Thought-Provoking Parenting Book

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Children with strong peer-attachment “dumb themselves down,” and hide their talents and emotions to avoid rejection from their friends. They are unteachable.
  4. Shyness is a positive trait; it’s a way for children to protect themselves from becoming attached to those outside the family.
  5. Academic advantage gained by attending preschool does not hold up in later years.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Note:
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.

Questions and Answers with Dr. Gordon Neufeld

More on Parenting:

Controlling Children, Controlling Ourselves

My Favorite Parenting Books

More posts on parenting by A Mother in Israel

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Comments

  1. I heard him speak at the last LLLI conference in DC, he was amazing, now I will buy his book. I also think Barbara Collorosso is very powerful. I like Faber and Maizlish, but don’t feel they take things far enough. They are a great beginner book for those trying to shift their parenting, but don’t dig really deep into your own middot weaknesses as a parent. I feel they are sort of band-aids on external things, whereas this man and Collorosso and also Steven Covey and Rabbis Kelemen and Aurbach (and of course Rabbi Wolbe) offer opportunities to do real tshuva and really transform yourself and your kids. I’m curious to hear what you think.

  2. mother in israel says:

    Thanks, Stacey, for your insightful comments. You give an interesting perspective on Faber and Mazlish. I haven’t had a chance to read Collorosso yet. I read R. Keleman but not cover to cover. I thought it was too heavy-handed with all the studies it quoted. I didn’t find the wisdom that others have seen in it, but maybe I didn’t look hard enough. I haven’t read Wolbe or Aurbach (do you have titles?), but I did like Orlowek (but again, I borrowed it when I borrowed Keleman’s book and didn’t have a chance to read it thoroughly). I just got Covey’s son’s book for teenagers and like it very much. My oldest son really likes it. I guess you’ve given me some homework to do!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I meant Orlowek instead of Aurbach – sorry. Rabbi Kelemen has a CD series where he is speaking to a group of frum men in Yerushalayim. It is all the tenents of the book but to a frum audience and without all the footnotes. You can get the first one free at Aishaudio.com. His book is based on Binyan u’Zriah by Rav Wolbe which is much more theoretical. I think the wisdom of all these books lies in their pro-active stance. They give you the tools so that you do not have to spend your time re-acting to you kids’ bad behavior, but rather learning how to anticipate your kids needs before they happen and building attachment so that you are experiencing a virtuous cycle. Have you heard of Rebbetzin Spetnor? She also worked with Rav Wolbe and trained a few women to give over parenting classes. I have been in a class for about a year and half and it has changed my life (not to mention my house).

    If I haven’t mentioned it before, I really enjoy your blog. Stacey

  4. mother in israel says:

    I meant Orlowek instead of Aurbach
    Whew! I feel better.

    I’ve just listened to the first few minutes of R. Keleman’s audio and I love what he said about Jewish parenting books and how influenced they must be by psychology etc. He speaks much better than he writes although I don’t enjoy hearing “yesodi” (basic) used as an adjective in English. I hope to listen to the whole thing later.

    Have you read Rosally Saltzman’s book? It’s divrei torah on parenting, based on the weekly Torah portion. She quotes R. Keleman as saying that during breastfeeding the baby is and is able to absorb her manner, tone of voice, mood etc. I really liked that but I missed it if it is in the book. I looked for it too.

    I found a description of R. Wolbe’s book on this website: http://www.tzemachdovid.org/Musar/rwolbe2.html
    I hope I can get hold of a copy.

    I just listened to the section of R. Keleman’s audio that he says are the most important ten minutes of his lecture series. It’s good, and he makes an important point, but I guess I’m too jaded to be really impressed.

    Guess I’ve done enough homework for today!! Thanks for the compliment.

  5. SephardiLady says:

    I am adding this book to my future reading list.

  6. SephardiLady says:

    I checked out the book today and can’t wait to read it. I too think the frum community has many of the mechanisms you mentioned, but there are huge pressures on parents to “socialize” children through nursery (2 years old), send them to nearly every activity, and have boys form strong relationships with a Rebbe and receive much of their life advice from that source.

    E.g., I know many families who will not go ahead with a shidduch date that they think has potential if their son’s Rosh Yeshiva does not approve it. I respect rabbinic advice, but somehow, I believe parents are much better off guiding their children into marriage. BT’s all too often replace parental advice that would be solid with Rabbinic advice that isn’t particularily suited to them (I can think of some situations).

    For the most part I think the frum community does form strong parental attachment. But the long school days, pressure to send to school very early and to send to camp, as well as the pressure to involve children in the “proper” extracurriculars leaves too little time for family. The bonds that kids need cannot be formed without “quantity” time. I think those who believe “quality” can replace “quantity” (plenty of my peers) are mistaken.

  7. mother in israel says:

    SL—

    Please give a post to your review of the book! I’m very interested in your reaction.

  8. I am trying to muddle my way through the book, thanks MII for loaning it to me. I am finding it a bit repetative – I got the point now I want to see some proposed “solutions”. Maybe I am jumping the gun, I am still at the beginning.
    I wanted to comment about your belief that the Orthodox community can overcome a lot of the attachment issues with Shabbat meals etc. I guess you have not been in the States for a while: children are “play dated” to death. For Shabbat (day) meals, it’s customary to invite a friend. For after the meal, there MUST be friends there (no one ever heard of Shabbat pm quiet time?). I was the ONLY one who got to sleep Shabbat afternoons. That was MY time and my kids had to be quiet. Still follow that rule. And no, it does not make me feel guilty. At least here in Israel the resting on Shabbat rule seems to be upheld. But I am rambling, sorry. In any event, I am still waiting to enjoy this book.

  9. mother in israel says:

    I’m sorry you’re not enjoying it–I tried to warn you that it’s a bit heavy. I hope it will pick up; if not, I forgive you if you don’t read to the end.

  10. Judy B. says:

    I happened upon your post about “Hold On To Your Kids” and am in the middle of reading it. The authors so ably articulate the culture of anomie among kids even in Jewish day schools. Parents do not realize and/or cannot articulate these issues. This book should be required reading for day-school educators and parents alike.

  11. mominisrael says:

    Judy, on the contrary–it’s seen as a positive thing. Thanks for your visit.

  12. Elisheva says:

    Nice! I had to read it several times before I was able to get the structure and the impact. FWIW, Gabor Mate is Jewish (you had pointed out that Neufeld is not) and is a survivor (he was an infant) from Hungary.

  13. Elisheva says:

    Nice! I had to read the book several times before I was able to get the structure and the impact. FWIW, Gabor Mate is Jewish (you had pointed out that Neufeld is not) and is a survivor (he was an infant) from Hungary.

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