After reading Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, I was interested enough to seek out some of his other work. As a parent, I was naturally drawn to Hold On To Your Kids, which he co-wrote with Dr. Gordon Neufeld, who in fact turned out to be the primary researcher behind this book.
Neufeld’s and Mate’s hypothesis in this book is that in our society, peers have replaced parents as the most important influence in a child’s world. Parents have been led to believe that it is natural for peers to take their place in their children’s lives, but in fact this has never been “normal” in any other society but ours. Children need to continue to learn from their parents and maintain a close attachment with then, even as they grow into their teens. Peer orientation – depending primarily on peers for values, guidance and self-worth – inevitably leads to low self-esteem, trouble with authority, and all kinds of social ills.
Neufeld and Mate make a convincing case, though I sometimes thought they took their theory to extremes and I wasn’t always convinced that there was hard evidence offered to back up their theories.
Despite this, they make a lot of sense. One point that really stood out to me was that many of us as parents are told that it’s normal and healthy for children to grow away from us as they become teens so that they can develop their own individuality. While this is true to an extent, Neufeld and Mate argue that many kids today are moving away from their parents, not towards true individuality but to merge their identities with that of their peers – and parents allow and even encourage this in the name of maturity and individuality.
I think this may be another case where I’m inclined to believe a theory not so much because of the evidence as because it coincides with what I already want to believe. The attachment Jason and I have with our children is very important to me, and it instinctively feels right to me to believe that that attachment needs to be protected at all costs. The idea that peers will ever replace us in their estimation feels wrong, but does it feel wrong because it is wrong, or because we are reluctant to let go?
Neufeld and Mate make a pretty convincing argument that it feels wrong because it is wrong. I wish less of the book were spent establishing this fact and more on concrete ways to make this happen. There is a section of practical advice at the end, and while, again, I don’t agree with all of it – particularly with their chapter on discipline – I think the central idea is sound. As Chris and Emma get older and the lure of the peer group becomes more important, I plan to fight tooth and nail to keep family at the centre rather than being relegated to the edges of their lives. I probably would have done that anyway, but I would have struggled over whether I was just being clingy and resisting their natural urge to grow up and become separate individuals.
Now, at least, I’ll be able to feel that a couple of smart doctors have got my back.