Your Kids Need You, Not Their Peers
More and more children are looking to their peers for cues about how to be in the world. Where they really need to be looking, according to child development expert Gordon Neufeld and physician and mind-body wellness expert Gabor Maté, is to their parents.
The chief and most damaging of the competing attachments that undermine parenting authority and parental love is the increasing bonding of our children with their peers. The disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents now heading toward adulthood is rooted in the lost orientation of children toward the nurturing adults in their lives. Far from seeking to establish yet one more medical-psychological disorder—the last thing today’s bewildered parents need—we are using the world “disorder” in its most basic sense: a disruption of the natural order of things. 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 us. Instead, children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.
The term that seems to fit more than any other for this phenomenon is “peer orientation.” It is peer orientation that has muted our parenting instincts, eroded our natural authority, and caused us to parent not from the heart but from the head—from manuals, the advice of “experts,” and the confused expectations of society.
What is peer orientation?
Orientation, the drive to get one’s bearings and become acquainted with one’s surroundings, is a fundamental human instinct and need. Disorientation is one of the least bearable of all psychological experiences. Attachment and orientation are inextricably intertwined. Humans and other creatures automatically orient themselves by seeking cues from those to whom they are attached.
Children, like the young of any warm-blooded species, have an innate orienting instinct; they need to get their sense of direction from somebody. Just as a magnet turns automatically toward the North Pole, so children have an inborn need to find their bearings by turning toward a source of authority, contact, and warmth. Children cannot endure the lack of such a figure in their lives: they become disoriented. They cannot endure what I call an “orientation void.” The parent—or another adult acting as parent substitute—is the nature-intended pole of orientation for the child, just as adults are the orienting influences in the lives of all animals that rear their young.
It so happens that this orienting instinct of humans is much like the imprinting instinct of a duckling. Hatched from the egg, the duckling immediately imprints on the mother duck—he will follow her around, heeding her example and her directions until he grows into mature independence. That is how nature would prefer it, of course. In the absence of mother duck, however, the duckling will begin to follow the nearest moving object—a human being, a dog, or even a mechanical toy. Needless to say, neither the human, the dog, nor the toy are as well suited as the mother duck to raise that duckling to be a successful adult duck. Likewise, if no parenting adult is available, the human child will orient to whoever is near. Social, economic, and cultural trends in the past five or six decades have displaced the parent from his intended position as the orienting influence on the child. The peer group has moved into this orienting void, with deplorable results.
Children cannot be oriented to both adults and other children simultaneously. One cannot follow two sets of conflicting directions at the same time. The child’s brain must automatically choose between parental values and peer values, parental guidance and peer guidance, parental culture and peer culture whenever the two would appear to be in conflict.
Are we saying that children should have no friends their own age or form connections with other children? On the contrary—such ties are natural and can serve a healthy purpose. In adult-oriented cultures, where the guiding principles and values are those of the more mature generations, kids attach to each other without losing their bearings or rejecting the guidance of their parents. In our society that is no longer the case. Peer bonds have come to replace relationships with adults as children’s primary sources of orientation. What is unnatural is not peer contact, but that children should have become the dominant influence on each other’s development.