Remember that word we heard so often when we were parenting infants? Attachment. What comes to mind? Breastfeeding on demand. Co-sleeping. Babywearing. All of those things that come pretty natural to us when taking care of a newborn or infant. But did you know that attachment doesn’t just end when your baby stops being a baby? Attachment is actually necessary through adolescence. If I just blew your mind, then keep reading!
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté is a brilliant book that stopped me in my tracks. The book addresses the severe lack of attachment to parents that is incidentally replaced by an attachment to peers. Why is this problematic? But our children need friends, right? Actually no. They address this in the book, but your toddler doesn’t need to be “socialized” despite what culture tells us. But wait, there’s more! It turns out that there is a right and wrong way for your children to attach to each other, and the first and most important attachment that needs securing is child to parent.
“Our children’s peers are not the ones we want them to depend on. They are not the ones to give our children a sense of themselves, to point out right from wrong, to distinguish fact from fantasy, to identify what works and what doesn’t, and to direct them as to where to go and how to get there” (p 19).
“Given the central importance of attachment in the child’s psyche, whomever the child is most attached to will have the greatest impact on her life” (p 25).
Parents, if there’s one book you read this year, aside from your Bible, please let it be this one. I checked this book out from the library originally but ended up having to purchase it after the first few chapters because I couldn’t resist the urge to highlight. Today I want to share with you some sections in Hold On To Your Kids that I highlighted to save for later so I could go back and reference.
Defining Peer Orientation
The first section of the book addresses the problem. It gives a name to the issues that we are witnessing in today’s youth. It’s likely that you’ve been a victim of the peer culture if you’ve ever tried to mimic something you’ve seen someone else do. I remember wanting to dress a certain way in middle school because that’s how I saw my peers dress. I went vegetarian in high school because my best friend was. It’s just what kids do – mimic each other… right? Wrong!
These first three chapters really struck me. As I read, even the first page, I was in tears. It sets the story with an angry teen who rolls her eyes, slams the door, and claims, “You just don’t understand me!” in the middle of an argument with her father. I knew this all too well… from the teen’s side. I saw my future self in the Dad’s shoes and realized as I continued reading that our lives with teenage daughters someday didn’t have to be this way.
Authors Neufeld and Maté have done a brilliant job of identifying the issue, expressing why we can’t compete with our child’s peers for attachment, and how we got to this point of most of today’s youth being attached to each other than to their families. The authors identify the issue being caused from a “horizontal attachment” (peers) versus a “vertical attachment” (parents) (p 10) with the main issue stemming from an “unprecedented cultural breakdown” (p 31). Our children are learning from each other rather than their families.
“Essential to any culture are its customs, its music, its dress, its celebration, its stories. The music children listen to bears very little resemblance to the music of their grandparents. The way they look is dictated by the way other children look rather than by parents’ cultural heritage. The birthday parties and rites of passage are influence by the practices of other children around then, not by the customs of their parents before them. If all that seems moral to us, it’s only due to our own peer orientation…Most readers of this book will already have been raised in a society where the transmission of culture is horizontal rather than vertical” (p 10).
“Absolutely missing in peer relationships are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other” (p 11).
“To nurture our children, we must reclaim them and take charge of providing for their attachment needs” (p 13).
“Peer relationships are safest when they are the natural offspring of attachments with parents” (p 42).
Our Society is Topsy Turvy
The authors claim that attachment to peers undermines parenting. Part of the reasons our children begin to detach to us and find something else to attach to is that we encourage “independence” and self-reliance, most of the time, way too early. We mistake dependence (which is natural and healthy) for an inability to mature. The authors remind us that if we do our part to keep our children attached to us, we won’t have to “teach” them independence at all. It simply comes naturally.
This passage especially struck me. It describes the modern parenting model perfectly:
“The child’s instincts to keep close to us can get in our way and frustrate us. We do not welcome the work of attachment when it is separation we crave, whether for purposes of work, school, sex, sanity, or sleep. Our society is so topsy-turvy that we may actually come to value the child’s willingness to separate more than her instincts for closeness. Unfortunately we cannot have it both ways…we need to learn to parent in harmony with this design rather than fight against it” (p 66).
Attach, Don’t Bribe!
Don’t fall into the bribing trap, my friends. In the age of parenting with screens and bribes to behave, we’ve lost sight of the natural order of parenting. In order to avoid the common parenting pitfall of walking on eggshells on your kids, being afraid to tell them to do something without a reward, we have to keep them attached. If they’re attached to us, they’ll draw on something called the “attachment conscience”. The “attachment conscience will keep the child’s behavior within the boundaries set by parental expectations” (p 70). According to the authors, if we have children with attitudes, behavior problems, or other issues, chances are that we aren’t dealing with “a behavior problem” but rather a “relationship problem”. So we can throw out all of those parenting books we’ve read, and instead get to work on our relationships with and attachment to our kids.
The “Flatlining of Culture”
When I started teaching middle school at the ripe age of twenty-one, I noticed immediately that children just didn’t know how to appreciate the past. They were only living in the present. Authors Neufeld and Maté describe the “flatlining of culture” or the disappearance of the past, and just a focus on the current or present trends, language, and ideas in our youth today. He actually describes this as a problem for most of the people my age that are reading the book as they raise young children.
“Many of our children are growing up bereft of the universal culture that produced timeless creations of humankind: The Bhagavad Gita; the writings of Rumi, Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes and Faulkner, or of the best and most innovative of living authors; the music of Beethoven and Mahler; or even the great translations of the Bible. They know only what is current and popular, appreciate only what they can share with their peers” (p 92).
Not only do I fear that this is true as I watch children interact with my own kids or with each other, but I fear that we as a society condone this way of thinking.
Another passage that really struck a chord with me was the one below. Neufeld and Maté describe a child that decides to march to his/her own drum and this is the reaction they receive by their peers:
“The emergent child – the child who is self-motivated and not driven by needs for peer contact – seems like an anomaly, irregular, a little off the beaten track. The words that peer-oriented kids use for such a child are highly critical, words like weird, stupid, retarded, freak, and geek. Immature children do not understand why these emergent, maturing others are trying so hard to get along, why they seek solitude sometimes instead of company, why they can be curious and interested about things that don’t involve others, why they ask questions in class. There must be something wrong with these kids and for that they deserve to be shamed. The stronger a child’s peer orientation, the more intensely she will resent and assault another kid’s individuality” (p 125).
How to Hold On to Our Kids
So what do we need to do to keep our kids from becoming peer-oriented? It seems like a daunting task in a world that is driven by peer culture. And it is. But it’s a noble endeavor that will benefit both you and your children for the rest of your lives. Authors Neufeld and Maté suggest:
“We have to give our children what they cannot give to one another: the freedom to be themselves in the context of loving acceptance – an acceptance that immature peers are unable to offer but one that we adults can and must provide” (p 126).
“We need to make it a habit of collecting our children daily and repeatedly until they are old enough to function as independent beings” (p 179).
The authors explain that it’s natural for us, as parents, to collect our children and keep the relationship alive with our infants, but as soon as toddlerhood hits, we push independence. It starts to feel less natural for us to show physical affection and nurture our big kids. By the time our children hit school-age, it worsens, and the recipe for disaster is when they’re away from us for hours at a time. Neufeld and Maté claim that the best way to keep the attachment alive between parent and child is to offer spontaneous, desirable invitations. They describe the importance a five-minute time in the beginning of the day to make eye contact, engage in conversation, uninterrupted. The same goes for after a child has been away for a long period at a time. It’s important to resume that role as the “compass point” as they call it (p 189).
“When attempting to collect our children we must remember that they need us, even though they may not know it” (p 192).
So often I’ve seen parents of teens claim that their children don’t need them anymore or they have no interest in a relationship with them; they just want to be around their friends. But, parents, the authors of this book are suggesting something completely different. They’re saying that if we work hard at keeping that attachment going, we should have a fairly smooth parenting experience, even with our teens. Everything revolves around the relationship.
“No matter what problem or issue we face in parenting, our relationship with our children should be the highest priority. Children do not experience our intentions, no matter how heartfelt. They experience what we manifest in tone and behavior” (p 196).
What a powerful statement, and although I know it’s true, it’s very difficult for me to remember this when I’m rushing about our busy lives.
The last chapters of the book address how to prevent peer orientation and covers the topic of discipline that does not divide. If your child is already peer-oriented, Neufeld and Maté offer strategies for reclaiming your children. It was refreshing to see some positivity and hope after such a heavy first few sections.
All parents can benefit from reading this book. It will live on my nightstand forever. It’s a topic that I feel is relevant to all parenting no matter the circumstance. It crosses parents and kids of all schooling situations, family situations, or socio-economic status. If parents will put in the time, children will benefit from it immensely. If you’d like to order a copy you can purchase it here. Ask a friend, family member, or husband to read it with you! Talk about it over tea or coffee.
I would love to discuss any of the chapters with you too, if you do decide to read it! Tag me or message me once you’re finished and we can chat!
Thank you so much for reading!