Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté (Ballantine Books, 2004)
If you can read only one book about parenting, this is it.
If you can read only one book about the future of America, or even the human race, this is it.
How is it that Hold On to Your Kids is more than a dozen years old and I'd never heard of it until our daughter in Switzerland brought it to my attention? If ever America needed to hear a message about our future, it is now, and this is it.
The message is not just for parents. What Neufeld and Maté are describing is a phenomenon that has radically changed society, and appears to be headed for a train wreck of mammoth proportions: the peer orientation of our children.
Mind you, I initially approached the book with skepticism. Not about their conclusions, but about why it took them so long to discover the obvious. The way we react when someone publishes the conclusion—from a multi-year research project, funded by millions in Federal funds—that we need to eat more vegetables. Don't we all know that? Haven't our parents and grandparents told us that all our lives? Similarly, I found it laughable that someone published, as a new discovery, what homeschoolers have always known: peer socialization is almost always negative.
And yet, Hold On to Your Kids turns out to be a valuable compendium of evidence that, beginning after World War II, we have become a society of children raising children—and I'm not talking about teenage mothers. Parents, often with the best of intentions, have unconsciously abdicated their natural role as guardians and guides of their children. Into the void has swept peer influence—actually, peer dependency—on an unprecedented and dangerous scale. Parents have lost their power and authority in favor of the peer group, with the result that rearing children has become much more difficult than previous generations could have imagined.
The authors point to two modern phenomena as evidence for this bewildering loss of parental influence: an explosion of books on parenting, and an equal burgeoning of medical diagnoses (such as "oppositional defiant disorder") to explain why today's children are so hard to manage. But the real disorder, they insist, is with the attachment bond between children and their parents. Children are equipped—for survival—with a great need to attach to their caregivers, and if that bond is not well established and maintained, other attachments will rush in to fill that need. Increasingly, and at an increasingly young age, children's primary attachments are being given to people their own age, who have neither the love nor the knowledge nor the skill to help them grow up properly.
It is essential to the survival of a civilization that its culture be passed on from one generation to another. Today's children are not receiving culture, they are inventing it as they go along. We are into the third generation of this problem, and appear to be reaching a tipping point. If the idea of peer culture being more important to children than their family culture doesn't seem strange and wrong to us, it's because that's how we grew up, too.
Every time I hear someone whine that rearing children is more difficult than it used to be, I respond that parents have been saying that for millennia. Neufeld and Maté have almost convinced me that today's parents really do have a much harder row to hoe.
I found Hold On to Your Kids a difficult book to read, and I'm not sure why. The language is well-written and easy to understand. It's true that the authors spend a lot of ink making their basic point over and over again, from different angles, and that can get as tiresome as a Presbyterian sermon, but given what they're trying to do, they need to be thorough, and each section contains important points not covered elsewhere. Perhaps reading the book was somewhat of a hard slog for me because it's so depressing.
And yet the authors are optimistic. I was frustrated that they seem to give modern societal practices too much of a pass: they acknowledge that divorce, the two-income family, daycare, school, high mobility, and social media are major contributors to the problem, but don't even consider what society might do to try to reverse some of these trends. For example, instead of focussing on creating conditions in which families can be together more, they advocate better-trained parent-substitutes. Instead of encouraging more parents to work out differences rather than divorce, they push for divorcing parents to pay more attention to their children's attachment needs in the process. No doubt this is the more practical approach, but I like to see the ideal set out clearly even if we know we must settle for something less. It's far more important to encourage parents to provide for their own children than it is to promote better substitutes, though of course we need both.
Be that as it may, as tragic as the authors believe our situation to be, they do believe it is reversible, as long as parents and other caregivers are aware of the problem. In the latter part of the book, they give some practical ideas, but the main problem is simply awareness.
Just what the authors mean by attachment is key to the book's arguments, one reason there are so many introductory chapters before they get to solutions. I'll clear up one misconception that I had going in: it's not about the childrearing approach known as Attachment Parenting, although it certainly encompasses the latter in its overall philosophy.
How important do I think Hold On to Your Kids is? Enough that even as I returned the library's copy, I ordered a Kindle version, even though I hate paying as much for an ebook as I would for a hard copy. I wanted to be able to have a record of the multitudinous sticky notes festooning the book's pages without typing them all out by hand. I had over 50 pages marked, and that leaves out many that I would have marked had I not simply given up. I should have gotten the Kindle version first—but I had no idea.
By the way, there was another advantage to buying the Kindle version, versus the hardcover book our library has: the ebook includes an additional chapter, devoted to electronic devices and social media, which have changed our children's world even more dramatically since 2008.
What do I like best about Hold On to Your Kids? A few things.
- The facts This is a compelling collection of observations and research from school experiences to brain studies. Even if some of us have "known this for 30 years," it's nice to have documentation.
- The authors' optimistic attitude If I think he's too easy on modern culture for encouraging the practices that directly foster peer dependency, and outright discouraging the practices that support the healthiest nurturing environment for children, I very much appreciate their belief that we can make significant progress starting from wherever we are, and that small steps can make a great difference.
- Their acknowledgement that every situation is different They lay down principles, but not rules. They give facts and opinions, and let parents figure out how they apply to their particular families. They present no magic bullet, but sound ideas and advice.
If you're like me, you'll have to get over the occasional use of psychology-speak. (I would have said psychobabble but I'm being polite.) It's not all that bad, and what else could you expect from a developmental psychologist?
Don't worry; you won't get all 50+ pages of quotes here. I'll just whet your appetite. If you're a parent, or a grandparent, or think you might become one, or if you just want some keen insight into social changes over the last half-century and some of their consequences, I highly recommend Hold On to Your Kids.
This YouTube video is a long introduction to the ideas (an hour and 40 minutes), but if you like the video/audio approach you can hear Dr. Neufeld speaking at a child development conference.
It's so hard to choose the quotations! But I promised to whet your appetite, not drown you.... I've marked in bold a few special points.
[Update, now that I've actually put in the quotes: I failed utterly in not drowning you, but you should see what I left out. Everything is so important! Take advantage of it all or not, as you wish.]
According to a large international study headed by the British child psychiatrist Sir Michael Rutter and criminologist David Smith, a children’s culture first emerged after the Second World War and is one of the most dramatic and ominous social phenomena of the twentieth century. This study, which included leading scholars from sixteen countries, linked the escalation of antisocial behavior to the breakdown of the vertical transmission of mainstream culture. Accompanying the rise in a children’s culture, distinct and separate from the mainstream culture, were increases in youth crime, violence, bullying, and delinquency.
We struggle to live up to our image of what parenting ought to be like. Not achieving the results we want, we plead with our children, we cajole, bribe, reward, or punish. We hear ourselves address them in tones that seem harsh even to us and foreign to our true nature. We sense ourselves grow cold in moments of crisis, precisely when we would wish to summon our unconditional love. We feel hurt as parents, and rejected. We blame ourselves for failing at the parenting task, or our children for being recalcitrant, or television for distracting them, or the school system for not being strict enough. When our impotence becomes unbearable we reach for simplistic, authoritarian formulas consistent with the do-it-yourself/quick-fix ethos of our era.
Historically ... it was simply the natural order of things that the innate attachment drive itself bonded the young with caregivers—adults of the same species—until maturity. That is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the young into healthy adulthood. It is the context in which the young are fully enabled to realize their genetic potential and in which their instincts are best given full and vigorous expression. In our society, that natural order has been subverted. From an 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.
Shouldn’t it be possible for children to be connected with their parents and teachers and, at the same time, with their peers? That is not only possible but desirable, as long as those several attachments are not in competition with one another. What does not work, and cannot work, is the coexistence of competing primary attachments, competing orienting relationships—in other words, orienting relationships with conflicting values, conflicting messages.
Peer-oriented kids are repelled by similarity to their parents and want to be as different as possible from them. Since sameness means closeness, pursuing difference is a way of distancing. Such children will often go out of their way to take the opposite point of view and form opposite kinds of preferences. They are filled with contrary opinions and judgments.
We may confuse this obsessive need for difference from the parents with the child’s quest for individuality. That would be a misreading of the situation. Genuine individuation would be manifested in all of the child’s relationships, not just with adults. A child truly seeking to be her own person asserts her selfhood in the face of all pressures to conform. Quite the reverse, many of these “strongly individualistic” children are completely consumed with melding with their peer group, appalled by anything that may make them seem different. What adults see as the child’s individualism masks an intense drive to conform to peers. ...
There is a foolproof way to distinguish peer-distorted counterwill from the genuine drive for autonomy: the maturing, individuating child resists coercion whatever the source may be, including pressure from peers. In healthy rebellion, true independence is the goal. One does not seek freedom from one person only to succumb to the influence and will of another. When counterwill is the result of skewed attachments, the liberty that the child strives for is not the liberty to be his true self but the opportunity to conform to his peers. To do so, he will suppress his own feelings and camouflage his own opinions, should they differ from those of his peers.
It is not both parents working that is so damaging. The key problem is the lack of consideration we give attachment in making our child-care arrangements.
If there were a deliberate intention to create peer orientation, schools as currently run would surely be our best instrument.
The authors clearly want children to form strong attachment relationships with their daycare providers and teachers. Most parents, I think, are naturally against that, wanting the attachment to stay with them. Who, even in the strongest homes, hasn't had to deal with a child who rejects what his parents say just because Teacher says differently, from how to do math to moral behavior? But the research suggests it's a Hobson's choice: children bond with the people they spend time with, so if it's not the teacher, it will default to the other children.
Superficially, one could argue that their attachment with peers is serving them well if it keeps them from being lost and bewildered. In reality, it does not save them from getting lost, only from feeling lost.
In today’s society, attachment voids abound. A gaping attachment void has been created by the loss of the extended family. Children often lack close relationships with older generations—the people who, for much of human history, were often better able than parents themselves to offer the unconditional loving acceptance that is the bedrock of emotional security. The reassuring, consistent presence of grandparents and aunts and uncles, the protective embrace of the multigenerational family, is something few children nowadays are able to enjoy.
Today’s children are much less likely to enjoy the company of elders committed to their welfare and development. That lack goes beyond the family and characterizes virtually all social relationships. Generally missing are attachments with adults who assume some responsibility for the child. ... The family physician, ... the neighborhood shopkeeper, tradesman, and artisan have long been replaced by generic businesses with no local ties and no personal connections with the communities in which they function.
The next issue is one I've dealt with personally and find vitally important. CHURCHES, LISTEN UP! In a world that insists on dividing families at every turn, we are exacerbating the problem. Shouldn't we be demonstrating a better way rather than following society's lead?
Another attachment void has been created by the secularization of society. Quite apart from religion, the church, temple, mosque, or synagogue community functioned as an important supporting cast for parents and an attachment village for children. Secularization has meant more than the loss of faith or spiritual rootedness; it has brought the loss of this attachment community. Beyond that, peer interaction has become a priority for many churches. For example, many churches divide the family as they enter the door, grouping the members by age rather than by family. There are nurseries and teen groups, junior churches, and even senior classes. To those unaware of the importance of attachment and the dangers posed by peer orientation, it seems only self-evident that people belong with those their own age. Large religious organizations have evolved to deal with only the youth or the young adult, inadvertently promoting the loss of multi-generational connections.
Divorce rates have soared. Divorce is a double whammy for kids because it creates competing attachments as well as attachment voids. Children naturally like all their working attachments to be under one roof. ... Furthermore, many children are attached to their parents as a couple. When parents divorce, it becomes impossible to be close to both simultaneously, at least physically. Children who are more mature and have more fully developed attachments with their parents are better equipped to keep close to both even when they, the parents, are apart.... But many children, even older ones, cannot manage this.
When parents lose each other’s emotional support or become preoccupied with their relationship to each other, they become less accessible to their children. Deprived of emotional contact with adults, children turn to their peers. Also, under stressed circumstances, it is tempting for parents themselves to seek some relief from caregiving responsibility. One of the easiest ways of doing so is to encourage peer interaction. When children are with each other, they make fewer demands on us.
Modern society has completely undercut parental authority, and in the ensuing chaos we have turned to two explanations that boil down to: (1) It is the parents' fault, and/or (2) It is the children's fault. Childrearing is no longer considered to be a natural process, but a special skill to be learned—under the teaching of professionals. The reasoning behind parenting as a set of skills seemed logical enough, but in hindsight has been a dreadful mistake. It has led to an artificial reliance on experts, robbed parents of their natural confidence, and often leaves them feeling dumb and inadequate.
To manage children when our parenting power has been cut is ... next to impossible, yet millions of parents are trying to do just that. ... Too often the children are blamed for being difficult or the parents for being inept or their parenting techniques for being inadequate. It is generally unrecognized by parents and professionals that the root of the problem is not parental ineptitude but parental impotence in the strictest meaning of that word: lacking sufficient power. ...
The absent quality is power, not love or knowledge or commitment or skill. Our predecessors had much more power than parents today. In getting children to heed, our grandparents wielded more power than our parents could exercise over us or we seem to have over our children. If the trend continues, our children will be in great difficulty when their turn comes at parenting. The power to parent is slipping away. ... [Power does not mean force, but] the spontaneous authority to parent. ... The loss of power experienced by today’s parents has led to a preoccupation in the parenting literature with techniques that would be perceived as bribes and threats in almost any other setting. We have camouflaged such signs of impotence with euphemisms like rewards and “natural consequences.” ... The power we have lost 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.
Some parents may avoid giving direction in the naive belief that they have to leave room for the child to develop his own internal guides. It doesn’t work like that. Only psychological maturity can grant genuine self-determination. While it is important for their development that children be given choices appropriate to their age and maturity, parents who avoid giving direction on principle end up abdicating their parenting role. In the absence of parental direction most children will seek guidance from a substitute source, likely their peers.
Difficulty in parenting often leads to a hunt to find out what is wrong with the child. We may witness today a frantic search for labels to explain our children’s problems. Parents seek the formal diagnoses of a professional or grasp at informal labels—there are, for examples, books on raising the “difficult” or the “spirited” child. The more frustrating parenting becomes, the more likely children will be perceived as difficult and the more labels will be sought for verification. It is no coincidence that the preoccupation with diagnoses has paralleled the rise in peer orientation in our society. Increasingly, children’s behavioral problems are ascribed to various medical syndromes such as oppositional defiant disorder or attention deficit disorder. These diagnoses at least have the benefit of absolving the child and of removing the onus of blame from the parents, but they camouflage the reversible dynamics that cause children to misbehave in the first place. Medical explanations ... ignore scientific evidence that the human brain is shaped by the environment from birth throughout the lifetime and that attachment relationships are the most important aspect of the child’s environment. They also dictate narrow solutions, such as medications, without regard to the child’s relationships with peers and with the adult world. In practice, they serve to further disempower parents.
The wisdom of well-seasoned cultures has accumulated over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Healthy cultures also contain rituals and customs and ways of doing things that protect us from ourselves and safeguard values important to human life, even when we are not conscious of what such values are. An evolved culture needs to have some art and music that one can grow into, symbols that convey deeper meanings to existence and models that inspire greatness. Most important of all, a culture must protect its essence and its ability to reproduce itself—the attachment of children to their parents. The culture generated by peer orientation contains no wisdom, does not protect its members from themselves, creates only fleeting fads, and worships idols hollow of value or meaning. It symbolizes only the undeveloped ego of callow youth and destroys child-parent attachments.
Despite our attempts to teach our children respect for individual differences and to instill in them a sense of belonging to a cohesive civilization, we are fragmenting at an alarming rate into tribal chaos. Our very own children are leading the way. The time we as parents and educators spend trying to teach our children social tolerance, acceptance, and etiquette would be much better invested in cultivating a connection with them. Children nurtured in traditional hierarchies of attachment are not nearly as susceptible to the spontaneous forces of tribalization. The social values we wish to inculcate can be transmitted only across existing lines of attachment.
In response to the intensifying cruelty of children to one another, schools all over this continent are rushing to design programs to inculcate social responsibility in youngsters. We are barking up the wrong tree when we try to make children responsible for other children. In my view it is completely unrealistic to believe we can in this way eradicate peer exclusion and rejection and insulting communication. We should, instead, be working to take the sting out of such natural manifestations of immaturity by reestablishing the power of adults to protect children from themselves and from one another.
The key to activating maturation is to take care of the attachment needs of the child. To foster independence we must first invite dependence; to promote individuation we must 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.
Isn't the follwing a lovely expression of the Gospel? And a clear reminder that we shape our children's view of God, whether we want that responsibility or not!
Unconditional parental love is the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love—in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost.
Owing to their highly conditional nature, peer relationships ... cannot promote the growth of the child’s emerging self. One exception would be the friendship of children who are secure in their adult attachments; in such cases the acceptance and companionship of a peer can add to a child’s sense of security. Feeling fundamentally safe in his adult relationships, such a child gets an extra glow from peer friendships—not having to depend on them, he need not feel threatened by their inherent instability.
A major problem with peer orientation is the extinguishing of a child's healthy curiosity. Peer-dependent children have adapted to school, because that's where they meet their friends, but are at a severe disadvantage when it come to education. The following quote is long, but important. And still less than I want to share from this section....
Ideally, what should lead a child into learning is an open-minded curiosity about the world. The child should ask questions before coming up with answers, explore before discovering truths, and experiment before reaching firm conclusions. Curiosity, however, is not an inherent part of a child’s personality. It is the fruit of the emergent process—in other words, an outgrowth of the development responsible for making the child viable as a separate being, independent and capable of functioning apart from attachments. Highly emergent children usually have areas of keen interest and are intrinsically motivated to learn. They derive great satisfaction from forming an insight or in understanding how something works. They create their own goals around learning. They like to be original and seek self-mastery. Emergent learners take delight in responsibility and spontaneously move to realize their own potential.
For teachers who value curiosity, invite questions, and give the child’s interests the lead, emergent learners are a delight to teach. For such children, the best teachers are those who serve as mentors, fueling their interests, igniting their passions, putting them in charge of their own learning. If emergent learners don’t always perform well in school it is probably because, having their own ideas for what they want to learn, they experience the curriculum imposed by the teacher as an unwelcome intrusion. Curiosity is a luxury, developmentally speaking. Attachment is what matters most. Until some energy is released from having to pursue safe and secure attachments, venturing forth into the unknown is not on the developmental agenda. That is why peer orientation kills curiosity. Peer-oriented students are completely preoccupied with issues of attachment. Instead of being interested in the unknown, they become bored by anything that does not serve the purpose of peer attachment. Boredom is epidemic among the peer-oriented.
A dangerous educational myth has arisen that children learn best from their peers. They do, partially because peers are easier to emulate than adults but mostly because children have become so peer-oriented. What they learn, 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.
If we took our cues from the natural sequence of development, our priorities would be clear. First would be attachment, second would be maturation, and third would be socialization.
Necessary as we may consider it to impose order on a child’s behavior, it is much more important to impose order on a child’s attachments. We have two jobs here: establishing structures that cultivate connection, and restrictions that enfeeble the competition. And believe me, if we saw the situation clearly, we would realize that in our culture it’s a knock-out-drag-out, no-holds-barred, no-quarter-given, winner-take-all and loser-gets-nuthin’, devil-take-the-hindmost struggle for our kids hearts and minds!
Structures and restrictions safeguard the sacred. Part of the role of culture is to protect values that we cherish but that, in our daily lives, we do not experience as urgent. We recognize, for example, that exercise and solitude are important for our physical and emotional well-being, yet seldom is our sense of urgency powerful enough to induce us to honor those needs consistently. Cultures in which exercise and meditative solitude are built-in practices protect their members from that lack of motivation. As our culture erodes, the structures and rituals that protect family life and the sacredness of the parent-child relationship—vitally important but not urgent in our consciousness—are also gradually eroded.
The current tendency in the parenting literature is to cater to the demand for parenting skills or parenting strategies. That is not what parents need. Strategies are far too definitive and limiting for a task as complex and subtle as parenting. They insult the intelligence of the parent and usually the intelligence of the child as well. Strategies make us depend on the experts who promote them. Parenting is above all a relationship, and relationships don’t lend themselves to strategies. They are based on intuition. These seven principles are designed to awaken or support the parenting intuition we all possess. We do not require skills or strategies but compassion, principles, and insight. The rest will come naturally—although I’m not saying it will come easily.
The following is obvious to parents who teach their toddlers to say please and thank you, but perhaps it's not so obvious that the technique should continue beyond toddlerhood.
There is another way to deal with immature children: rather than demanding that they spontaneously exhibit mature behavior, we could script the desired behavior. Following our directions will not make the child more mature, but it will enable him to function in social situations that otherwise she is not yet developmentally ready for. [The book generally does a good job of mixing up the personal pronouns; this is evidence that mistakes sometimes slip through multiple proofreaders, not that the authors are obsessive about gender issues.]
We have been taken in by peer orientation, much like the ancient people of Troy were fooled by the Trojan Horse. Perceiving this large wooden horse to be a gift from the gods, the Trojans brought it within the walls of their city and set the stage for their destruction. In the same way, today’s parents and teachers view early and extensive peer interaction in a positive light. We encourage it, unaware of the risks that arise when such interaction occurs without adult leadership and input. We fail to distinguish between peer relationships formed under the conscious and benign guidance of adults and peer contacts occurring in attachment voids. Unwittingly, we encourage peer orientation to sabotage our children’s attachments to us. ... The Trojan Horse of peer orientation is perceived as a gift rather than the threat it is.
Our failure to foresee the ill effects is understandable, since the early fruits are appealing and enticing. At first glance peer-oriented children appear to be more independent, less clingy, more schoolable, more sociable and sophisticated. ...
In the first days of school in kindergarten, a peer-oriented child would appear smarter, more confident, and better able to benefit from the school experience. The parent-oriented child, impaired by separation anxiety would, by contrast, appear to be less adept and capable—at least until he can form a good attachment with a teacher. Peer-oriented kids have all the advantages in situations that are adult poor and peer rich. Because peers are plentiful and easy to spot, the child need never feel lost or without cues to follow. Thus, in the short term, peer orientation appears to be a godsend. And it is undoubtedly this dynamic that research taps into when discovering benefits to early education. In the long term, of course, the positive effects on learning of reduced anxiety and disorientation will gradually be canceled by the negative effects of peer orientation. Thus follows the research evidence that early advantages of preschool education are not sustainable over time.
The belief is that socializing—children spending time with one another—begets socialization: the capacity for skillful and mature relating to other human beings. There is no evidence to support such an assumption, despite its popularity. If socializing with peers led to getting along and to becoming responsible members of society, the more time a child spent with her peers, the better the relating would tend to be. In actual fact, the more children spend time with one another, the less likely they are to get along and the less likely they are to fit into civil society.
What is praised as getting along in children would, in adult life, be called compromising oneself or selling oneself short or not being true to oneself.
Developmentally, children have a much greater need for a relationship with themselves than for relationships with peers.
Kids have always had playmates their age, in all societies throughout history, but in most of those societies there was no danger of peer contacts being transformed into peer orientation. Children’s interactions occurred in the context of strong adult attachments. Today’s parents also cannot be expected to isolate their children from peers, but they do have to be aware of the dangers.
Peer interaction is routinely prescribed for yet another purpose: to take the rough edges off children who may be a bit too eccentric for our liking. We seem to have an obsession in North America with being “normal” and fitting in. Perhaps we as adults have become so peer-oriented ourselves that instead of seeking to express our own individuality, we take our cues for how to be and how to act from one another. ... What is regrettable is that we as adults should dignify this homogenizing dynamic by honoring it and deferring to it.
We must understand ... that peers are not the same as siblings and that siblings are more than playmates. Siblings share the same working compass point. The unique attachment with the sibling is the natural offspring of the attachment with the parent. ... More appropriate substitutes for siblings are cousins, not peers.
The way we socialize also needs to change. Socializing tends to be peer-oriented in North America, splitting along generational lines. Even when several generations are together, the activities seem to be peer-based: adults hang out with adults, children with children. [In Provence, France] we saw that socializing almost always included the children. Meals were prepared, activities were selected, and outings were planned with this in mind. ... The greater the number of caring adults in a child’s life, the more immune he or she will be to peer orientation. As much as possible, we should be participating with our children in villagelike activities that connect children to adults....
Under today’s conditions, in many families both parents need to work—to say nothing of the growing number of single-parent families. We cannot turn the clock back to some idealized past when one parent, usually the mother, stayed at home until the children were grown, or at least in school. Economically and culturally we have reached a different stage. But we do have to ensure that our kids form strong relationships with the adults we entrust to take our place.
That is the sad realism of the book. I understand, but I also strongly believe that we could do better in recognizing that chronological progress is not necessarily progress in all areas, and that we would do well to work hard to retain the best of past practices and structures. I know many mothers who would love to be able to full-time homemakers—what, after all, can be more honorable and important than making a home?—but believe that they can't. Surely society could to more to encourage parents not to give their children into the care of others for large portions of the day.
The cultural milieu in which our book was written was already characterized by the increasing peer orientation of our young people, but that was before Facebook was launched and Twitter came on the scene, before videogames came to preoccupy our youth and online pornography accounted for 30 percent of Internet activity, and before anyone would have thought that within a few years 90 percent of children ages eight to sixteen will have viewed pornography online. Doctors had not yet expressed their concerns about the deleterious effects of screen time on children’s health, nor had they yet issued their warnings of rising Internet addiction.
How do peer-oriented kids keep close to their peers in the evenings and on weekends and on holidays? And what about when they leave school? As we all know and have experienced, there is nothing more impactful psychologically than facing separation from those we are attached to. The resulting alarm is immense, and the pursuit of proximity desperate. The motivation to close the gap becomes all-consuming. I believe this was the force that bent the digital revolution into the shape we see now. Remember that attachment is the strongest force in the universe. The digital devices designed to serve school and business became repurposed to connect the peer-oriented with one another. The digital revolution has become, for all intents and purposes, a phenomenon of social connectivity.
I often wonder what would have happened if the digital revolution had occurred before peer orientation took hold, but after increasing mobility, job scarcity, and high divorce rates had separated us from those we love. Without peer orientation, perhaps a culture would have evolved to digitally connect children to their parents and teachers, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. Parents might be reading bedtime stories to their children through these digital tools when away from home; teachers and students creating a context of connection to facilitate learning; grandparents connecting with their grandchildren when far away. ... There are many who use digital devices and social media for this purpose, and this should be applauded. But the facts and figures suggest that those of us who use social networking this way are not the ones shaping this phenomenon. It is the peer-oriented who rule the Internet waves.
The digital revolution is irreversible. There is nothing inherently bad about these devices; the concern is about their use, especially in the hands of our children. When to introduce and when to discourage such use is the question. ...
We have many precedents for dealing with things that are inevitable, even good, but with potentially damaging side effects for children. ... We don’t prohibit desserts, despite their being relatively empty of nutrients. We control the timing. After dinner is the rule, at least until the child is mature enough to have formed healthy intentions and to control impulses. In other words, cookies are okay as long as a child is full of the good stuff. The less a child feels the need for a cookie, the less harmful the empty food is. Timing is always the key issue in healthy development. For everything there is a season. The secret to handling potentially damaging experiences is not prohibition, which can be an exercise in futility and act as a potent trigger for counterwill. The secret of reducing the damage is in the timing of things. We want children to be fulfilled with what they truly need before they have access to that which would spoil their appetite....
An activity is genuine play when it is not outcome-based. In true play, the fun is in the activity, not in the end result. True play is for play’s sake, not for winning or scoring.
There is a deep and disturbing paradox to the information age. Humans, and most certainly children, were not designed to handle the amount of information they have been subjected to, even before the digital revolution. The only way our brains can process information in the first place is by tuning out 95 to 98 percent of the sensory input. The human problem is not that we don’t have enough information, but rather that we have much more information than we can possibly make use of. The ultimate and paradoxical effect of increasing access to information is to evoke further defenses against it. ...
Attentional systems cannot develop properly while dealing with a constant onslaught of incoming information. Studies show that we need downtime, time away from stimulation, to integrate the information we receive. ...
There are no shortcuts to getting ready to take in the world, and there is a heavy price to pay for being too much in a hurry. Childhood should be primarily about coming out as a child, not about taking in. The inflow of information is interfering with the outflow of emergent ideas that was meant to happen first. First curiosity, a willingness to learn and to receive, then information.
Although I agree with most of the above—I certainly experience it as an adult—I do fear that some will take this as a reason to deprive young children, even infants, of what they crave at least as much as food: opportunities to learn. Despite what the authors say elsewhere about curiosity being a fruit of maturation, I know that infants are born with an insatiable curiosity and are all about learning and growing in every way. I believe the authors would agree with that, while emphasizing that parents need to be careful that the information received is appropriate and controlled, and that their children have plenty of time and space to process what they take in, remembering that processing takes much longer than input.
What we offer here is not a precise recipe but an understanding, an explanation, along with broad guidelines. How these will apply to each child and each family will depend on the parents’ ability to foster the necessary relationship with their offspring. No age-specific recommendations are possible—a child’s relationship with the parents and his or her level of emotional maturity dictate what needs to be done. It is futile to suggest universally applicable, rigid rules.
Neufeld and Maté are waving an enormous red flag as we race headlong into the future. They offer no once-size-fits-all solution, but they do offer awareness—the vital first step—and hope.