.

The greatest thing you can do for your child is to look at these times where you are feeling you absolutely have to control or manipulate, and see how you can reduce them as much as possible. To give children as much freedom of choice over their own lives as we possibly can, eliminating sources of unnecessary restriction and creating a “yes environment” we can mirror the natural freedom of choice our children are designed to experience.

A few examples of how choices and freedom work in my home:

We live in a house with a garden. The garden is safe and enclosed and is never off limits. If the door is locked, he simply asks me to open it for him. He is free to go out whenever he chooses, not on my schedule, day or night. He generally chooses to come in when it gets dark.

Mealtimes – I offer what I am serving with no pressure to eat it. If he asks for something in particular, for example toast with breakfast, I give it to him if we have bread. I do not offer him a choice of what to eat for dinner. We eat together and I cook meals based on freshness of food. I do not limit snacks and if he wants to eat before dinner is ready, he can eat. This will usually be fruit or a rice cake. It is not up to me to decide when he is hungry. Choice is a natural part of every meal time for him, as I always serve up a variety of foods from which he can choose from.

I choose where we will go during the day, but I talk to him about his preferences. If he shows a particular unwillingness to see a particular friend I will take that into consideration. In the small groups we exist in, if there is someone he feels uncomfortable around I feel that it would be unfair to force that on him. My son is naturally introverted and too many busy days and meet ups are draining for him (as they are for me also.) I always consider his needs when making plans, though I don’t tend to ask him outright what we should do, as (just as JL predicted) it confuses him and creates uncertainty and frustration within him.

I want him to know that he is free, that my will is not more important than his, and that his life is his own. I also want him to know that we trust him to be social, kind and cooperative.


How do you approach choices and freedom with your children? Does the Continuum perspective on it resonate with you or mirror your own parenting practices?

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6 thoughts on “The Continuum Concept And Choices For Children”

  1. This is really interesting to me. I fin myself asking my daughter questions all the time as I want her to have control and choices in her life but it has never felt quite right, however I haven’t known what to do differently. I am going to re tea this article a few times and then start again in the morning.

  2. This is an amazing post!! Very well articulated and structured. However, I would be interested to know how this works in other cultures. Do you have any insight into this? I honestly believe in this type of parenting. The parent is in control, there is no denying that. But, the part that makes it so succinct and efficient is that under continuum parenting the parents takes the child’s needs into consideration. The underlying part of that, to me at least, is that in order to take your child’s needs into consideration you have to know who your child is, and to know your child you have to develop a relationship with them. That’s the piece that resonates with me.

  3. Great post! It’s a really good idea to give them options and choices of their own. And, we need to accept those decisions whatever they may be as long as it won’t cause harm to them. Thank you for sharing this very good read!

  4. My children are now 20 and 17 years old. The Continuum Concept was the parenting book that had the most impact on me when I read it (before I had children or even a partner). It blew my mind. I was so excited by it that it gave me an intense desire to have a baby. I even carried my cat around in a sling for a while. I was about 24. I thought it was the be all and end all of parenting. It resonated with me like nothing else. It reached out and touched my yearning for connection, for inclusion in a close-knit community, for the happiness it spoke of. It was about much more than just parenting. It was about society, community, belonging, happiness.

    However, it presents an ideal – an ideal of parenting within an ideal society. The society we live in is not ideal – it’s nothing like the society of the Yequana. And it set up in my mind an ideal of what parenting should be like, within our society. But you can’t have that ideal within our society. It’s impossible. So it set up unrealistic expectations in my mind of what parenting was going to be like (as did all the “natural” birthing books I read). I didn’t have a natural birth – I had a disastrous birth (both of them emergency caesareans). I didn’t bond with my babies (either of them). I couldn’t carry them around all the time – impossible. I did sleep with my first one but gave up very quickly as I am a poor sleeper and co-sleeping made that worse. However, not co-sleeping was just as bad. I had a baby that woke up 6 to 8 times a night screaming. He never woke up without screaming. My nerves were shattered. This was not how it was meant to be! In fact, it was the opposite.

    I was devastated by my mothering experience. I was so depressed that I did not enjoy ONE moment with my children. After my second child was born it got worse, until finally, I wanted to commit suicide. I spent almost four years (starting when my younger child was 18 months old and my older child 4 years old) wanting to die, every single day. I even planned it and almost went through with it when my children were four and six years old. When the time came, I couldn’t go through with it because of guilt about the children. So I kept going, for their sake.

    This experience was the worst experience of my life. My children had horrible childhoods because I was so depressed. And I was so depressed because I had enormous expectations of myself as a mother and enormous amounts of guilt about my parenting failures. This is no way to raise children. I still love the book, The Continuum Concept – for it’s observations of the Yequana society and the ideals it presents for how a society can be – but not as a parenting book. As a parenting book, it sucks, as do all parenting books. What I advocate is throwing out all parenting advice and focusing on what’s important – the parents and carers of children. You cannot have happy children with unhappy parents/carers. Anything that promotes guilt in a parent is bad. The most important aspect of the Yequana society was that the adults – the parents and relatives – were supported and happy. That’s what we need to re-create in our society – not some idealised version of parenting.

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