25 October 2011

Hold On To Your Kids

This month I re-read Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate. Every parent, whether your child is six months or sixteen, needs to read this book. Let me say that again.

If You Are a Parent, You NEED To Read This Book.

Much of the insight in this book is based on the attachment theory of human development. Part one of the text discusses the idea of peer orientation in relation to contemporary parenting. Following are four points I found noteworthy (I've done some paraphrasing here) along with a quote.

1. Parenting requires the context of a secure attachment relationship to be effective.

Parenting is not a task . . . one more thing for us to do well, one more aspect of our lives to become good at, another rung in our competency ladder. This one hit home for me, given my love of devouring information on raising children. I enjoy reading what experts, other parents, writers, psychologists, etc. have to say. I blog about it, and read similar blogs to see what folks are saying, to learn, to share, to advise, and to (sometimes) commiserate. I want to be a good parent (whatever that is).

However, parenting is not about learning the best technique, the right skills, or the most efficient way to "train" your child. It's about the relationship you have with your child.
The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child. When a child seeks contact and closeness with us, we become empowered as a nurturer, a comforter, a guide, a model, a teacher, or a coach. For a child well attached to us, we are her home base from which to venture into the world, her retreat to fall back to, her fountainhead of inspiration. All the parenting skills in the world cannot compensate for a lack of attachment relationship. (from Chapter 1, Why Parents Matter More Than Ever, page 6)
2. Children need to be oriented to adults, not each other.

Think of orientation as your compass . . . it allows you to get your bearings, it provides guidance, and shows you where "north" is when you get off track or face uncertain paths. The authors use the term peer orientation to describe the situation in which children look to peers instead of parents for this most basic instruction and modeling. 

The problem is, you cannot have more than one "north"; the child cannot follow the values of both parents and peers simultaneously. When the natural parent-child orienting relationship is undermined, the impact of peer culture is devastating. Children end up being "raised" by themselves . . . attached to and oriented by each other rather than adults. Children are way too immature to take on this task.
Are we saying that children should have no friends their own age or form connections with other children? On the contrary, such ties are natural and can serve a healthy purpose. In adult-oriented cultures, where the guiding principles and values are those of the more mature generations, kids attach to each other without losing their bearings or rejecting the guidance of their parents. In our society that is no longer the case. Peer bonds have come to replace relationships with adults as children's primary sources of orientation. What is unnatural is not peer contact, but that children should have become the dominant influence on one another's development. (from Chapter 1, Why Parents Matter More Than Ever, page 9)
3. We spend far too much time focused on behavior, and far too little time focused on relationship.

There is a very good reason most "discipline" methods fail: They don't address the real issue. We like to feel like we have taken charge, had a plan, followed through with consequences when things go awry. The problem is, reacting to behavior by trying to do something to encourage or to change it (i.e., rewarding the positive and punishing the negative) is missing the boat. It's never just about the specific thing our child has done or not done. Why can we see this so clearly with other people in our lives but not our own children? I love the following quote more than any other in the entire book because I think it explains this concept so well. It's in response to a parent whose teenage daughter has become distant, rude, overly concerned with privacy, and uninterested in conversation; traditional methods of discipline have proved useless.
Imagine that your spouse or lover suddenly begins to act strangely: won't look you in the eye, rejects physical contact, speaks to you irritably in monosyllables, shuns your approaches, and avoids your company. Then imagine that you go to your friends for advice. Would they say to you, "Have you tried a time-out? Have you imposed limits and made clear what your expectations are?" It would be obvious to everyone that, in the context of an adult interaction, you're dealing not with a behavior problem but a relationship problem. And probably the first suspicion to arise would be that your partner was having an affair. (from Chapter 2, Skewed Attachments, Subverted Instincts, page 16)
4. Our current culture devalues attachment.

Adult-child attachment relationships don't receive the priority they deserve. Children, sometimes from just a few weeks old, spend a lot of time in each other's company with minimal adult contact. Parents are likely to choose a child care provider or educator based on economics and recommendations from other adults, without any consideration of how their children may or may not develop a relationship with the adult responsible for their care. No "collective consciousness" exists that keeps attachment in the forefront of such decisions.

In addition, we separate people into age categories all the time, and have come to see this as normal. Schools group students by age into separate classrooms. Churches usher folks off to toddler rooms, teen centers, and senior groups. Most social gatherings, even those designed as family functions, divide activities into those for adults and those for children. We view multigenerational events at best as quaint, at worst as just plain odd.
In our society, that natural order has been subverted. From a early age, we thrust our children into many situations and interactions that encourage peer orientation. Unwittingly, we promote the very phenomenon that, in the long term, erodes the only sound basis of healthy development: children's attachment to the adults responsible for their nurturing. Placing our young in a position where their attachment and orienting instincts are directed toward peers is an aberration. We are not prepared for it; our brains are not organized to adapt successfully to the natural agenda being so distorted. (from Chapter 3, Why We've Come Undone, page 32)


  1. Great thoughts!!! Thanks for sharing. I need to find that book:) I love the photos of your kiddos too...too cute.

  2. What an interesting post. And I agree with you, again.

    My son's an only child (and gifted) who grew up very much orientated towards adults and with a very strong respectful relationship with me. His lack of strong peer relationships when he was in primary school was a real concern for me at the time.

    As an adult- he's 26 now- he has a huge circle of friends and is a strong leader within that peer group. Food for thought, yes?