Holding On to Your Kids in a Digital Age: An Interview With Gordon Neufeld, Part 2
Gordon Neufeld, coauthor of Hold On to Your Kids, talks with Sil Reynolds, coauthor of Mothering & Daughtering, about discipline and the effects of digital media on our kids. Read Part 1 of the interview, Putting Parents Back in the Driver’s Seat.
Reynolds: In your book, Hold On to Your Kids, you write that you when you have your child’s heart, discipline is barely needed. How is this so?
Neufeld: When a child is well and deeply attached, there is such a natural desire to be good for those to whom they’re attached. This is so powerful, so natural. When you feel the natural power and authority you have as a parent, you have no desire to use heavy-handed means or tricks, or bribery, or your relationship over your children to make them do what you want them to do.
Many people think that discipline is the essence of parenting. But that isn’t parenting. Parenting is not telling your child what to do when he or she misbehaves. Parenting is providing the conditions in which a child can realize his or her full human potential.
Reynolds: How do we get back that natural power and authority, if we ever had it, when we’ve lost our kids?
Neufeld: The most important thing you can do to restore that relationship is to believe that the relationship is important. Children need to trust and depend upon those who are responsible for them. So you need to restore the context in which children are meant to be raised.
When you start any interaction you begin with a greeting, and the greeting involves getting the eyes of the person you are greeting and getting a smile, which indicates that there’s an invitation to exist.
Then you find activities to do together, have sit-down meals, take walks. When you do this you give children a sense of significance, a sense of specialness. Your job is to act as if you are the answer to their attachment needs and to provide for those attachment needs.
This is the way of nurturing and building a relationship. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. We don’t really need to be told how to do it. It’s just knowing that this is what needs to happen. But somehow we’ve lost our senses. We have forgotten that parenthood is a fundamental relationship issue. It’s not a skill. It’s a relationship. And if the relationship is good and healthy then everything falls into place from that. We find our right intuition.
Reynolds: One of the biggest challenges of our day is the amount of screen time kids want. Is the amount of time spent plugged in affecting our ability to be emotionally and psychologically intimate?
Neufeld: The research is unequivocal and very clear in showing that the pursuit of digital intimacy is interfering with what children really need.
Digital intimacy is like cookies. Cookies have been around for years, but the issue is the same. We know what to do. When a child asks, “Can I have a cookie?” and it’s 4:00 in the afternoon, we answer, “No, because it will spoil your appetite for dinner.” It’s the same with digital intimacy. It titillates the attachment circuitry but it doesn’t fulfill it. It’s empty of the nurturance. But still, it’s very appealing, and it’s addictive.
So the problem really is just like cookies. Digital intimacy ruins the appetite for the real thing. So when kids are gaming or even when spouses are gaming, they lose their appetite for genuine intimacy. Kids lose their appetite for getting their intimacy needs, their hunger for significance and attachment, with the family, and it erodes the relationship between them and their parents.
The research on this suggests that the amount of family interaction time is decreasing. It was stable for years and years, and then the last 10 years it’s fallen significantly as a result of children’s increased screen time.
Reynolds: We have a crisis on our hands in terms of family cohesiveness.
Neufeld: It has happened so fast. We haven’t really figured out how to even deal with television and now we’re trying to figure out how to deal with all these digital instruments. And what we don’t fully realize is that the information children are seeking is not information about their world. It’s information about whether they’re liked or not.
It’s about attachment. It’s about significance. It’s about being important. So all of these digital devices have been turned into social networking devices. They are being used to make connections. But the research shows, again, that this connection is relatively empty. It does not satisfy.
One of the most interesting experiments in this field was with girls who were about to take an exam. They were quite stressed before the test. Just before the test, half of the girls could text their mom and the other half of the girls could call their mom. Then the girls were tested to see what their stress levels were. They found that the girls who talked to their moms had less stress and more attachment chemicals, like oxytocin, in their brains.
Other studies are finding that digital intimacy is more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes. We wouldn’t put alcohol and cigarettes in front of our children, and yet the research shows us that 80 percent of children under two are already being introduced to digital devices.
Reynolds: Hold On to Your Kids was published in 2004 and I understand that the book is soon to be re-released with two new chapters added.
Neufeld: Facebook came out in 2005 and changed everything. Without peer orientation there would have never been social networking. So I described the phenomena that explained the shape of the digital universe and wrote about how parents can come to terms with it. We can’t turn back the clock, nor should we, but we need to go forward with awareness.
Reynolds: You’ve done extensive speaking on this subject. In 2012 you went to nine countries, including Mexico, Germany, Russia, Poland, Belgium, Sweden, and Portugal. I understand that you addressed the European Parliament in Brussels. What are you finding in other countries? What discoveries are you making, and how are their issues the same as, or different than, ours in North America?
Neufeld: The concerns of parents and teachers are the same everywhere I visited. There is a sense that something has changed. There is a sense that the digital revolution is a tremendous challenge for parents. There’s a sense that parenting and teaching has got harder without understanding why. No matter where I go, people are relieved to find the words that speak to what they’re experiencing and help bring them back to what is important.
That said, a big issue Europe is facing, even more than we are, is that the family is losing respect as the context in which children are meant to be raised. In many of the places I visited, people are still living according to the construct of the utopian ideals of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, believing that the state is better than the family in providing for both the elderly and the young.
I found myself giving a scientific defense for the family to provide the understanding that children are meant to be raised in the context of those they’re attached to. Parents are the designated caregivers and are best suited for being able to raise children. There’s a great deal of urgency in Europe because parents are losing the respect of the state and society for their role in raising children.