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.
In 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?
Perhaps 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.