This article includes several of Dr. Gordon Neufeld's observations and conclusions. All quotes are attributed to him, unless otherwise noted.
From birth, a child's brain is programmed to orient - that is to attach, and to preserve contact with whomever becomes the working compass point for them, says Dr. Gordon Neufeld, an international authority on child development. Who, then, will that working compass point be?
"Nothing induces the child to seek only someone who looks like mom or dad or who seems nurturing, capable, and mature." In fact, in our modern society, children readily transfer their attachments or relationships from their parents to instead each other. This is due to an unprecedented cultural breakdown for which their - and our - instincts cannot adequately compensate.
And what is the makeup of this cultural breakdown in our modern society? It is early enrollment in preschool and daycare coupled with the full-day public school schedule causing kids to typically spend more time in the company of their peers than with the significant adult(s) - mom & dad- in their lives. Lending to this is the economic pressure for both parents to work outside the home. Caring for the young is undervalued. "There are no cultural customs in mainstream society that make it the first item of business for day-care workers, preschool and primary-grade teachers to form real connections first with the parents and then, through friendly introductions, to cultivate a working attachment with the child." We have lost our extended family - the idea of multi-generational households is a thing of the past. Children often lack close relationships with older generations. Our increased mobility - no longer living in villages and disconnected from even those who live next to us, spending evenings with the big screen rather than in small gatherings. And then, the clincher, the real game-changer - technology in the palm of the hand- smartphones turning out dumb people. "We focus more on getting our children fed than on the eating rituals meant to keep us connected. This lack of collective consciousness leads to our children having no other choice but to form attachments with their peers."
For these and many other reasons, parenthood is being undermined. "The economic and social basis needed to hold the mission of parenthood sacred no longer exists...The modern obsession with parenting is a set of skills to be followed along lines recommended by experts." But, this is not parenthood. "Parenthood is a relationship. Biology or marriage or adoption may appoint us to take on that relationship, but only a two-way connection with our child can secure it...the secret is to honor our relationship with our children in all of our interactions with them... The challenge [is] creating a relationship with our children in which we, the caregiving adults, are back in the lead, free from relying on coercion and artificial consequences to gain our children's cooperation, compliance, and respect."
"It is in their relationship with us that our children will reach their developmental destiny of becoming independent, self-motivated and mature beings valuing their own self-worth and mindful of the feelings, rights, and human dignity of others."
"Placing our kids in [so many] positions where their attachment and orienting instincts are directed toward peers is an aberration. It puts them in a situation where they cannot thrive as they ought...The vulnerability engendered by peer orientation can be overwhelming even when children are not hurting one another. This vulnerability is built into the highly insecure nature of peer-oriented relationships. Vulnerability does not have to do only with what is happening but with what could happen - with the inherent insecurity of attachment. What we have, we can lose and the greater the value of what we have, the greater the potential loss...parents strive to give [their] children what they are constitutionally unable to give to one another: a connection that is not based on their pleasing us, making us feel good, or reciprocating in any way. In other words, we offer our children precisely what is missing in peer attachments: unconditional acceptance."
"Parenting was meant to be natural and intuitive but can be so only when the child is attaching to us [as opposed to their peers]. To regain the power to parent we must bring our children back into dependence on us - not just physical dependence but psychological and emotional too, as nature has ever intended... Faced with peer-oriented children, many of us find our parenting instincts blunted. The natural warmth we like to feel toward our children becomes chilled, and we may even feel guilty for not "loving" our children enough."
So, in a world where most kids attend full-day public school, where many parents work outside of the home, where technology and smartphones and all of the hyper peer-orienting that comes along with social media are not going away, and worse, where children are being sexualized through pornography and exploitation through digital means, how do we avoid peer-oriented kids or take back our our relationship with our children?
"Fortunately, peer-orientation is not only preventable but, in most cases, also reversible..." The way to do so is modeled in the way that we respond naturally as parents to a newborn baby:
1- We get in their face. ("face" becomes "space" as they grow older), or "collect" them/their attention.
"With infants, our intentions are usually blatantly evident- we find ourselves going into contortions to get the desired effect." The objective is to attract their eyes, evoke a smile, and if possible, elicit a nod." As children get older, our intentions will be less obvious so that we don't alienate them." There is no agenda behind getting the eyes, smile and nod from our kids. Relationship building is an end in itself. "The starting point and the primary goal in all of our connections with children ought to be the relationship itself, not conduct or behavior." Never take your relationship with your child for granted. It is especially important to "collect" their attention i.e. greet them properly, after times or circumstances of separation. These could include school, work, television, play, reading, homework, even sleep. "Children are designed to start in first gear, no matter how old they are and how mature they become." We must build this routine of getting in their space, collecting them, greeting them into our daily lives and routines.
2- We give them something to hold on to.
"With infants, this often involves placing a finger in the palm of their hand. If the child's attachment brain is receptive, she will grasp the finger; if not, she will pull her hand away. It is not an involuntary muscle reflects such as that elicited by tapping below the knee but an attachment reflex... by placing our finger into the child's palm, we are issuing an invitation to connection... As children get older the point of the exercise is not holding on physically but holding on figuratively... Whatever we provide must come from us or be ours to give... the key is that in holding on to it, they will be holding on to us." This looks like giving them signs they matter to us such as unsolicited [surprise] attention, affection, emotional warmth, enjoyment, and delight- that twinkle in our eye and warmth in our voice; hugs and embraces, conveying a sense of empathy or sameness... by gestures, smiles, tone of voice, suggestion of a joint activity.
3- We then invite dependence.
What? Dependence? Aren't we trying to get them to become independent? Once an infant is old enough, we demonstrate this by "extending our arms as if to pick him up, then waiting for a response before proceeding... to invite dependence in the baby is to say, in effect, Here, let me carry you. I will be your legs. You can rely on me. I will keep you safe. To invite an older child to depend on us is to convey to the child that she can trust us, count on us, lean on us, be cared for by us. She can come to us for assistance and expect our help...But to proceed without first having gained the child's trust is asking for trouble...Here our new-world preoccupation with independence gets in the way. We have no problem inviting the dependence of infants, but past that phase, independence becomes our primary agenda...We fear that to invite dependence is to invite regression instead of development, that if we give dependence an inch, it will take a mile. What we are really encouraging with this attitude is not true independence, only independence from us. Dependence is transferred to the peer group...Here is the core of the problem: we are assuming too much responsibility for the maturation of our children... we are not alone- we have nature as our ally. Independence is a fruit of maturation; our job in raising children is to look after their dependence needs...We seem to have lost touch with the most basic principles of growth. If we tried to pull our plants [during winter] to make them mature [as they would naturally, come spring], we would endanger their attachment roots and their fruitfulness. Disrupting children's attachment roots only causes them to transplant themselves into other relationships. Our refusal to invite them to depend on us drives them into the arms of each other."
4- We act as their compass point.
When a baby is in our arms, we assume the role of compass point and acct as their guide. "... we point out his and that, provide the names for things, and familiarize the growing infant with his environment...While we are fairly intuitive with the young, many of us lose this orienting instinct with older children. We no longer assume the role of introducing them to those around them, of familiarizing them with their world, of informing them of what is going to happen, and of interpreting what things mean...we no longer feel like experts in the world in which our children find themselves. Things have changed too much for us to act as their guides... Just like immigrants disoriented in a strange country, we lose our lead with our children... Each of these changes contributes to an erosion of confidence to the point that we perceive ourselves as the ones in need of orientation... peer orientation has robbed our children of the trigger that would, under more natural circumstances, activate our instinct to orient them... the effect of peer orientation is to take away that sense of being lost or confused...Proximity with her peers is all that counts...because of the fact [that our world has changed] it is more important than ever to summon up our confidence and assume our position as the working compass point in our children's lives...We have to remember that children are in need of being oriented, and that we are their best resource for that, whether they know it or not... We must not wait for their confused look, but confidently assume our position in their life as guide and interpreter." We can orient them about the day, where we will be, what the plan is, what is happening and why. We can orient them about their identity and significance...The secret is for the adult... to take advantage of any orienting voids the child is experiencing by offering himself as a guide. If you can arrange situations that render the child ... dependent on you to get his bearings, so much the better..."
Here are some practical ways to intentionally collect, be a compass point to, invite dependence of, and give our children something to hold on to; to intentionally build a relationship with your child(ren) so that they are parent-oriented and immunized against peer-orientation.
Create a "safe place" or "safe places" within your home. A specific room or couch where your kids are made aware they can always talk with you and you will listen and you won't get angry or upset and there won't be coerced consequences. Practice using this space with issues that aren't huge.
Create tech-free times and zones such as dinner time, bed time, devotionals, family outings. Make rituals that foster connection and relationships a part of your daily routine. A little effort goes a long way.
Make eye-contact when your child speaks to you. Make eye contact, get a smile and a nod before you communicate with them. Greet them properly after every point of separation. Put down your device, scoot away from your screen, pause your show or your conversation. Be the example and limit your own screen time.
Find great books and classics that teach the morals and values you espouse then read these books and read them to and with your children and let them read to you. Let them hear your voice and see the affect great literature has on you.
Get outside together. Go on a hike, a nature walk, a bike ride, lay out in the sun, work in the garden, build a campfire, go on a device-free scenic drive, or a drive to go visit someone. Bake cookies or a meal together and take it to someone in need.
Start talking with your kids the day they are born. Talk to them even though you know they can't understand you. Tell them all about the stuff you care about and the stuff you are worried about- about how important they are to you. About the importance of your values. About the dangers that await them: about technology use, about pornography, about drug and alcohol abuse and about other types of abuse. About making wise choices, about their identity and purpose. Then, never stop. This will give you the practice you need so you will be able to articulate these same things so much the better when they are older.
Use layered internet and device protection. Ease your kids into technology and screen use the same way you would ease them into the great responsibility of driving, or of swimming, or of using fire. Talk with them often about it. Help them learn how to navigate and regulate technology. Help them understand what is happening inside their bodies and brains as they mature with hormones. Be a good example.
There are so many other practical ways to accomplish the fostering in your children a parent-orientation rather than the peer-orientation pushed and provided by our culture. We would love to hear your simple and practical ideas on ways you connect with your kids and build that relationship!