Okay, people, listen up, because I’m going out on a limb here. I’m about to make the sort of Sweeping Statements I almost never make (because what if I’m wrong?).
Over the summer I read Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld and medical doctor Gabor Maté. If you’re a parent, you need to read this book (that’s Sweeping Statement #1).
Seriously. Every parent in North America should read this book (Sweeping Statement #2).
Why? you ask. Because it is probably the single most important book on parenting I’ve ever read (Sweeping Statement #3).
Neufeld’s thesis is simple and startling. He claims that “the disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents now heading toward adulthood is rooted in the lost orientation of children toward the nurturing adults in their lives.”
By “disorder” he means a disruption in the natural order of things. The natural order would have children attached to their parents (or other adults) and finding guidance, instruction, and modeling from them.
Instead, he says, “children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.” He calls this peer-orientation.
Like all mammals, human children have an innate need to get their sense of direction from someone; without this pole of orientation, children suffer an orientation void, and they cannot endure the psychological distress this causes. If no adult is present to orient to, the child will orient to whomever is near. “Social, economic, and cultural trends in the past five or six decades,” Neufeld says, “have displaced the parent from his [or her] intended position as the orienting influence on the child. The peer group has moved into this orienting void, with deplorable results.”
He explains what attachment is and how it works. He shows how attachment and orientation are inextricably linked and why children cannot simultaneously be oriented to both adults and other children. And then he shows the developmental disaster that occurs in children who are peer-oriented.
But wait, you say, kids need friends. They need their peers.
Yes, they need friends. They need peers. They do not need to orient their lives by those peers. In fact, it’s dangerous for them to do so, on many levels.
In the 20th century Carl Jung suggested that it is not so much what is present in the parent-child relationship that shapes the child but rather what is missing. And if, as Neufeld claims, peers have replaced parents as the primary shapers of children’s personalities, then what is missing in those peer relationships will have the most profound impact on who they become: “Absolutely missing in peer relationships,” he says, “are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.”
However much we as parents fail to do and be those things for our children, we look like rock stars compared to their peers.
Neufeld spends about a third of the book demonstrating how peer-orientation, which at first blush seems to make kids more independent and confident, actually undermines healthy psychological development.
He spends another third showing how the major issues facing our children and teens – aggression, bullying, depression, anxiety, and precocious sexuality – are a result of peer-orientation.
The book is sobering. But it is also hopeful. Neufeld insists that parents matter and that we can (as he terms it) collect our children so that we remain their pole of orientation. The entire last section of the book, which I’ve read twice (parts of it many more times), provides direction for parents who want our children to stay attached to us and who want to be the primary influence in shaping the people they become.
He also discusses how to create what he calls an “attachment village,” a term I’ve come back to again and again these past months as any number of lovely people have watched and played with my children when I couldn’t. We as parents can’t be all things to our children. We need our children to be attached to other adults – grandparents, friends, teachers – and Neufeld shows how to nurture such attachments.
I cannot speak highly enough of this book. My little summary here is paltry, even pathetic, and does Neufeld’s brilliant work a disservice. So don’t judge the book by this review, okay?
Just trust me as I reiterate Sweeping Statement #1: if you’re a parent, you need to read this book.