It's the American way, and even more so the Japanese way, and apparently the Swiss way also: the professionalism of parenthood. School is no longer so much the place where one learns specialized skills that can't be picked up at home or on one's own, but a place expected to teach children nearly everything a society deems important. The Four R's: Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic ... and all the Rest. Because, well, you know, the professionals can do it so much better, and who has the time, anyway?
Society is beginning to take notice that our children are getting to the once-upon-a-time age of adulthood without many of the life skills we take for granted, skills that enable them to live independently and hold down a job. Employers have noticed this for years, but the rest of us are finally beginning to catch up, if only in our derisive sneers at "Millennials." Is it the job of public education to teach these skills? Of course not—though I agree with those who insist that any institution that takes away most of a child's life, practically from the cradle, should be expected to return a lot more benefit from such a huge cost. But when a social need is found, it's likely to get dumped on the schools.
Enter the Let Grow Project for Schools, created to address this need. This is actually something different from the norm, in that the schools are only the vehicle for spurring action by parents and children. It begins with this basic homework assignment: Go home and do something your parents did at your age. The suggested activities are shocking: cooking, cleaning, buying something from the store, playing outside unsupervised, riding a bike in the neighborhood, briefly watching a sibling, walking to school. Shocking, apparently, for parents who have been conditioned to believe that such activities are too dangerous to think about; shocking, definitely, for those of us who grew up doing them in a world statistically more dangerous than the one we live in today.
Parents aren't stupid. They want their children to grow up to be independent, competent people. But it's hard to live against the grain, when the media, friends and colleagues, and sometimes even the laws of the land are telling you that overprotecting, even coddling children is simply good parenting. What the schools are doing here is giving parents permission to take that first step.
My only concern is that some parents will approach the project without common sense; the best way to learn to swim is rarely to be thrown out of the boat into deep water. (I know someone who was taught to swim that way, but she doesn't recommend it.) If our grandchildren are extraordinarily competent—and they are—it's because they've been taking baby steps toward independence all their lives. A child at age 11 can go through the steps faster if he wants to, but it still takes time and training.
I haven't seen it mentioned in the literature on this subject, but my theory is that a major contributor to over-dependent children is the modern trend toward small families. When parents have only one or two children, it's all too easy to do for them things they should be doing for themselves. (Mea culpa.) Larger families simply cannot. Training children to do their own laundry, to wash dishes, to shovel snow, to cook meals, and to entertain themselves is a matter of survival. And it pays big dividends, for parents as well as children. As my daughter (mother of six) proclaimed, referring to her then thirteen-year-old son, It was worth all the work (and that work did include tears, it's not like I'm forgetting) in training him in the kitchen from a young age to be able to say now, "Please make dinner on Thursday night. Quiche would be nice."
There's no reason why this can't happen in smaller families, of course. But it's like exercise. Once upon a time, people got plenty of good exercise without having to think about it, because their daily lives were so active; now, our sedentary lives mean that this essential element of health and happiness requires deliberate action.
May the Let Grow Project help more families find the "child competence exercise program" that fits them best.
Bring on the next book! Bring on the next Kickstarter appeal. I'll be there. #RabbitsWithSwords
The time has come. Ember Rising is finally in the home stretch. The book is written, artwork done, cover chosen ... there's just that little matter of publication. Once again they are funding this through Kickstarter, which I see as a great way to support a good author and play a small part in getting these wonderful books out of his head and into the world.
I'm now officially an S. D. Smith fan. I don't support projects for the sake of the rewards, any more than I donate blood for the t-shirts and gift cards. But they're still nice to have, and this time I chose a level with rewards that duplicate things I already have—such as Kindle versions of the books—because it also gets me physical copies of all the books published so far. I had some, from previous campaigns, but gave them away, because why take up bookshelf space when you have the Kindle versions? Unless, of course, you have decided that you really like the books, and you're a true bibliophile, and still love the feel of a real book in your hands. And want to be able to lend the books to friends, or attract the eye of a visiting grandchild. That sort of thing. You can read a Kindle book, but you can love a physical book, and some books deserve to be loved. Hence my extensive collection of George MacDonald, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Miss Read....
What happens when good quality musical instruments are found under the Christmas tree. I'm sorry for the back-of-the-head shots, but if I'd brought the camera to where it was visible, it would suddenly have become the center of attention. It's a little hard to hear the keyboard, but it is providing the music that they are jamming with.
Lenore Skenazy has a new site (relatively new—I've fallen a bit behind) called Let Grow. I haven't explored much yet, but the Let Grow Resolution deserves all the publicity it can get, so I'm (uncharacteristically) lifting it in its entirety here.
The “Let Grow” Resolution:
Our children have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.
Statement of findings
- It is good, healthy and normal for kids to walk and play outside, and run some errands on their own.
- Violent crime is at a 50 year low.
- It is not low because we are keeping kids inside. All crime — even against adults — is lower now, and we are not keeping adults inside.
- The risk of child abduction by strangers is very low.
- Being in a car accident as a passenger is the leading cause of death among children, not stranger danger.
- Lack of exercise is a contributing factor to short term and long term health risks for children.
- It is in the public interest for children to walk and cycle to their day-to-day destinations, and to play outside on their own.
- When kids do that, they learn social skills, problem-solving, creativity and compromise — the skills they will need in college and beyond that they do not get in adult-run activities.
- Because we can’t always prepare the path for our children, we must prepare our children for the path, by giving them freedom and responsibility, so they gradually learn to be independent, resourceful and resilient.
Right of Children to Freedom of Movement
- Therefore, this legislature decrees that it supports letting children walk, cycle, take public transportation and/or play outside by themselves, with the permission of a parent or guardian.
- Allowing children to exercise these rights shall not be grounds for charges against their parents or guardians unless something else is found to be amiss.
Questions, comments? Contact Lenore Skenazy at Lenore@LetGrow.org .
At first I didn't participate in the "Me Too" campaign on Facebook (and elsewhere)—meant to reveal the magnitude of the problem of sexual harassment and assault in our country and now featured in Time magazine's "Person of the Year"—because, well, because I'm not a joiner, and I don't like chain letters, even if they don't promise me that blessings will come my way if I pass it on, and that misfortune is sure to follow if I don't.
Later, I thought it might not be such a bad idea to highlight a problem that has been ignored too long. Here's the Facebook exchange that started my thinking:
S: Me Too.
If all the women I know who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote "me too" as a status... and all the women they know... we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
Stop the silence. Stop the violence.
L: How do you define, "harassed"? There are days when I feel that being whistled at while walking down the street, or approached by a stranger trying to pick you up, is sexual harassment. And how about being kissed too familiarly by a drunk relative? "Felt up" by an overeager teenaged boyfriend at the movies? I could understand the last two being called assault, but I suspect many people wouldn't. At any rate, all of the above are unwelcome and ought to stop. But they are so many orders of magnitude below rape and other forms of what is clearly sexual assault, that I fear to muddy the waters and appear disrespectful of the pain of the latter victims. What is your take on this?
K: My view is this: any time one individual relates to another individual on an exclusively sexual plain, that individual demeans the other and diminishes their humanity. Although there are many degrees of disregard, the bottom line is that one person is being treated as something less than fully human. It's a way of thinking about people that is at the heart of sexism, racism, ageism, etc. As a human society we must insist on asserting the wrongness of that way of thinking. At school we define sexual harassment as any action of a sexualized nature that makes the target feel uncomfortable - from whistling to name calling to inappropriate touching to lifting someone's clothing and much more. It is important not to confuse harassment and assault. And important to distinguish what is legally prosecutable from what isn't. But we make too many excuses and allowances for behavior that is unacceptable. I think it is time to draw the lines about unacceptable behavior that falls short of rape far more clearly than we do.
L: I think life has gotten a lot harder since the 1960's. I could certainly say "me too" to the definitions of harassment you've given. But nothing compared with what I hear from others ... and no worse than non-sexual harassment, which I would call plain rudeness.
That was helpful, but I wasn't convinced. I have friends who have to live with that kind of pressure in their work environment, or have actually been raped, and I didn't think it right to put my own experiences in the same category as theirs. Mine fell into the more general category of "bullying," though with a sexual dimension, because bullies will strike wherever they find a weakness. That, and "the guy was too drunk to know what he was doing, and would be mortified if he knew." It seemed like putting into the same category of "wounded in the war" both the man whose arm was nicked by a piece of shrapnel and the one who had both legs blown off. It's true, but is it helpful?
The broader definition of sexual harassment certainly cuts right to the heart of the problem, and goes along with what Jesus said about both lust and murder. But is it helpful to draw the line around all women, at least of a certain age, and quite a few men as well? Maybe—but I still didn't feel I could participate.
And then, today, I remembered.
I made the comment, in a discussion at choir rehearsal last Sunday, that one of our members, who teaches physical education, sure doesn't fit the stereotype of a female gym teacher. And I got to thinking about what I thought of as a stereotypical female gym teacher, and remembered the bane of my existence from high school.
I've repressed a lot of memories from high school gym class, and I won't name names because I really have managed to forget many of the details. But if the teachers, themselves, were not outright abusive (though it felt like it to me), the system that they participated in certainly was. I suspect it was not uncommon at the time, and it certainly never occurred to me that it was something I could successfully object to—it was just one of the many miserable things teachers were allowed to do to students.
And lest you be wondering what fearful revelations I'm about to make, I'll relieve your minds: It may even seem minor to you, and I don't think I bear any significant scars, other than those inflicted by gym class in general. But there's no doubt in my mind, looking back, that it was an abusive, even a sexually abusive, situation.
By the time we were in high school, we were required to take showers after gym class. I could see it for the guys, but we girls almost never perspired enough to need showers—and the process wouldn't have gotten us clean if we had. No doubt gym class has changed over the years; I certainly hope the bathing situation has.
This is a rough plan of the shower room. Stripped naked, we were forced to give our names to a student monitor, who dutifully checked us off, then walk through a gauntlet of shower heads and out the exit. That's it. No soap—it slows down the line. In fact, the object was to run through as quickly as possible, minimizing our exposure to both water and the prying eyes of everyone else in the room. It was bad enough that we had to change into and out of our gym clothes in a public locker room, but the showers were an extra refinement of torture. Once a month we were allowed to avoid that humiliation, but that required us to announce to the monitor, and all within earshot, that we were having our periods.
If our gym teachers had been male, no one would question that this situation was wrong. I fail to see that them being female made the forced exposure of our young bodies and private matters to their eyes and those of the entire class any more acceptable.
Age, and having gone through the process of giving birth to our children, have since made me less sensitive to what other people see and think, but I still appreciate the private changing areas that are now provided in public pools and gyms. No one—especially no pubescent child—should have to go through what I, and my classmates, endured.
So yes, "Me, too." It's insignificant compared to what others have experienced, but it's part of a pattern of disrespect that needs to end. Jesus had it right, you know. It's our heart attitude that matters. When we wink at smaller offenses, we promote an atmosphere in which heinous acts proliferate.
It's time for national repentance, and a good place to begin would be with the highest office in the land. If that's not forthcoming—a grassroots effort is probably better, anyway.
This is the third time I've used that handy title for a post. It may be recursive.
The inspiration for this occasion is a lament from Village Diary, by Miss Read (Dora Jessie Saint). What is remarkable is not the sentiment, but that it was written in 1957.
The child today, used as he is to much praise and encouragement, finds it much more difficult to keep going as his task gets progressively long. Helping children to face up to a certain amount of drudgery, cheerfully and energetically, is one of the biggest problems that teachers, in these days of ubiquitous entertainment, have to face in our schools.
Google frequently suggests, through my phone, articles that it thinks I might find interesting. Most of the time it's not even close: Really, I don't want to know what President Trump tweeted, any more than I wanted to hear what President Obama said on Saturday Night Live. I consider both to be inappropriate venues for a President. But recently Google was whang in the gold, with its suggestion of the video below from musician Rick Beato.
Not the whole video, actually. Mostly it's about acquiring the musical skill known as perfect (absolute) pitch, and why Beato believes it must occur during a child's first two years of life. He makes a good case, but it's a controversial point, and he apparently takes no account of recent studies demonstrating neuroplasticity in adult brains—something previously considered to be impossible. In any case, Beato himself doesn't mean adults can't develop really, really good relative pitch and get quite close to absolute pitch; after all, he has created several YouTube videos on how to do just that. But babies ... they're still something special.
The part of the video I find most intriguing is from the 6 minute point to about the 13 minute point.
One thing that surprised me, although in retrospect it should not have, is that Beato's son's acquired his ability to discern and remember pitches well before he knew any note names. But this post is not really about perfect pitch. It's also not about me feeling guilty for the opportunities lost with our children, and certainly not about making anyone else feel guilty for their own omissions. We do what we can with what we know at the time, and regrets are part of every parenthood contract. My concerns now are more general and philosophical.
What strikes me here—and it confirms what I've learned from other sources—is that our teaching habits are upside down.
Apparently, what helps babies learn is complexity. Materials with high information content. Unexpected twists and turns. So what do we do? We simplify everything for children. We give them baby talk, controlled-vocabulary books, and three-chord songs, when their brains are craving adult conversations, complex language, Bach, and jazz. Sure, they learn anyway: Babies are so desperate to learn they'll use whatever tools they can get their hands on. But despite the best of intentions, we are building cages where we should be opening doors.
Warning: This is an unabashed Grandma-brag—but it has a generally-applicable point as well.
One of my recurrent themes here is the truth that children can do and be so much more than we usually expect of them, from toddlers to teenagers. While our thirteen-year-old grandson's accomplishment is not on a par with commanding a captured naval vessel at the age of 12, nor with captaining a trading ship at 19, I'm quite proud of him—and his parents.
In his right hand is an oak board, similar to that from which he made the object in his left hand, which, when painted, will replace the barber-pole coat rack at a local barbershop.
When he approached the barber, who had advertised for someone to do the work, it took guts and skill to negotiate the commission, not to mention to persuade the barber that a young teen could do the job.
It was an ambitious project, and required working with some heavy-duty power tools—radial arm saw, lathe, planer, and jointer—knowing not only their operation, but proper safety equipment and procedures as well. It was a time-consuming job that required patience, persistence, and focus. That's pretty impressive at an age when many consider him too young to fly unaccompanied on a commercial airplane, to own a knife, or even to stay home alone.
He can cook full meals, too, and I don't mean just heating things up in the microwave.
Is he some sort of genius? Of course he is, he's my grandchild!
But seriously, what distinguishes him the most from many young people is opportunity. His parents didn't just turn him loose among those dangerous tools, unprepared. He's been helping in the workshop (and the kitchen) since he was a toddler. So have his siblings. The kind of training that produces skills of this sort requires patience and persistence on the part of parents, too—and even more so, a willingness to stand up for the right of children to fly in a society determined to clip their wings.
I normally don't click on those "sponsored" Facebook posts, but Princess Awesome caught my eye more than once. Pink, purple, twirly, pretty skirts and dresses with dinosaurs, math, trains, space creatures and above all pockets. It's about time. They're pricey, but any company that understands that pockets are essential gets major points in my book.
We are Princess Awesome because butterflies are awesome and so are airplanes. Because monsters are awesome and so are twirly skirts. Because girls are awesome and girls get to decide what it means to be girly.
Me? As a child, I wore pants when I could (still do), and since school required girls to wear dresses or skirts, my mother (wonderful woman!) made them for me and always included pockets. But I have four granddaughters who love dresses, and pink, and purple, and twirling, as well as many things commercial clothing usually reserves for boys. Plus math, which even boys are generally deprived of when it comes to seeing their favorite things on their pajamas. (I designed and special-ordered Joseph's pi shirt.)
"These are your presents, and they are tools, not toys." With these words, Father Christmas hands the Pevensie children the weapons with which they will battle evil in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.
The very best toys are indeed tools. Children use them to craft the adults they will become. Here's an article from three years ago that illustrates how favoring boys over girls with a particular type of toy/tool (computers) led directly to the "gender gap" among coders that developed in the mid-1980's.
A lot of computing pioneers — the people who programmed the first digital computers — were women. And for decades, the number of women studying computer science was growing faster than the number of men. But in 1984, something changed. The percentage of women in computer science flattened, and then plunged, even as the share of women in other technical and professional fields kept rising.
Early personal computers weren't much more than toys. You could play pong or simple shooting games, maybe do some word processing. And these toys were marketed almost entirely to men and boys. ... This idea that computers are for boys became a narrative. It became the story we told ourselves about the computing revolution.
In the 1990s, researcher Jane Margolis interviewed hundreds of computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, which had one of the top programs in the country. She found that families were much more likely to buy computers for boys than for girls — even when their girls were really interested in computers.
This was a big deal when those kids got to college. As personal computers became more common, computer science professors increasingly assumed that their students had grown up playing with computers at home.
The girls had fallen behind before they even set foot on campus.
"I remember this one time I asked a question and the professor stopped and looked at me and said, 'You should know that by now,' " she recalls. "And I thought 'I am never going to excel.' "
Nor is the phenomenon limited to computing. Upon taking her first course in optical engineering at the University of Rochester, our daughter found herself at the head of the class in the mathematics, but woefully behind her male classmates when it came to practical electronics. Our other daughter marvelled at her husband's facility with bicycle repair ... and his total lack of fear when tackling a new matter of practical handiwork. He had grown up working on such projects.
Not all boys do, but there's definitely a gender bias, perhaps because fathers are more likely to teach such work to their sons. Probably, too, girls are more susceptible to the fear of doing something wrong: it has long been known that when something goes wrong, women are likely to blame themselves, while men generally assign responsibility to the inanimate object. "I'm so stupid; I broke the dish" versus "The stupid dish slipped and broke."
Whatever the reasons, what is perfectly clear is that how our children play shapes their futures. By no means am I advocating that parents should take still further control over their children's "free" time, as if preschool, after-school activities, computer camps, and travel soccer weren't enough of an intrusion. But perhaps every family's education budget should include plenty of toys that are actually high-quality tools—from art equipment and musical instruments to construction tools and electronics.
Everyone has an education category in the family budget, right? If not, you should; in the meantime, clue in the grandparents when they ask for gift suggestions.
Perhaps even more important than useful tool/toys would be to give our children the gift of freedom from the fear of making a mistake. Let them "waste" the expensive paints and paper; be prepared to see many repair jobs end with parts all over the floor before they learn to put anything back together; let them know by word and your example that making mistakes is an important part of learning. Our young neighbor became the go-to computer resource for our school district well before he graduated, because in middle school he had fearlessly crashed his home computer system over and over again, turning repeatedly to my husband for rescue—until he surpassed his teacher.
I wish I had been better at this when our children were young. With age comes wisdom, and what we lack in opportunity to implement our theories, we gain in opportunities to promote them.
Your family is the most potent art you'll ever be a part of creating.
(With humble gratitude to our children and their families for art that makes my heart sing.)
Some days I feel for Don Quixote. It may be just a windmill, but it looks like a giant to me.
It was such a good word, and now I'm beginning to loathe it.
(Definition from Merriam-Webster online.) To me, the word "partner" has always meant definition 2a: one associated with another, especially in action. That actually covers most of the other definitions as well. My daughter and I make up a team on WordChums; we are partners. If together we owned an ice cream shop, we'd be business partners. If we decided to rob a bank to finance that ice cream shop, we'd be partners in crime. It's a good, descriptive, practical word.
But lately I've been seeing it used as in the following two quotes from a book I read recently.
We need to understand how we can support and connect with our partners, sons, fathers, brothers, friends, and children....
Certainly women—mothers, sisters, partners, girlfriends, daughters—also shame men about their masculinity and power....
Do you see what's happening here? Mother/father, son/daughter, sister/brother are recognized as distinct entities, but husband/wife is gone. Even the inclusive "spouse" is gone, replaced by "partner," definition 2d, which is not at all the same thing.
Certainly my husband is my partner in that sense, as well as in the more general sense of 2a, and for that matter most of the other definitions. But "partner," in more recent usage, is far too broad a term, boiling down basically to "the person I'm having sex with on a regular basis." The marriage relationship is so much more than that. (I tried substituting "the person I love and am living with," but as that can include children and other family members, it's clearly not what is meant by this sense of "partner." Sex seems to be the obvious distinction.)
Most pernicious, it seems to me, is that "partner" loses the ideals of exclusivity and permanence. Marriages may fail at either or both, but the intent and the ideal are there from the outset. Partnerships are generally formed for a limited, specific purpose, and with the understanding that they can and probably will be dissolved at some point. A nation's allies will change; dancers will "cut in," my daughter may decide to she wants to be on her aunt's team for the next WordChums game; maybe a business partnership will split into two or three different companies.
One term implies a lifelong, exclusive commitment—not only to a person but to that person's family and especially to any children of the union. The other implies that eventual dissolution is normal and even to be expected. They are not interchangeable.
That's a giant worth battling, even if the world sees only a windmill.
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (Gotham Books, 2012)
It's possible that Brené Brown's message is as important as that of Gordon Neufeld in Hold On to Your Kids. I'm not ready to say that yet, but I can tell that her work is too important to be missed. I can also say that I would love to see Neufeld and Brown in the same room, discussing their theories. Although they come from different fields and perspectives, when it comes to the problem of peer-orientation (though Brown never mentions the subject) and what children need from their families, I'm sure they'd be substantially in agreement.
Normally I prefer my information in written form, preferably in a book with all its potential for logical organization and corroborating detail, but aside from some tantalizing hints on the Blue Ocean Families blog (from the home page, search for "Brené" to find some references to her work), my best introduction to Brené Brown came from some videos. Here are several to choose from.
The Power of Vulnerability (20 minutes) The TED talk that put Brené Brown on the map.
There's more, including at least two more Chase Jarvis LIVE interviews that I haven't listened to yet because, well, because they're 90 minutes long. Start with the TED talks.
The only warning I have to give is that Brown's language is not exactly SFG (safe for grandchildren), either in the talks or in her books. It's not all that bad, by modern standards; such language is so common I've gotten used to it somewhat. I do wonder why people feel they have to talk that way, but that's another issue. I definitely recommend that you not let it make you avoid Brené Brown's work.
Now to the book. Daring Greatly is only one of Brown's books, not the oldest and not the most recent—merely the first that was easily available at our library. I had my struggles with it, but that won't stop me from reading the others as I can. I believe a good deal of my struggle was similar to one I had with Hold On to Your Kids. Maybe it's generational, maybe it's because I avoided social sciences and humanities as much as possible when I was in school. Whatever the cause, these people keep using words that I think I know, but which they endow with specialized meanings. It's confusing. It reminds me of the old creeping vs. crawling problem:
Everyone knows that babies first start creeping along the floor, then crawl on their hands and knees, then walk. That's the normal progression. But not to people in the child development and physical therapy fields, for whom "crawling" is on the belly, and "creeping" on hands and knees. In their professions, they know exactly what they are talking about, but it sure confuses the rest of us.
So here. She has specific interpretations of "shame," "guilt," "vulnerability" and more terms that are essential to her discoveries. I'm glad I watched the videos first.
I also struggled with integrating her ideas with my Christian beliefs. Brown makes no apology for being an Episcopalian, but her work is entirely secular. That's not a bad thing: most of the discoveries in this world have universal application, and a secular approach makes them available to far more people. Again, it's a matter of language. Cognate words can help one understand a foreign language, but there are also false cognates, and it all must be sorted through. Her descriptions of love, acceptance and belonging due to our position rather than to our deserving is a very Christian message, but for someone as steeped as I am in the horrors of the sin of pride and in the need to put others before ourselves, her points about self-care, self-worthiness, and treating ourselves well require some wrestling. I totally get the airlines' message to put on one's own oxygen mask before assisting others, and I'm properly horrified that I frequently (read: all the time) say cruel things to myself that I hope never to say to someone I love—but it still requires working through.
There's a lot that requires working through in Brené Brown's ideas. I'm sure I could benefit much from her books, a blank notebook, and a long stretch of solitude. But this is a review, not a confession, and the book goes back to the library soon. I'm not even clear enough to summarize her points, but with the videos above, and the quotes below, you can begin your own journey. (The bolded emphasis in the quotations is mine.)
Brown quotes Lynne Twist’s The Soul of Money, on scarcity.
“For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ The next is ‘I don’t have enough time.‘ Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day….”
In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup. We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. … This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner.
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed major shifts in the zeitgeist of our country. … The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved.
My reaction, when I read this, is that this is crazy. We are so much better off than most of the world, for most of history. However, as I wrote in my Good Friday post, if our personal suffering is overall less, our vicarious suffering is off-the-charts worse. Brown acknowledges this later on:
Most of us have a stockpile of terrible images that we can pull from at the instant we’re grappling with vulnerability. I often ask audience members to raise their hands if they’ve seen a graphically violent image in the past week. About twenty percent of the audience normally raises their hands. Then I reframe the question: “Raise your hand if you’ve watched the news, CSI, NCIS, Law & Order, Bones, or any other crime show on TV.” At this point about eighty to ninety percent of the audience hands go up.
I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
Among some folks it’s almost as if enthusiasm and engagement have become a sign of gullibility. Being too excited or invested makes you lame.
Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. ... We can’t always have guarantees in place before we risk sharing; however, we don’t bare our souls the first time we meet someone. We don’t lead with “Hi, my name is Brené, and here’s my darkest struggle.” … [S]haring appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we’ve developed relationships .... The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement.
Churches make this mistake a lot, trying to force community like a hothouse bloom, rushing the process through unearned intimacy.
You can’t use vulnerability … to fast-forward a relationship.... When it comes to vulnerability, connectivity means sharing our stories with people who have earned the right to hear them—people with whom we’ve cultivated relationships that can bear the weight of our story. Is there trust? Is there mutual empathy? Is there reciprocal sharing? Can we ask for what we need? These are the crucial connection questions.
Here’s one strategy Brown uses for coming out of what she calls a shame attack:
[I talk] to myself the way I would talk to someone I really love and whom I’m trying to comfort in the midst of a meltdown: You’re okay. You’re human—we all make mistakes. I’ve got your back. Normally during a shame attack we talk to ourselves in ways we would NEVER talk to people we love and respect.
[W]e have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections. To be kinder and gentler with ourselves and each other. To talk to ourselves the same way we’d talk to someone we care about.
Shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologize, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.
Feeling disconnected can be a normal part of life and relationships, but when coupled with the shame of believing that we’re disconnected because we’re not worthy of connection, it creates a pain that we want to numb.
When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in.
The two most powerful forms of connection are love and belonging—they are both irreducible needs of men, women, and children. As I conducted my interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seemed to be struggling for it. That one thing was the belief in their worthiness. It’s as simple and complicated as this: If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.
Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
[As parents we] don’t have to be perfect, just engaged and committed to aligning values with action.
What’s ironic (or perhaps natural) is that research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance.
When we obsess over our parenting choices to the extent that most of us do, and then see someone else making different choices, we often perceive that difference as direct criticism of how we are parenting.
Wholehearted parenting is not having it all figured out and passing it down—it’s learning and exploring together. And trust me, there are times when my children are way ahead of me on the journey, either waiting for me or reaching back to pull me along.
It’s easy to put up a straw man … and say, “So we’re just supposed to ignore parents who are abusing their children?” Fact: That someone is making different choices from us doesn’t in itself constitute abuse. If there’s real abuse happening, by all means, call the police. If not, we shouldn’t call it abuse. As a social worker who spent a year interning at Child Protective Services, I have little tolerance for debates that casually use the terms abuse and neglect to scare or belittle parents who are simply doing things that we judge as wrong, different, or bad.
Worthiness is about love and belonging, and one of the best ways to show our children that our love for them is unconditional is to make sure they know they belong in our families. I know that sounds strange, but it’s a very powerful and at times heart-wrenching issue for children.
Engagement means investing time and energy. It means sitting down with our children and understanding their worlds, their interests, and their stories. Engaged parents can be found on both sides of all of the controversial parenting debates. They come from different values, traditions, and cultures. What they share is practicing the values. What they seem to share is a philosophy of “I’m not perfect and I’m not always right, but I’m here, open, paying attention, loving you, and fully engaged.”
What do parents experience as the most vulnerable and bravest thing that they do in their efforts to raise Wholehearted children? I thought it would take days to figure it out, but as I looked over the field notes, the answer was obvious: letting their children struggle and experience adversity.
I used to struggle with letting go and allowing my children to find their own way, but something that I learned in the research dramatically changed my perspective and I no longer see rescuing and intervening as unhelpful, I now think about it as dangerous. … Here’s why: Hope is a function of struggle.
Hope is learned! …[C]hildren most often learn hope from their parents. To learn hopefulness, children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries, consistency, and support. Children with high levels of hopefulness have experience with adversity. They’ve been given the opportunity to struggle and in doing that they learn how to believe in themselves.
If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.
I explained [to my daughter] that I had spent many years never trying anything that I wasn’t already good at doing, and how those choices almost made me forget what it feels like to be brave. I said, “Sometimes the bravest and most important thing you can do is just show up.”
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.
Recently we had the opportunity to participate in a diocesan youth choir festival at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando. I've been to children's choir festivals before, but not this one. One major difference was that some adult singers from participating churches were also included, so it was truly a multi-generational affair. My mistake was in thinking, "It's a children's choir festival, how hard can the music be?" Guess what? There's a big difference between a children's choir festival and a youth choir festival: this included not only young elementary school students but also those in high school—you know, the All-State-Chorus, make-superiors-at-Solo-and-Ensemble kind of high school student. There were some amazing voices there, and the music put my sight-reading confidence to the test for sure.
We had one long rehearsal on Saturday, then sang for the regular church service on Sunday. One of our younger choir members exclaimed, when he walked into the cathedral, "This is the biggest church in the world!" It's not, by a long shot, but it's still impressive. Another proclaimed the whole experience to be "epic."
And it was. I love our church and its service, but even in the Episcopal Church a service at the Cathedral is a cut above. I almost broke down during the processional, with the cross and candles and banners and incense and glorious music and so many people, young and old, in the procession. Glory, majesty, and awe are so often missing from church services, but this took my breath away.
Our own church is considered "high" because we sing much of the service, but at the Cathedral even more was sung instead of merely said. So much beautiful music, in a church with beautiful acoustics. Good acoustics encourage the congregation to sing, because you don't feel as if you are singing a solo, but are lifting your voice in song with everyone.
The service "belonged" to everyone, children and adults alike. Perhaps best of all, although the Festival choristers were welcomed and acknowledged, we didn't "perform" but were just a part of the regular worship service (albeit a bit fancier than usual). It was a glorious experience. Like our own church, but taken up a level.
Here's part of what we sang. As usual, the videos are not us, but something found on YouTube to bring the song list to life.
Praise (Dyson) We didn't join the choirs on this one. It's unison, for young, high voices.
(My thanks to whichever Daley photographer took this video. Mine's still on the camera....)