In “Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers” (Ballantine Books, 2005), authors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté posit that contemporary society in the US and Canada undermines the natural process of attachment between parents and other adults and youth, creating a void which is filled for children by unhealthy peer-to-peer attachments.
At least in the first third of the book that I have read thus far, citations to underlying science for these broad claims are sparse. While Maté, a physician, did much of the writing of the book, Neufeld, a psychologist, provided most of the ideas, which derived largely from his work with patients and which were apparently refined through public speaking. As such, the book to now has offered a conceptual framework for understanding, and approaching, child development from a parent’s perspective.
As a father to three young children, I find a lot compelling in the concept of personal attachments, and the salutary effect of fostering attachment relationships between parents and children. There are natural underpinnings to this relationship. On a simpler scale than human development, Konrad Lorenz took goslings from their mother and “imprinted” himself on the young in her place, so that they followed him.
In Neufeld and Maté’s view, it is natural for humans, and especially children and adolescents, to seek or fall into attachment relationships. Further, if children and adolescents are not attached to their parents or other adults at a given time, they will tend to attach to peers. The problem with this, as Neufeld and Maté see it, is that other children and adolescents are not equipped to provide the emotional nurturing, cultural stimulation and moral guidance that are necessary for complete development. Youth whose primary attachments are to their peers are afloat at sea, without a compass to guide them or a firm rudder to steer by.
Neufeld and Maté seem right on in emphasizing the importance of family relationships and critiquing behaviorist (e.g., reward outcomes adults want and punish ones they don’t want) and pharmacological treatments which don’t address underlying causes. But they seem to be overly alarmist in portraying the fabric of American and Canadian society as tearing apart due to peer-to-peer attachments among youth filling the void of close-knit families and communities.
Was the past all that idyllic or even different? Think of child labor, the unfavored status of girls, and the much more broadly accepted use of corporal punishment of earlier times in the US and Canada. Turning to a different continent in the 19thcentury, Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” poignantly described the generation gap in one family, as exacerbated by the son’s semi-Nihilist friend. At least young Kirsanov and Bazarov were not constantly text messaging each other!
Moving to a more personal level, when my six-year-old daughter is slow to get out of bed in the morning after I wake her up, is it a relationship problem? When I try to entice her by offering her a piggyback ride downstairs, am I failing to address the underlying problem? Perhaps. But she likes to stay up late and sleep late. And I do play the bad guy in waking her up, not to mention that I have limited time in the morning to get ready for work. Should I worry that she likes to keep certain things private, and hide things from me? Is it something about me? I was kind of the same way… hmm…. Also, while a tight family is a wonderful thing, and parents should be a source of guidance, why shouldn’t my kids treasure their friends, and relate to them in close ways without me and my wife hovering over them?