Last summer I attended a lecture by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Canadian psychologist and co-author of Hold On to Your Kids.. This book radically changed the way I look at our culture and our families. I recently reread it and it’s even more powerful the second time. I can’t possibly do justice to it in a blog post, but I can summarize some of the concepts.
Dr. Neufeld is not Jewish (despite two of his five children being named Tamara and Shay), but his theories are very relevant to the question of how we retain our youth within the Jewish community. Even if you disagree with his underlying theory, he writes so accurately about kids today that I don’t believe he can be ignored.
The subtitle of the book is, Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers. According to Neufeld, our culture has changed so drastically that some psychologists and educators are starting to consider aberrant behavior normal. Neufeld calls this behavior “peer attachment.” Because of the baby-boom, two-parent working families, divorce, mobility, stress, and technology, among other things, our family structure has been weakened. In previous generations parents whose ability to care for their children was compromised, say because of illness or economic hardship, had extended family and community to fill in the slack. Other caring adults were in the picture. That is no longer the case.
Neufeld and his co-author Gabor Mate explain attachment theory. Bowlby, the pioneer of attachment, investigated how infants bonded with their mothers and what happened when the bond was severed temporarily. The infants reacted with various defensive mechanisms, both when separated and when reunited. Attachment is not only important to infants; it is relevant throughout adolescence. According to the authors of HOTYK, just as ducklings will imprint on a substitute when the mother duck isn’t around, children who are not attached to caring adults will look elsewhere. Because most children spend a large amount of time in daycare, school, camp, and with friends, they become attached to their peers instead of to their parents. Neufeld compares it to an extramarital affair. But whereas an errant spouse can hide his wanderings from his spouse, a child reacts defensively by openly rejecting his parents. Spending time with his peers, and being accepted by them, takes up all of his emotional energy. His parents’ requests seem aimed at interfering with the relationship with his loved ones, his friends.
So many parenting books and courses focus on techniques to gain cooperation. Yet according to Neufeld they all miss the point. If the child is properly attached to his parents, he will naturally want to imitate them and go along with their wishes. If not, no amount of threats or rewards or time-outs or consequences will have an effect. The relationship must be rebuilt and the peer relationship returned to proper proportions before anything can change. He is talking about extreme cases here yet some degree of peer attachment is quite common.
To summarize a few specific points:
- Peer culture directly competes with the parents’ culture. Teenagers throughout the world share more in common than they do with their parents in terms of dress, slang, music, etc. Much teenage behavior that we now consider normal is relatively recent, since about World War II.
- Don’t push socialization on children when they are too young and immature. They don’t learn to get along with each other by spending more time together. Even more frightening, peer attachment does not help children mature. They need unconditional love and modelling from adults to be able to develop their talents, learn how to nurture others, and become responsible.
- Children with strong peer-attachment “dumb themselves down,” and hide their talents and emotions to avoid rejection from their friends. They are unteachable.
- Shyness is a positive trait; it’s a way for children to protect themselves from becoming attached to those outside the family.
- Academic advantage gained by attending preschool does not hold up in later years.
- Bullying is not new, but the proportions in which we are seeing it now is related to peer attachment. Children use power over others to fill an attachment void, and their victims have similar issues. Instead of using punitive measures, restore proper attachment with an adult to lessen bullying.
- Sexual precociousness and drug use are also often a result of peer attachment. Children, to get along in a peer-centered world, must numb their emotions (i.e. being cool) to avoid getting hurt by their immature friends. Sex and drugs are ways of dealing with this. He calls sex “human super-glue” and not something for children to play with.
At the end of the book, Neufeld gives suggestions for countering peer-attachment. They aren’t anything that hasn’t been heard before, but his theory explains why they are so essential. They include: Choosing day-care carefully and ensuring that attachment is in place before leaving the child. Eating family meals together. Talking with the child. “Collecting” the child after he has been away from you. Limiting unsupervised peer contact and sleepovers. Getting to know the child’s friends. Encouraging relationships with relatives and if there are none, with families who share similar values. Family vacations–without the child’s friends. Keeping families together at communal activities as opposed to segregating by age.
I think the Jewish community has basic mechanisms in place to keep the community strong, that also help prevent peer attachment. Shabbat meals, of course, are key. Similarly the synagogue is a place for the entire family, and children become full members of the community at age 12 and 13, just when they are most at risk for leaving it (although according to Neufeld peer attachment usually begins at a much younger age). Yet there are many risks more common in the orthodox community: long day-school hours which may include travel time, large families especially with closely-spaced children, sleep-away camp, dormitory yeshivas, youth groups, and Shabbat Bar mitzvahs for couples only. Any child is at risk of becoming temporarily alienated from his parents when a family member becomes ill or a new baby is born, and the community is not always available to give support.
I have rarely worked outside the home since my children were born, and I believe that that is ideal whenever possible. Yet Neufeld’s book made me gave me a different perspective on why some families remain strong, despite both parents working outside the home full-time, while others, with a more traditional lifestyle, struggle.
The Hebrew version of his book, called “Zeh Lo Kol Kach Mesubach,” (It’s Not So Complicated) has recently been published by the Life Center. The Life Center, run by Shoshana Hayman, also published the Hebrew editions of Faber and Mazlish’s parenting books–a nice complement to Neufeld. Faber and Mazlish are disciples of Haim Ginot and authors of Siblings without Rivalry, Liberated Parents Liberated Children, and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk.
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