A worthy goal for parenting teenagers: to have your kid be the one who says “you know, my friends think it’s weird how much I confide in you.”
I get ideas for my reading list from all over the place; when I hear about a book I think might be worth reading I hop on over to the library’s website and place a hold on the book. By the time I get the notification that it’s in I’ve usually forgotten where I first found it or who recommended it, and I start reading with no preconceived ideas about what I’m about to dive into – this was the case with Hold On to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, although it’s written from Neufeld’s perspective alone.
The premise is that kids are increasingly becoming peer-oriented rather than adult-oriented:
“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role – their own peers. They are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from adults. Instead, children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.”
Older peer-oriented kids are the ones who talk back, refuse to cooperate, erect barricades to keep the parents out – because it’s not possible to have two primary orientations. To be peer-oriented is to reject parental orientation. The parent-oriented kids are the ones who have a relationship with their parents marked by trust and by sharing; the parents feel as though they know the important things going on in the child’s life. That’s not to say there are never challenges and disagreements, but these are marked by an attempt to see things from the other’s point of view, not by the withdrawal and door-slamming typical of many parent-teenager interactions.
While toddlers and young kids may go through a phase of exerting “counterwill” to express their individuality, the test of whether their aim is individuality (a good thing) rather than peer orientation is whether he or she truly seeks independence, or is instead only attempting to fit in, and “suppresses his own feelings and camouflages his own opinions should they differ from those of his peers.” (p.81)
One part of the book that did not sit well with me was the ‘blame’ placed on non-parental care situations – Neufeld strongly implies that putting your kid in daycare is highly likely to result in an outcome where your kid becomes ‘oriented to’ (i.e. takes parenting cues from) his or her peers rather than his or her parents. The parents may actually unwittingly encourage the peer orientation process in the beginning by providing lots of opportunities for kids to spend time with their peers because the kids seem so well socialized and happy together – and the parents suddenly have lots of free time to engage in hobbies and activities that make them happy. Neufeld argues that these apparently harmless interactions – not simply having friends (which is of course a good thing), but spending a lot of time with friends – represents the start of the peer orientation process and is something parents need to watch out for.
Neufeld also conveniently renders the parents blameless if peer orientation does occur; peers are presented as some kind of nefarious force that will get your kid if you turn your attention away for a second, and even suggests sending the kid to a relative or boarding school if things have gotten too out of control, to separate them from the evil peers.
The parents of an already peer-oriented child have a much harder task than the parents who have managed to maintain a good connection all along, which is essentially to reestablish the dominance of the parental connection. The child will almost certainly resist the sudden withdrawal of unlimited access to friends, but as long as this is accompanied by increased time spent with the parent(s), Neufeld believes the child can become parent-oriented again (and describes how he used a solo vacation with his daughter to do this himself).
Critiques aside, I actually found the suggestions in the book about how to ‘collect’ (i.e. connect with) your kids and keep them parent-oriented to be very helpful.
Carys is clearly parent-oriented at the moment; she is imprinted on me like a little duckling, and if I want to change her diaper all I have to do is announce diaper change time and walk ahead of her to her bedroom to have her follow. She asks after both Alvin or I several times a day whenever we are away from her. Here’s a typical exchange that repeats several times while we’re hiking in the evenings:
C: [sings] Mama!
Me: [sings] Carys!
C: [sings] Mama!
Me [sings] Carys!
C: [sings] Dada!
Me: You’re thinking about Daddy?
C: [sings] Car car car!
Me: Yes, Daddy will drive his car home soon. Hopefully we’ll see him before your bedtime.
This process of ‘collecting’ the child – which can also be accomplished with a hug, or with eye contact, or simply an acknowledgement of what they are working on or doing that we are about to interrupt – helps us to establish our connection with them. Once the connection is made (and it must be continually re-established through the day), a request for cooperation (“will you please stop banging the gate?”) or assistance (“will you please help me to take your t-shirt off?) can be made. In this way the collection becomes an aid to any needed discipline because you and the child are working in the same direction – she wants to help you.
The parents of a peer-oriented child can no longer rely on the relationship to guide their parenting – they can’t simply ‘collect’ the child and then make a request because the child resists collection. When this happens the parent applies increasing force on the lever: a reward, a removal of priveliges, separation from the parent or from friends (interesting to note here the corroboration of Alfie Kohn’s view that punishment and rewards are each as bad as the other). So the need to increase leverage to gain cooperation becomes a sign that the child is peer-oriented, and the use of leverage may indeed be temporarily successful.
But the more we coerce a child to share with another, say “thank you,” or “sorry,” the less the behavior occurs spontaneously, the more counterwill develops, and the more force the parents must exert as their “true power base for parenting is eroded.” (p.84). In short, “the time we as parents…spend trying to teach our children social tolerance, acceptance, and etiquette would be much better invested in cultivating a connection with them” (p.92). (Interesting side-note: we model the use of “thank you” regularly and Carys has copied other people saying it a couple of times, but on Sunday she said it spontaneously for the first time. She dropped a sock and Alvin helped her to pick it up, and she said “thank you.” I was pretty proud.)
So when kids don’t do what we want them to do, don’t focus on trying to change the behavior but instead on the underlying relationship:
“The ultimate gift is to make a child feel invited to exist in our presence exactly as he is, to express our delight in his very being” (p.184).
The crux, then, for me, is in helping Carys to feel this ‘delight’ without it taking all of my time and energy. Once again, RIE seems to hold a key, both in theory and in practice. RIE recognizes my rights as a person, not just as a mother – respect for my needs is as important as respect for Carys’. In practice, the independent play that we have been developing over the last couple of months allows Nanny Meg and I to do many household tasks while Carys is engaged in her room (and extending her concentration span and exploring things at exactly her own pace in exactly her own way). Then when we are with her, we can focus on her and on nurturing the relationship rather than being distracted by chores.
When she drinks her bottle of evening milk I lie down next to her and give her 100% of my attention; she usually likes to tickle my ears with her tiger’s tail, and then point out both my and her nose and eyes with her free hand, or request a foot rub.
Here are three things I’ve tucked away in the back of my mind from a variety of (now unremembered) sources that I use to help me to collect Carys on a regular basis:
- (This one is from Neufeld): Try to go beyond what is expected in expressing your love and affection. So don’t just hug to say “hello” and “goodbye;” hug for no reason throughout the day;
- Make sure your child’s emotional cup is filled: when you’re hugging your child, always make sure they are the one who pulls away first;
- When your child greets you after an absence, pay no mind to whether they were mid-snack with hands full of banana: embrace the banana smooshed in the back of your hair. Your child will revel in the unconditional embrace, because she places the value of connection above the value of cleanliness: if you hesitate or ask her to clean her hands first, all she will remember is the withdrawal from the embrace, not the logic that you wanted to keep your hair clean.
I appreciate having both the tools to continue building my connection with Carys, as well as some guideposts to recognize when things both are, and are not, going well – these things are important for those of us who don’t have much parenting intuition.
(This post written to assure you that all the DIY projects I’ve posted about recently haven’t completely distracted me from also doing some reading. But should you want to be entered to win a homemade Waldorf Knotty Doll, head over here soon for more details.)