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.