Hold on to your kids, Part 2


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In Hold On to Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté argue that peer-orientation is deeply damaging our children’s development.  I will sketch the main problems they see in this Part 2 post, including the causal relationship between peer-orientation and educational challenges.

It is normal and natural for a child to attach to her parents.  But as attachment weakens, the child’s “counterwill” grows, which pits the child’s will against the will of her parents.  The authors explain that counterwill is a defensive mechanism that protects children from the influence of strangers – those outside their attachment relationships.  However, when parents allow their own attachment relationships with their children to wane, even unwittingly, the natural force of counterwill begins to act against the parents.  This is often the first clue parents have that there is a problem.

The early onset of counterwill in young children can trick parents because the child’s self-assertion is sometimes interpreted as a positive sign.  My child is becoming more independent, a parent may think.  But the authors explain that counterwill is an immature, instinctive reaction to ideas that did not originate within the child, and therefore not a step forward in the child’s development.

“As genuine independence develops and maturation occurs, counterwill fades. With maturation human beings gain the capacity to handle mixed emotions. They can be in conflicting states of mind at the same time: wanting to be independent but committed also to preserving the attachment relationship. Ultimately, the truly mature person with a genuine will of his own need not mount an automatic opposition to the will of another: he can afford to heed the other when it makes sense to do so, or to go his own way when it does not.”

When a child becomes peer-oriented, the transmission lines of civilization are downed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn peer-oriented children, counterwill manifests itself as disobedience and defiance towards their parents.  But the authors say the implications go further.  By their teenage years, children can be rebelling against culture itself, against the notion that they should carry forward the traditions of their parents and grandparents.  Instead they have adopted the narrow culture of their peers.  Neufeld and Maté say this “tribalization” of children within their peer group is a historically new phenomenon which prevents the normal transmission of culture from one generation to the next.  “When a child becomes peer-oriented, the transmission lines of civilization are downed.”  Young people’s appreciation of even recent history wanes.  Thus the culture can no longer reproduce itself and begins to die out.  Without a sense of a shared past, young people become unable to relate to people outside of their own tribe, making their worlds small and insulated.

But children are meant to attach to their parents and it is beneficial for them.  The book relates some moving stories that illustrate the power of healthy attachments.  In the chapter on vulnerability, the authors tell us that attachments protect a child from the outside world.

“One father told me how he had witnessed the power of attachment to keep a child safe when his son, whom we’ll call Braden, was about five years old. ‘Braden wanted to play soccer in the local community league. On the very first day of practice, some older kids gave him a rough time. When I heard their voices taunting and ridiculing him, I quickly turned into a protective father bear. I had every intention of giving these young bullies an external attitude adjustment when I observed Braden face off with them, stretching himself to his full height, putting his hands on his hips and sticking his chest out as far as it would go. I heard him say something like, ‘I am not a stupid little jerk! My daddy says I’m a soccer player.’ And that seemed to be that.’  Braden’s idea of what his father thought of him protected him more effectively than the father ever could have by direct intervention.  His father’s perceptions of him took precedence.”

As children become peer-oriented, the reverse happens: They become more vulnerable to criticism and rejection.  The authors maintain that children have always been mean to each other when not sufficiently supervised by adults, but that the lack of attachment relationships today makes children more sensitive and likely to be damaged by these insults.  Hence the phenomena of teenage depression and suicide are more common than in the past.

Children without healthy attachments become stuck in immaturity.  What does it mean to be mature?  The authors explain, “As we mature, our brain develops the ability to mix things together, to hold different perceptions, senses, thoughts, feelings, and impulses all at the same time without becoming confused in thinking or paralyzed in action… Reaching this point in development has a tremendous transforming and civilizing effect on personality and behavior.”  The immature do not have this ability to tolerate mixed feelings at the same time.  They are unable to apply themselves to their studies or to their work if they ‘don’t feel like it.’  They lose their tempers easily.  They blame other people for their own failures.  These are all immature behaviours that result from the inability to process that ‘part of me feels this way and part of me feels that way.’  A mature person who doesn’t presently want to work, for example, will nevertheless be motivated by a concern for his clients or colleagues, by knowing he will feel a sense of failure if he leaves a task incomplete, or by simply fearing to lose his job.

We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it.

Neufeld and Maté assert that parents cannot command their children to “grow up” nor teach them how to become individuals; this happens as the end result of the development process.  However, parents can nurture the process of maturation, and not surprisingly, it begins with attachment.  Because attachment is the “first priority of living things,” this fundamental need must be addressed before further development can occur.  “To foster independence we must first invite dependence; to promote individuation we must first provide a sense of belonging and unity; to help the child separate we must assume the responsibility for keeping the child close. We help a child let go by providing more contact and connection than he himself is seeking. When he asks for a hug, we give him a warmer one than he is giving us. We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it… Thus the story of maturation is one of paradox: dependence and attachment foster independence and genuine separation.”

Other developmental problems for peer-oriented children addressed by the authors are aggressive behaviour, bullying, and premature sexual activity, but the final one I want to cover here is the education problem: peer-oriented children are unteachable.  We have all heard or experienced this.  Teachers find that their jobs are getting more difficult, with students being less respectful and less receptive.  Basic measures of academic progress, such as reading ability, have declined, while at the same time teachers have never been better trained (or at least more extensively trained) than they are today.  The authors suggest that the root problem arises from our culture; teachers in the past were able to “ride on the coattails” of the strong adult orientation in society.  The success factors of education, including a desire to learn, an interest in the unknown, a willingness to take risks, and an openness to being corrected, are directly influenced by attachment.  Take healthy attachment away from a child, and you take away his ability to learn.

Classical educators will be interested in how Neufeld and Maté describe the maturation process and its connection to education.  First, curiosity is not an inherent part of a child’s personality – it is the “fruit of the emergent process,” an “outgrowth of the development responsible for making the child viable as a separate being, independent and capable of functioning apart from attachments.”  Thus, for peer-oriented children who are still preoccupied with attaching, curiosity is simply not on the agenda.  In fact, since curiosity entails taking risk in front of their peers (i.e. asking questions, showing enthusiasm about a subject), peer-oriented children are even less likely to engage.

Second, the inability for peer-oriented children to process mixed feelings – to have an “integrative mind” – causes all sorts of problems in education.  “In a child with a well-developed integrative capacity, not wanting to go to school evokes concerns about missing school, not wanting to get up in the morning triggers an apprehension about being late. Lack of interest in paying attention to the teacher is tempered by an interest in doing well, resistance to doing what one is told mitigated by awareness that disobedience has unpleasant consequences.”  But developing this ability is the result of maturation, a process that is stunted by peer-orientation.

Did “progressive pioneers” like Fröbel and Dewey end up so wrong precisely because their conclusions about human nature were based on observing children who had grown up in normal families with healthy attachments?

goldfish jumping out of the waterPerhaps the most interesting statement in the book related to education is this: “Our pedagogy and curriculum take the integrative abilities of children for granted.”  The authors must be referring here to the “progressive” approaches to education today, which expect very young children to be independent, creative, socially capable, etc.  This made me consider whether “progressive pioneers” like Fröbel and Dewey ended up so wrong precisely because their conclusions about human nature were based on observing children who had grown up in normal families with healthy attachments! Did they figure that children must be inherently wise and self-disciplined because they already had these characteristics by the time they started school at age 7, before they had any formal education?  Did they fail to understand the role parents had in forming their own children?  Can we posit that post-Reformation educators succeeded so thoroughly at transforming family and civil culture, that subsequent godless observers could not help but be completely blind to their own indebtedness to Christian values, like fish ignorant of life outside water?  It has taken several generations for the progressive efforts to retool education to be recognized as draining the lake of Western culture.

But let me get back to the book.  Peer-orientation also stymies trial-and-error learning, which is actually the most fundamental learning approach.  It does this because it discourages trial (taking risks), it prevents a child from recognizing or acknowledging his errors, and it blocks a child from realizing the futility of an ineffective course of action.  “Registering futility is the essence of adaptive learning.  When our emotions are too hardened to permit sadness or disappointment about something that didn’t succeed, we respond not by learning from our mistake, but by venting frustration.”

With healthy attachment, a child is able to take correction from those adults with whom he is bonded.  But with peer-oriented attachments, the child will take cues from his friends instead.  This turns the friends into the teachers.  “Once a child is peer-oriented, learning peaks during recess, lunch hour, after school, and in the breaks between classes.  What peer-oriented kids learn will not come from the school teacher or from the curriculum.”  They call the idea that children learn best from their peers a “dangerous educational myth.”  To the extent that they are learning from their peers, it is not doing them any good.

“What they learn [from their peers], however, is not the value of thinking, the importance of individuality, the mysteries of nature, the secrets of science, the themes of human existence, the lessons of history, the logic of mathematics, the essence of tragedy. Nor do they learn about what is distinctly human, how to become humane, why we have laws, or what it means to be noble. What children learn from their peers is how to talk like their peers, walk like their peers, dress like their peers, act like their peers, look like their peers. In short, what they learn is how to conform and imitate.”

The only solution for these problems in education is to build healthy attachments with our children, and the authors’ advice for how we can best do that will be discussed in Part 3.  According to Neufeld and Maté, education is a responsibility shared between parents, teachers, and all the adults who are in contact with the young.  We know, of course, that the primary responsibility for education rests with parents.  Today, more than before, we delegate that responsibility to others to our children’s harm and to our civilization’s peril.


Hold on to your kids, Part 1


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Hold On to Your Kids is the title of a national bestseller by a clinical psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, and a medical doctor, Gabor Maté, in which they argue that the greatest danger facing our children is peer-orientation.  The authors assert that peer-orientation is a genuine “disorder,” a disruption of the natural order of things.



“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role – their own peers. They are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from adults. Instead, children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.”

Neufeld and Maté find that the source of the problem is a loss of healthy and normal “attachment,” most importantly between a child and his parents.  They define attachment as a physical and emotional connection between human beings, which in turn aligns and orients persons toward each other.  The force of attachment drives our instincts and behaviour even though we may not be conscious of it.  When the attachment between a child and his friends becomes dominant, his internal compass needle consequently turns away from his parents and towards his friends, leading him to take direction from his peers.  This swing can happen suddenly, and when it happens, it impacts catastrophically the parents’ ability to guide their beloved children.  Parents become outsiders and nobodies in the eyes of their own children.

This feeling of helplessness strikes close to home for many parents.

The causes cited for the peer-orientation phenomenon will be familiar to those who have reflected on the state of our society.  The authors refer to an “unprecedented cultural breakdown” which has the following common characteristics:

  • Families in which children are separated from their parents for the majority of the week because both parents are working full-time; the situation is made worse due to a “lack of consideration” given to child-care arrangements;
  • The breakdown of the family unit, resulting in absent extended family structures that could generally be counted upon in the past;
  • Schools in which teachers do not interact with students during lunchtime or recess, and where teachers do not often form personal relationships with students;
  • Loss of family rituals such as meal times, conversations, and story-telling;
  • More frequent and longer-distance relocations of families for career reasons, resulting in uprooting of existing attachments.

So what, some might say to all this.  Our culture is changing, and we will adapt.  Our new culture is not “bad” or negative, just different.  And that would be a typical post-modern response.

The fact is that changes can be evaluated in terms of their impacts.  It is the evidently harmful outcome of the peer-orientation phenomenon that has Neufeld and Maté sounding the alarm.  Peer-orientation takes away the power to parent.  “The power we have lost,” they write, “Is the power to command our children’s attention, to solicit their good intentions, to evoke their deference and secure their cooperation. Without these four abilities, all we have left is coercion or bribery.”  In order for parents to pass on their experience, knowledge, and values to their children, they need to have an attachment relationship in place with them.  Without this relationship, the child will form attachments with others – and in our culture, those others will almost always be their peers rather than any responsible adults.  When that happens, the child’s maturation process will be severely stunted.  The specific problems caused by peer-orientation will be discussed further in Part 2.

Attachment, other the other hand, has so many positive benefits for the parent-child relationship:

  • Attachment preserves parental authority, and this natural hierarchy allows the child to take guidance and direction from his parents.  Parents are perfectly entitled to assume the dominant role since they are taking responsibility for the child and providing for his every need.  If the child had no needs, he would also not need parents.
  • Attachment feeds positive parenting instincts as well as appropriate responsive instincts in the child.
  • Attachment commands the child’s attention.
  • Attachment makes the parent the model for the child and sets the parent as the primary cue-giver for the child.
  • Attachment generally makes the child want to be good for the parent.

Given all these beneficial outcomes, pursuing healthy attachments with our children should be our top priority.  Neufeld and Maté’s directions for building and for restoring these attachment relationships will be summarized in Part 3.

Kids’ brain development slows when using keyboard

Fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh

From the early days of human history, it has been a nearly universal experience for young students to learn to write manually; that is, by using tools such a reed and clay tablet, ink and papyrus, pencil and paper. Not any more. Handwriting has lost its place as a foundational skill in the Common Core standards in the United States.  But will brain development be short-changed by ignoring manual printing and writing?  Research led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, suggests that it will.

Studies link handwriting to educational development

Now one could argue that typing on a keyboard also involves manual action with the fingers.  However, this study seems to find greater benefit from printing and writing with a traditional stylus on paper.

Cursive or not, the benefits of writing by hand extend beyond childhood. For adults, typing may be a fast and efficient alternative to longhand, but that very efficiency may diminish our ability to process new information.

Teachers have nothing to teach?


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Who do teachers think they are?  Why should teachers presume to act as some kind of authorities in the classroom?  Who’s to say that a child’s own ideas and “perspectives” aren’t more valid than the teacher’s?

If these questions sound like they make sense, it is only because post-modernism has thoroughly sickened the popular mind.  We have become numb to the obvious.  What was formerly self-evident – namely that children need to be taught and that learning is hard work – can only be questioned after layer upon layer of sophisticated nonsense is piled over top of common sense.

The “discovery learning” approach being embraced by Albertan public schools is just another branch on the rotten progressive tree (Marks on Alberta Grade 6 provincial math exams have gone from 70% to 56% in four years. Why?).  There is nothing new here.  The main principles of progressive education are:

  • A child is inherently wise and disciplined
  • Truth is subjective
  • Morality is up to each individual to decide
  • Academic content is minimized
  • Curricular outcomes are focused on self-awareness and classroom community, rather than core skills like reading, writing, and math
  • Authority of the self is emphasized

As progressive educators reject the idea of knowledge, question the authority of the teacher, and bypass the mental effort required to learn, they end up with a gummy bear curriculum: Make it easy, make it fun, praise effort instead of results, and don’t take it so seriously.  Someone else will be there to pick up the pieces.

The problem is, we have fewer and fewer people who are capable of picking up after the mess left by our public schools.

Fortunately, parents have a choice!!

John Manley rings alarm about Canadian education

My brother observed recently that there are fewer and fewer jobs that do not require good technical skills.  In the past, proficient literacy and solid arithmetic skills were enough to equip a young person for a successful career.  A person who could add “common sense” to these skills could advance into management and leadership positions.  Today, however, aspiring business leaders are increasingly required to have a solid technical background in order to be considered for promotions.  It’s difficult to lead a high tech team or company if you don’t have a clue about how the products work or are built.

Hiring managers in technology-driven industries (i.e. most industries today) have a difficult time finding qualified Canadians to fill their open positions.  The public education system is failing to produce literate and numerically-competent young people.

Fortunately for Canadian businesses, our federal government has been busy approving as many immigration applications from highly-educated and qualified technical people as possible to deal with the shortfall in home-grown talent.  Engineers and scientists are arriving from Ukraine, Poland, Romania, China, India, Egypt, and many other countries, and they are being snapped up quickly by Canadian companies.

John Manley, CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives is yet another voice warning that we must fix our education system.

Parents of young children, know that you have a stake in this matter!  You may not be able to fix the system, but you can fix it for your family.  You can offer your own children the kind of education that will let them stand out from the crowd.

Classical Educators on the radio

Looking to learn more about classical education?  Check out these two podcasts on Issues Etc.  HT: Cheryl Swope.

Dr. Thomas Korcok with Dr. Ken Schurb (as substitute host), Oct. 12, 2013



  • why Lutheran schools?
  • Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen
  • Froebel, kindergarten, & Lutherans
  • baptism, catechesis, & vocation wrt Lutheran education
  • memory work and absolute truth
  • ideal teacher in Lutheran school

Rev. John Hill – a great interview featured on Faith & Family, Oct. 14, 2013



  • Western civilization, enculturation
  • why Latin?
  • history of classical Lutheran education
  • what about creativity?
  • the classical Lutheran curriculum
  • requirements for classical Lutheran teachers

Destroyed by lack of knowledge?

With another school year underway, some educators are again warning their colleagues in the teaching profession not to neglect grammar in their classrooms.

Sample work from student project at Kitchener public school (2013)

Sample work from student project at Kitchener public school (2013)

Most public school curricula have done away with grammar because it gets in the way of students “expressing themselves.”  In the earlier grades, spelling has likewise been ignored.  As a result, the shoddy work illustrated above is commonplace in today’s progressive schools.

Completely unacceptable, say classical educators.  A child cannot express himself properly if he does not master the fundamentals of speech and writing.  Training children in the building blocks of language allows them to put their thoughts into a coherent form, so that their ideas can become useful to both neighbour and nation!

A child cannot express himself properly if he does not master the fundamentals of speech and writing.

The next generation will not be able to articulate solutions to the problems we face in 140-character tweets.  Let’s not rob our kids of the chance to shape our society’s future positively.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. – Thomas Jefferson, opening lines of the American Declaration of Independence (1776)

sentence diagramming

Is this irrelevant?

HT: The Human Touch

The Queen was homeschooled

The official website of the British Monarchy provides a brief overview of the Queen’s education, which begins with this fact: “Princess Elizabeth was educated at home with Princess Margaret, her younger sister.”

Education of Her Majesty the Queen

This page also includes a link to a stunning speech given by Princess Elizabeth on the occasion of her 21st birthday on April 21, 1947.  This speech highlights her ability to weave historical and contemporary events into an inspiring and forward-looking narrative, such as she would continue do many times over the years.

Now that we are coming to manhood and womanhood it is surely a great joy to us all to think that we shall be able to take some of the burden off the shoulders of our elders who have fought and worked and suffered to protect our childhood.

Would that our children graduating from schools these days would feel and express similar sentiments, and that their parents and elders would give them reason to do so!

Why is homeschooling growing so rapidly?

The number of homeschooled students has grown by over 13,000% since 1975, and it’s being noticed.  The Economist published an article about six months ago about the burgeoning homeschooling movement.  About 2 million children are being homeschooled in America today, double the number just ten years ago.

Homeschooling has truly become mainstream.  Two years earlier, The Old Schoolhouse Magazine reported on the academic and social success of homeschooled students.  Is there a connection between the popularity of homeschooling and the fact that it succeeds in producing capable, thinking citizens?

Homeschoolers are here to stay, because homeschooling works.

1,000 Good Books List

Our children download library books onto their iPod Touch devices with the OverDrive app, which is supported by many libraries now.  This allows them to access a wide variety of books at home on demand, with no car trip required.  However, a few times this summer, we noticed that they were reading stories that were “too silly” or “just dumb.”  Too many children’s authors these days have apparently decided that literary pablum with sugar added is a good diet for 5-10 year-olds, and, in step with the spirit of the times, some of them even managed to put in a touch of social re-engineering here and there.

The challenge for us was that, even if we read the synopsis before approving a book, we couldn’t always be sure we had a good novel on our hands.  So to give our children more guidance in their extra-curricular reading choices, we printed the Good Books List provided by the Classical Christian Education Support Loop.  Our kids have blanket permission to download any book from this list.  Check it out here:

1,000 Good Books List

In our rush as parents to encourage our children to read, let’s make sure the material they are reading is worth the effort.