Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers // Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Maté

Knížka o vytváření pouta, vztahu mezi rodiči (dospělými) a dětmi. O tom jak moc je takové pouto důležité a nic, především povrchní vztah s nevyspělými kamarády, ho nemůže nahradit.

The Phenomenon of Peer Orientation

 Chapter 1 – Why Parents Matter More Than Ever

Should parenting be this difficult? Was it always so? Children are not quite the same as we remember being. They are less likely to take their cues from adults, less afraid of getting into trouble. They also seem less innocent and naive—lacking, it seems, the wide-eyed wonder that leads a child to have excitement for the world, for exploring the wonders of nature or of human creativity. Many children seem inappropriately sophisticated, even jaded in some ways, pseudo-mature before their time. They appear to be easily bored when away from each other or when not engaged with technology. Creative, solitary play seems a vestige of the past.

The very importance of parenting to the development and maturation of young human beings has come under question. “Do Parents Matter?” was the title of a cover article in Newsweek magazine in 1998. “Parenting has been oversold,” argued a book that received international attention that year. “You have been led to believe that you have more of an influence on your child’s personality than you really do.”

Committed and responsible parents are frustrated. Despite our loving care, kids seem highly stressed. Parents and other elders no longer appear to be the natural mentors for the young, as always used to be the case with human beings and is still the case with all other species living in their natural habitats. Senior generations, parents and grandparents of the baby-boomer group, look at us with incomprehension. “We didn’t need how-to manuals on parenting in our days, we just did it,” they say, with some mixture of truth and misunderstanding. This state of affairs is ironic, given that more is known about child development than ever before and that we have more access to courses and books on childrearing than any previous generation of parents.

Children do not automatically grant us the authority to parent them just because we are adults, or just because we love them or think we know what is good for them or have their best interests at heart.

There is an indispensable special kind of relationship without which parenting lacks a firm foundation. Developmentalists—psychologists or other scientists who study human development—call it an attachment relationship. For a child to be open to being parented by an adult, he must be actively attaching to that adult, be wanting contact and closeness with him. At the beginning of life this drive to attach is quite physical—the infant literally clings to the parent and needs to be held. If everything unfolds according to design, the attachment will evolve into an emotional closeness and finally a sense of psychological intimacy.

The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child. When a child seeks contact and closeness with us, we become empowered as a nurturer, a comforter, a guide, a model, a teacher, or a coach. For a child well attached to us, we are her home base from which to venture into the world, her retreat to fall back to, her fountainhead of inspiration. All the parenting skills in the world cannot compensate for a lack of attachment relationship. All the love in the world cannot get through without the psychological umbilical cord created by the child’s attachment.

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.¨

The existence of a youth culture, separate and distinct from that of adults, dates back only fifty years or so. Although half a century is a relatively short time in the history of humankind, in the life of an individual person it constitutes a whole era. Most readers of this book will already have been raised in a society where the transmission of culture is horizontal rather than vertical. In each new generation this process, potentially corrosive to civilized society, gains new power and velocity. Even in the twenty-two years between my first and my fifth child, it seems that parents have lost ground.

If peers have replaced adults as the ones who matter most, what is missing in those peer relationships is going to have the most profound impact. Absolutely missing in peer relationships are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.

I had never expected to lose my kids to their peers. To my dismay, I noticed that on reaching adolescence both my older daughters began to orbit around their friends, following their lead, imitating their language, internalizing their values. It became more and more difficult to bring them into line.

“But aren’t we meant to let go?” many parents ask. “Aren’t our children meant to become independent of us?” Absolutely, but only when our job is done and only in order for them to be themselves. Fitting in with the immature expectations of the peer group is not how the young grow to be independent, self-respecting adults.

Because culture no longer leads our children in the right direction—toward genuine independence and maturity—parents and other child-rearing adults matter more than ever before.

Chapter 2 – Skewed Attachments, Subverted Instincts

For children, it’s an absolute need. Unable to function on their own, they must attach to an adult. Physical attachment in the womb is necessary until our offspring are viable enough to be born. Likewise, our children must be attached to us emotionally until they are capable of standing on their own two feet, able to think for themselves and to determine their own direction.

As we observe our children busily and furtively exchanging secrets, it is easy to assume that they are sharing themselves vulnerably with each other. In fact, the secrets they do share are most commonly in the form of gossip about other people. True psychological intimacy is the exception among peer-oriented children, most likely because the risks are too great. Children who do share their secrets with their parents are often seen as a little weird by their more peer-oriented friends. “My friends can’t believe I tell you so much,” one fourteen-year-old said to her father on one of their walks together. “They say it’s crazy.”

Peer-oriented children live in a universe of severely limited and superficial attachments. The quest for sameness being the least vulnerable way of attaching, it is the one usually chosen by kids impelled to seek contact with their peers. Hence their drive to be as much like one another as possible: to resemble one another in look, demeanor, thought, tastes, and values.

Chapter 3 – Why We’ve Come Undone

One result of economic changes since the Second World War is that children are placed early, sometimes soon after birth, in situations where they spend much of the day in one another’s company. Most of their contact is with other children, not with the significant adults in their lives. They spend much less time bonding with parents and adults. As they grow older, the process only accelerates. Society has generated economic pressure for both parents to work outside the home when children are very young, but it has made little provision for the satisfaction of children’s needs for emotional nourishment.

In general, we focus more on getting our children fed than on the eating rituals meant to keep us connected. “What the young need—stability, presence, attention, advice, good psychic food, unpolluted stories—is exactly what the sibling society won’t give them.”

It is for economic reasons that parenting does not get the respect it should. That we live where we do rather than where our natural supporting cast is—friends, the extended family, our communities of origin—has come about for economic reasons, often beyond the control of individual parents, as, for example, when whole industries are shut down or relocated. It is for economic reasons that we build schools too large for connection to happen and that we have classes too large for children to receive individual attention.

By six months of age, most children show a resistance to contact and closeness with those they are not attached to. Overcoming this requires a certain kind of interaction between the child’s working attachment and the “stranger.” For example, if the mother engages in a period of friendly contact with the stranger, taking care not to push the infant into contact but simply allowing the infant to observe, the resistance usually softens and the child becomes receptive to connection with the newcomer. There must be a friendly introduction, a “blessing,” so to speak. Once the attachment instincts of the infant have become engaged and a time of nearness is enjoyed, the child will usually move toward contact with the new person and allow himself to be taken care of by him.

Sabotaged: How Peer Orientation Undermines Parenting

Chapter 4 – The Power to Parent Is Slipping Away

It is the child’s state of dependence that makes parenting necessary in the first place. If our children didn’t need us, we would not need the power to parent.

Like power, dependence has become a dirty word. We want our children to be self-directing, self-motivated, self-controlled, self-orienting, self-reliant, and self-assured. We have put such a premium on independence that we lose sight of what childhood is about.

It takes three ingredients to make parenting work: a dependent being in need of being taken care of, an adult willing to assume responsibility, and a good working attachment from the child to the adult.

Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired. Attachment is not a behavior to be learned but a connection to be sought.

Impulsive children (or adults) are unable to separate impulses from actions. They act out whatever impulse arises in their minds.

Negative techniques such as admonishment, shaming, sanctions, consequences, and punishment are useless with a youngster who cannot learn from them.

Parenting was meant to be natural and intuitive but can be so only when the child is attaching to us. To regain the power to parent we must bring our children back into full dependence on us—not just physical dependence but psychological and emotional, too, as nature has ever intended.

Chapter 5 – From Help to Hindrance: When Attachment Works Against Us

If it wasn’t for attachment, many parents would not be able to stomach the changing of diapers, forgive the interrupted sleep, put up with the noise and the crying, carry out all the tasks that go unappreciated.

The first business of attachment is to arrange adults and children in a hierarchical order. When humans enter a relationship, their attachment brain automatically ranks the participants in order of dominance. Embedded in our inborn brain apparatus are archetypal positions that divide roughly into dominant and dependent, caregiving and care-seeking, the one who provides and the one who receives. This is even true for adult attachments, as in marriage, although in healthy, reciprocal relationships there will be a good deal of shifting back and forth between the giving and care-seeking modes, depending on circumstances and depending, too, on how the marriage partners have chosen to divide their responsibilities. With adults, children are meant to be in the dependent, care-seeking mode.

Peer orientation activates this same programming, but now with negative results. It subverts the instinctual workings of the attachment brain, designed for child-adult attachments. Instead of keeping a child in a healthy relationship with her caregivers, the dominance/ dependence dynamic sets up unhealthy situations of dominance and submission among immature peers.

When our children express by actions or words a desire to attach to us, it makes them sweeter and easier to take. There are hundreds of little gestures and expressions, all unconscious, that serve to soften us up and draw us near. We are not being manipulated by the child, we are being worked on by the forces of attachment, and for very good reason. Parenting involves hardship and we need something to make the burden a little bit easier to bear.

Actually, all parents are used, abused, taken for granted, and taken advantage of. The reason it usually doesn’t get to us is again the work of attachment. Take for example a mother cat with nursing kittens. The mother is walked on, bitten, scratched, pushed, and prodded, but for the most part remains remarkably tolerant.

Basically, attention follows attachment. The stronger the attachment, the easier it is to secure the child’s attention. When attachment is weak, the attention of the child will be correspondingly difficult to engage. One of the telltale signs of a child who isn’t paying attention is a parent having continually to raise his voice or repeat things. Some of our most persistent demands as parents have to do with their attention: “Listen to me,” “Look at me when I’m talking,” “Now look here,” “What did I just say?” or most simply, “Pay attention.”

One of the fundamental tasks of parenting is to provide direction and guidance to our children. Every day we point out what works and what doesn’t, what is good and what’s not, what is expected and what is inappropriate, what to aim for and what to avoid. Until the child becomes capable of self-direction and of following cues from within, he or she needs someone to show the way. Children constantly search for cues to how to be and what to do.

Children do not internalize values—make them their own—until adolescence.

Parental values such as studying, working toward a goal, the pursuit of excellence, respect for society, the realization of potential, the development of talent, the pursuit of a passion, the appreciation of culture are often replaced with peer values that are much more immediate and short term. Appearance, entertainment, peer loyalty, spending time together, fitting into the subculture, and getting along with each other will be prized above education and the realization of personal potential. Parents often find themselves arguing about values, not realizing that for their peer-oriented children values are nothing more than the standards that they, the children, must meet in order to gain the acceptance of the peer group.

Chapter 6 – Counterwill: Why Children Become Disobedient

Counterwill is an instinctive, automatic resistance to any sense of being forced. It is triggered whenever a person feels controlled or pressured to do someone else’s bidding. It makes its most dramatic appearance in the second year of life—yes, the so-called terrible two’s.

No one likes to be pushed around, including children—or more correctly, especially children.

The best reason for children to experience counterwill is when it arises not as automatic oppositionality, but as a healthy drive for independence.

The problem with seeing our children as having power is that we miss how much they truly need us. Even if a child is trying to control us, he is doing so out of a need and a dependence on us to make things work.

Stuck in Immaturity: How Peer Orientation Stunts Healthy Development

Chapter 8 – The Dangerous Flight From Feeling

Intuitively we all know that it is better to feel than to not feel. Our emotions are not a luxury but an essential aspect of our makeup. We have them not just for the pleasure of feeling but because they have crucial survival value. They orient us, interpret the world for us, give us vital information without which we cannot thrive. They tell us what is dangerous and what is benign, what threatens our existence and what will nurture our growth.

Emotions are what make life worthwhile, exciting, challenging, and meaningful. They drive our explorations of the world, motivate our discoveries, and fuel our growth. Down to the very cellular level, human beings are either in defensive mode or in growth mode, but they cannot be in both at the same time.

Chapter 9 – Stuck in Immaturity

We must know how things work so we can understand what can go wrong—that’s a necessity for prevention or, if needed, a remedy.

More fundamentally, a sense of self first needs to separate from inner experience, a capacity entirely absent in the young child. The child has to be able to know that she is not identical with whatever feeling happens to be active in her at any particular moment. She can feel something without her actions being necessarily dominated by that feeling. She can be aware of other, conflicting feelings, or of thoughts, values, commitments that might run counter to the feeling of the moment. She can choose.

To foster independence we must first invite dependence; to promote individuation we must provide a sense of belonging and unity; to help the child separate we must assume the responsibility for keeping the child close. We help a child let go by providing more contact and connection than he himself is seeking. When he asks for a hug, we give him a warmer one than he is giving us. We liberate children not by making them work for our love but by letting them rest in it. We help a child face the separation involved in going to sleep or going to school by satisfying his need for closeness.

The story of maturation is one of paradox: dependence and attachment foster independence and genuine separation.

Unconditional parental love is the indispensable nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth.

Chapter 10 – A Legacy of Aggression

What moves a person to attack? Frustration. Frustration is the fuel of aggression. Of course, frustration will no more automatically lead to aggression than a supply of oxygen will automatically cause a fire. Peer orientation not only increases frustration in a child but also decreases the likelihood of finding peaceful alternatives to aggression. Frustration is the emotion we feel when something doesn’t work. What doesn’t work may be a toy, a job, one’s body, a conversation, a demand, a relationship, the coffeemaker, or the scissors.

Chapter 11 – The Making of Bullies and Victims

A person who dominates is far less vulnerable than one in a dependent position, and so the children who are the most emotionally shut down are also the ones most predisposed to seek dominance over others.

Chapter 12 – A Sexual Turn

Fifty years ago, when girls talked about self-improvement, they had in mind academic achievement or some contribution to society. Now, she says, appearance is foremost. “In adolescent girls’ private diaries and journals, the body is the consistent preoccupation, second only to peer-relationships.”

Studies have confirmed what most of us will have found out on our own, that making love has a natural bonding effect, evoking powerful emotions of attachment in the human brain.

Chapter 13 – Unteachable Students

Curiosity is a luxury, developmentally speaking. Peer-oriented students are completely preoccupied with issues of attachment. Instead of being interested in the unknown, they become bored by anything that does not serve the purpose of peer attachment. Boredom is epidemic among the peer-oriented.

How to Hold On to Our Kids (or How to Reclaim Them)

Chapter 14 – Collecting Our Children

Even as we must be the guardians of our children’s safety and well-being, we need to keep getting in their faces in ways that are warm and inviting, that keep enticing them to stay in relationship with us.

Right after the boys woke up my wife, Joy, and I put them on our laps, held them, played and joked with them until the eyes were engaged, the smiles were forthcoming, and the nods were working. After that, everything went much more smoothly. It was well worth the investment of getting up ten minutes earlier to start the day with this collecting ritual instead of going directly into high-gear parenting. Children are designed to start in first gear, no matter how old they are and how mature they become.

Wonderful smiling woman came gliding across the room and engaged me in a most friendly way, greeting me by name, telling me how glad she was that I was in her class, and assuring me what a good year we were going to have. I am sure it took her very little time to collect me. After that, I was all hers and rather immune to other attachments. I didn’t need them; I was already taken.

Researchers have identified emotional warmth, enjoyment, and delight at the top of the list as effective activators of attachment. If we have a twinkle in our eye and some warmth in our voice, we invite connection that most children will not turn down. When we give children signs that they matter to us, most children will want to hold on to the knowledge that they are special to us and appreciated in our life. For our own children, the physical component is key. Hugs and embraces were designed for children to hold on to, and can warm up a child long after the hug is over.

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.

Are we saying that children should never be praised? On the contrary, it is helpful, compassionate, and good for the relationship—any relationship—when we acknowledge others for some special contribution they have made or for the effort or energy they have expended in making something happen. What we are saying is that praise should not be overdone, that we should be careful that the child’s motivation does come to depend on the admiration or good opinion of others. The child’s self-image should not rest on how well, or how poorly, she succeeds in gaining our approval by means of achievements or compliant behaviors. The foundation of a child’s true self-esteem is the sense of being accepted, loved, and enjoyed by the parents exactly as he, the child, is.

A master teacher, rather than pushing pupils toward independence, supplies them instead with generous offerings of assistance. A master teacher wants her students to think for themselves but knows the students cannot get there if she resists their dependence or chastises them for lacking maturity. Her students are free to lean on her without any sense of shame for their neediness.

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.

Chapter 15 – Preserve the Ties that Empower 

A child is much more likely to be confused not about what is valued but about his own worth and importance to the parent. This is exactly what requires clarification and affirmation. When we say to a child “That is unacceptable,” unless the attachment is secure and the connection is sound, the child will likely hear “She doesn’t like me” or “I’m not acceptable because …,” or “I am only acceptable when …” When a child hears such a message, whether we have actually said it or not, the relationship is damaged.

If we took our cues from the natural sequence of development, our priorities would be clear. First would be attachment, second would be maturation, and third would be socialization.

Children attaching primarily through the senses are left with a feeling of separation when there is a lack of physical contact. Children who attach through loyalty are going to feel alienated if it seems to them that the parent is against them rather than for them. When he is connected at the heart, the lack of warmth and affection will make the child feel left out in the cold. If being known and understood is what creates a sense of intimacy, a sense of being misunderstood will create a wedge, as will a perception, even if unconscious, that the parents are harboring some essential secret.

The ultimate goal in helping our children keep us close is to cultivate a profound intimacy that our children’s peers cannot compete with. No matter how close friends may be, it is rare for children to share their hearts with each other. Innermost feelings are typically guarded; the territory is usually too vulnerable to take the risk of being shamed or misunderstood.

Of course, there are limits to what we can do: we cannot make our children want to be with us, to orient by us, or love us. We cannot make them want to be good for us and we cannot decide who their friends are. With adult-connected kids we don’t have to do any of these things—their attachment to us will do the work on our behalf. Equally, there are limitations on what we should do: we should not force ourselves on them, and we should not use force to hold them close.

The structures that facilitate the parent-child relationship are key: family holidays, family celebrations, family games, family activities. Unless a time and place is set aside and rituals are created, pressures that are more urgent will inevitably prevail.

Attachment and eating go together. One facilitates the other. It seems to me that the meal should be a time of unabashed dependency: where the attachment hierarchy is still preserved, where the dependable take care of the dependent, where experience still counts, where there is pleasure in nurturing and being nurtured and where food is the way to the heart.

Without attachment power we have no genuine power at all.

Chapter 16 – Discipline That Does Not Divide

To begin, let us expand our concept of discipline. In the context of parenting, discipline is typically thought of as punishment. On a closer look, however, we see that discipline is actually a rich word with a number of related meanings. It can also refer to a teaching, a field of study, a system of rules, and self-control.

Our ability to manage a child effectively is very much an outcome of our capacity to manage ourselves. We need to find the same compassion for ourselves that we wish to extend to our child.

The discipline for parents is to work only in the context of connection.

PRINCIPLES OF NATURAL DISCIPLINE

Use Connection, Not Separation, to Bring a Child into Line.

The withdrawal of closeness (or threatening its loss) is such an effective means of behavior control because it triggers the child’s worst fear—that of being abandoned. If contact and closeness were not important to the toddler or older child, separation from us would have very little impact.

When we disrupt the contact or rupture the connection (or when the child anticipates that this may happen), we bring the child’s attachment brain to high alert. In all cases, the child’s response will come from a state of anxiety, but how the child shows that will depend on his particular way of attaching. A child who is used to preserving contact with the parent by being “good” will desperately promise never to transgress again. His attempt to regain connection will bring a stream of “I’m sorry’s.” The child whose way of staying close is through affectionate gestures and words will, when he feels his attachment threatened by the parent, become full of “I love you’s”—that will be her mode of restoring proximity. If physical contact is paramount, the child may become clingy for a few hours, not wanting to let you out of her sight. The point for parents to understand is that these manifestations do not represent genuine understanding or contrition, only the anxiety of the child trying to reestablish the relationship with the parent. It is naive to think that by such methods we are teaching children a lesson or making them consider the error of their ways.

If we as adults feel hurt when ignored or when shunned, how much more do our children.

Subjecting a child to unnecessary experiences of separation, even if from the best of intentions, is shortsighted, and a mistake.

The positive and natural alternative to separation is connection. Connection is the source of our parenting power and influence and of the child’s desire to be good for us. Connection should be both our short-term objective and our long-term goal. The trick is to be mindful of connection before a problem occurs instead of imposing separation afterward, to head off future problems rather than reacting punitively after our child’s behavior gets out of line.

A single example illustrates this simple principle. Eleven-year-old Tyler was in the backyard pool with his sister and a few friends. They were having a good time until Tyler got carried away and started hitting his playmates with a plastic noodle. The mother told him to stop, but he didn’t. The father became angry, yelled at Tyler for disobeying his mother, and ordered him out of the pool. He refused to obey. The father finally jumped in, dragged him out, and, thinking to teach his son a lesson, sent him off to his room to think about what he had done. Tyler’s behavior, the parents explained to me, was completely intolerable and must not happen again. They had, however, heard me speak about the risks of using separation to bring a child into line and wanted to know what they could have done differently. Once the situation unraveled as it did, the parents probably needed to take a breather before proceeding. When in trouble, it is better to increase proximity rather than to decrease it. The will to connect must be in the parent before there is anything positive for the child to respond to. When the will to connect resurfaces in the parent, the first step is to restore the connection. Taking a walk together, going for a ride together, throwing a ball—the human connection must be intact before we are likely to get points across. In this case, what got the parents off on the wrong foot was what was missing at the beginning of their interaction. Tyler was completely engaged in what he was doing. In that mind-set, he was not orienting by his parents or tuned in to any desire to follow their bidding. Under such circumstances, reconnecting with the child is imperative before proceeding. Attempts to connect might have included, “Wow, Tyler, are you ever having fun.” With that, one would likely get a grin and a nod in agreement. Having the eyes, the smile, and the nod, the next direction from the parents would have been to bring the child near. “Tyler, I need to talk to you for a minute in private. Come here to the side.” Once the child is collected, the parent would be in a position of power and influence. He could provide some direction to calm things down and preserve the fun for all. Furthermore, the wear and the tear on Tyler’s attachments would have been prevented, a point that is of greater concern developmentally than teaching Tyler a lesson. Instead of using separation at the tail end, Tyler’s parents needed to use connection at the front end.

It’s not a complicated dance; in fact, it is surprisingly simple. The trick is the little attachment step at the beginning. The principle of connection before direction applies to almost anything, whether asking about homework, requesting help with setting the table, reminding the child about clothes to be hung up, informing that it is time to switch off the television, or confronting on some sibling interaction. If the basic relationship is good, this process should only take a few seconds. If the attachment is weak or defended against, the attempt to collect the child should reveal this to us. It is very difficult to impose order on the behavior of a child when there is underlying disorder in attachment. A failure to collect the child should be a reminder for us to back off a preoccupation with conduct and to focus our effort and attention on building the relationship.

When we first employ this practice of connection before direction, it may strike us as a little awkward and self-conscious. Once it becomes habit, however, the wear and tear on the relationship should decrease significantly. Parents who get good at this will often solicit the smile and the nod before placing their request or making their demand. The results can be astounding.

When Problems Occur, Work the Relationship, Not the Incident.

Focusing on the frustration instead of taking the attack personally will often help: “You’re upset with me,” “You’re really frustrated,” “This wasn’t working for you,” “You wanted me to say yes and I said no,” “You’re thinking of all the bad words you can call me,” “Those feelings have got away with you again.” It’s not the words that are critical, but the acknowledgment of the frustration that exists in the child and a tone of voice that indicates that what has just happened has not broken the union.

When Things Aren’t Working for the Child, Draw Out the Tears Instead of Trying to Teach a Lesson.

A child has much to learn: to share mommy, to make room for a sibling, to handle frustration and disappointment, to live with imperfection, to let go of demands, to forgo having to be the center of attention, to take a no. Remember, one of the root meanings of discipline is “to teach.” A large part of our job as parents is therefore to teach our children what they need to know. But how?

The agenda should not be to teach a lesson but to move frustration to sadness. The lesson will be learned spontaneously once this task is accomplished. We can say things like “It’s so hard when things don’t work,” “I know you really wanted this to happen,” “You were hoping I’d have a different answer,” “This isn’t what you expected,” “I wish things could have been different.” Again, much more important than our words is the child’s sense that we are with her, not against her. When the time is right, putting some sadness in our voice can prime the movement to tears and disappointment. It might take some practice to feel this point; to go too quickly or to be too wordy can backfire. This dance cannot be choreographed; the parent has to feel his way along. Here, too, we learn by trial and error.

Solicit Good Intentions Instead of Demanding Good Behavior.

Our objective, whenever possible, should be to solicit good intentions in the child. Success requires, once again, that the child should want to be good for us, to be open to being influenced by us. The first step, as always, must be to collect the child, to cultivate the connection that empowers us.

In soliciting a good intention, we are trying to draw attention not to our will but to the child’s. Instead of “I want you to …,” “You need to …,” “You have to …,” “I told you to …,” “You must …” elicit a declaration of intention or at least a nod affirming it: “Can I count on you to …?” “Are you willing to give it a try?” “Do you think you could?” “Are you ready to …?” “Do you think you can handle it now?” “Will you try to remember?” There are, of course, times when we need to impose our will. Necessary as that may be, it does not by itself lead to good intentions on the child’s part. And imposing our will is always counterproductive if done too coercively or outside a good connection. Soliciting good intentions is a safe and highly effective parenting practice. It transforms kids from the inside out. What cannot be accomplished through soliciting good intentions is not likely to be achieved by other means.

The parent needs to be as supportive and encouraging as possible: “I know this isn’t what you wanted to happen,” “It’s okay, you’ll get there,” “I’m glad you didn’t mean to, that’s important.”

 “Stop hitting,” “Don’t interrupt,” “Cut that out,” “Leave me alone,” “Stop acting like a baby,” “Don’t be so rude,” “Get ahold of yourself,” “Stop being so hyper,” “Don’t be silly, “ Stop bugging her,” “Don’t be so mean.” Trying to stop impulsive behavior is like standing in front of a freight train and commanding it to stop. When a child’s behavior is driven by instinct and emotion, there is little chance of imposing order through confrontation and barking commands.

There was a time in the history of psychology when the brain of the child was perceived to be a tabula rasa, a blank slate, free of internal forces compelling the child to act one way or another. Were that the case, a child’s behavior would be relatively easy to bring under control, either through direction or through consequences. Though many parents and educators still operate under this illusion, modern science has established a completely different perspective. Neuropsychologists who study the human brain are uncovering the instinctual roots of behavior. Many of a child’s responses are driven by instincts and emotions that arise spontaneously and automatically, not from conscious decisions. In most circumstances, children (and other immature human beings) are already under internal orders to behave in a certain way. The fearful child is following instinctual orders to avoid. The insecure child may be compelled to cling and hold on. Frustration often induces a child to demand or to cry or to attack. The shamed child is under orders to hide or conceal. The resistant child automatically counters the will of another. When a child is impulsive, impulses rule. There is order in this universe, just not the kind of order we would like to see. The brain is only doing its job in moving the child according to the emotions and instincts activated.

The key to self-control is not willpower, as we once thought, but mixed feelings. It is when conflicting impulses mix together that the orders cancel each other out, putting the child in the driver’s seat, as it were. A new order emerges where behavior is rooted in intention rather than impulse. Such behavior is much less driven and therefore much easier to work with. Our job is to help bring the conflicting feelings and thoughts that exist in the child into his consciousness.

In a child full of attacking feelings, for example, we want to draw into his consciousness the feelings, thoughts, and impulses that would conflict with attacking. This goal cannot be achieved by means of confrontation. Confrontation leads, at best, to an empty compliance or, on the other hand, to defensiveness. It does nothing to develop impulse control from within. The moderating elements could be feelings of affection, of caring, or of alarm. The child could feel a concern about hurting or anxiety about getting into trouble. If the child is driven by counterwill impulses, we would want to pull into awareness strong feelings of attachment, of wanting to please, of desire to measure up. The trick is to draw the mixed feelings into consciousness at the same time.

It is always wiser to remind the child first of the moderating impulses than the uncontrolled emotions that got him into trouble. Once the child is feeling friendly and affectionate we can recount the frustration that went before. “We are having such a good time together right now. I remember this morning when you weren’t too happy with me. In fact, you were so angry, you really let me have it.” We need to build some room for these mixed feelings. “Isn’t it funny the way we can get so mad at the ones we love.” Likewise with feelings of counterwill. “It seems right now that it is easy for you to do what I ask. A couple of hours ago, you felt I was bossing you around.”

Unless we have become numbed, we should all feel the impulses associated with shame, with insecurity, jealousy, possessive-ness, fear, frustration, guilt, counterwill, dread, and anger.

When Dealing with an Impulsive Child, Try Scripting the Desired Behavior Instead of Demanding Maturity.

Children who have trouble with self-control also lack the ability to recognize the impact of their behavior or to anticipate consequences. They are incapable of thinking twice before acting or of appreciating how their actions affect other people. They lack the capacity to consider anyone else’s point of view simultaneously with their own. These children are often judged to be insensitive, selfish, uncooperative, uncivilized, and even uncaring. To perceive them in such a way, however, is only to set ourselves up for becoming incensed at their conduct and for making demands they cannot possibly fulfill. Children limited to a one-dimensional awareness cannot execute even such simple demands as be good, don’t be rude, don’t interrupt, be nice, be fair, don’t be mean, be patient, don’t make a scene, try to get along—or myriad other orders we may bark at them. We cannot get our children to be more mature than they are, no matter how much we insist they “grow up.” Expecting them to do the impossible is frustrating and, worse, suggests that there is something wrong with them. Children cannot endure such a sense of shame without becoming defensive.

There is another way to deal with immature children: rather than demanding that they spontaneously exhibit mature behavior, we could script the desired behavior. Following our directions will not make the child more mature, but it will enable him to function in social situations that otherwise she is not yet developmentally ready for.

To script a child’s behavior is to provide the cues for what to do and how to do it. When children are not yet capable of getting along spontaneously, their actions need to be orchestrated or choreographed by someone the child is taking the cues from: “This is how you hold the baby,” “Let’s give Matthew a turn now,” “If there is a hug in you for grandma, this would be the time to give it,” “We pet the cat like this,” “It’s daddy’s turn to talk now,” “This is the time to use your quiet voice.”

Modeling the behavior you want the child to follow is even more effective. Like a director working with actors or a choreographer with dancers, the end result is created first in the adult’s mind.

Many kinds of behavior can be scripted: fairness, helping, sharing, cooperation, conversation, gentleness, consideration, getting along. Although getting children to act mature will not make them more mature, it will keep them out of trouble until the underlying impediments to maturation can be addressed and their maturity catches up.

When Unable to Change the Child, Try Changing the Child’s World.

“Who alone has good reason to lie his way out of reality?” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. “He who suffers from it.”

Structures need to be created for meals and for bedtimes, for separations and for reunions, for hygiene and for putting things away, for family interaction and closeness, for practice and for homework, for emergent, self-directed play and for creative solitude. Good structures do not draw attention to themselves or the underlying agenda, and they minimize bossing and coercion. Good structures are not only restrictions, they are creative. For example, a very important routine is to have a time and place to read to a child. The primary purpose of this structure is to create opportunity for one-on-one closeness and connection and also to get the child engaged in good literature without using coercion. The more a child is stuck, the more important structures are. Structures provide familiarity, something stuck kids instinctively yearn for. They create good habits. Most important, structures decrease the need for bossing and coercion on the part of adults, preventing needless conflict.

Preventing Peer Orientation

Chapter 17 – Don’t Court the Competition

At first glance peer-oriented children appear to be more independent, less clingy, more schoolable, more sociable and sophisticated. No wonder we are taken in, given our lack of awareness of the mechanisms involved and of the costs to follow in the long term. How, then, to avoid the trap?

With the high premium we in our society place on independence—our own and our children’s—peer orientation looks good. We forget that growing up takes time. In our postindustrial culture we are in too much of a hurry for everything. We probably would not be taken in by false impressions if we weren’t so impatient for our children to grow up.

These children are able to let go of us earlier only because they are holding on to each other. In the long term they are more likely to be stuck in psychological immaturity. They are much less likely to think for themselves, chart their own course, make their own decisions, find their own meanings, and be their own persons.

Peer-oriented kids go to school to be with their friends, not to learn. If these friends are also not into learning, academic performance will slip. When children go to school to be with one another, they are primed only to learn enough to not stand out, to remain with those their own age. Other than that, learning is irrelevant and can even be a liability to peer relationships. Anxiety also comes back to haunt peer-oriented learners. Because peer attachments are inherently insecure, anxiety often becomes a chronic condition. Peer-oriented kids are among the most agitated, perpetually restless, and chronically alarmed. When around groups of peer-oriented kids, one can almost sense the hyperness in the air. Numb to the vulnerable feelings of anxiety, peer-oriented children are left only with its physiological aspects: agitation and restlessness. Whether consciously felt or not, being alarmed incapacitates learning. Peer orientation may initially enhance performance but ultimately sabotages academic achievement. As a child’s attachment to his peers intensifies, the gap between his intelligence and achievement will grow. The very condition that usually creates the head start will ultimately trip these kids up.

Interestingly, home-schoolers are now the favored applicants of some big-name universities. According to Jon Reider, admissions official at Stanford University in California, they are desirable applicants because “homeschoolers bring certain skills—motivation, curiosity, the capacity to be responsible for their education—that high schools don’t induce very well.” In other words, preschooled kids may have the best head start, but home-schooled kids have the best finish, because in our educational system we have neglected the crucial role of attachment.

Preschool is not the primary problem and home school is not the ultimate answer. The key factor is the dynamic of attachment. Subjecting children to experiences that make a child dependent on peers does not work. We need to ground children’s experience of schooling in adult attachments.

We usually think of shyness as a negative quality, something we would want children to overcome. Yet developmentally, even this apparent handicap has a useful function. Shyness is an attachment force, designed to shut the child down socially, discouraging any interaction with those outside her nexus of safe connections.

The shy child is timid around people she is not attached to. It is only to be expected that adult-oriented children are often socially naive and awkward around their peers, at least in the earlier grades. Peer-oriented kids, by contrast, appear to be socially successful. This is their forte. They should know what is cool and what is not, what to wear and how to talk—they are applying most of their intelligence to reading from one another the cues on how to be and how to act.

When peers replace adults, shyness is reversed. The child becomes shy with adults but gregarious in the company of peers. We see the child around her peers coming out of her shell, finding her tongue, presenting herself more confidently. The change in personality is impressive, and we are apt to give credit to the peer interaction. Surely, we tell ourselves, such a highly desirable outcome could not emanate from something problematic! Yet true social integration and real social ability—caring about others and considering the feelings of people they do not know—will not, in the long term, be the attributes of the peer-oriented child.

The best way to deal with shyness is to promote warm relationships with the adults who care for and teach the child. With attachment in mind, it’s not shyness we ought to be so concerned about but the lack of shyness of many of today’s children.

According to recent statistics, the majority of working mothers in the United States return to work before the child’s first birthday.

The more time a child had spent in day care, the more likely she was to manifest aggression and disobedience, both at home and in kindergarten. As discussed in previous chapters, aggression and disobedience are the legacy of peer orientation.

Children don’t need to be at home but they most certainly need to feel at home with those who are responsible for them. 

The conviction is almost universal that children must be exposed to interaction with peers early so that they may learn to get along with one another and to fit in. Many parents seek playgroups for their toddlers. By the preschool age, arranging peer contacts for our children has often become an obsession. “Learning how to be a friend is more important than anything. It’s essential to learn this before school starts,” typifies the comments I have heard from many parents of preschoolers. “As parents, we need to force our children to socialize,” the father of a four-year-old asserted. “Without preschool our son wouldn’t be mixing with other kids enough to learn how to get along with people.” One early childhood educator informed me that “the whole basis of preschool is to help children learn social skills. If children don’t have friends by the time they enter kindergarten they will have all kinds of trouble later on, not only socially but with self-esteem and learning.” The less children are able to get along and fit in, the more likely it is that interaction with their peers is prescribed to fix the problem. Commonly in our society parents and teachers go out of their way to enable their children and students to socialize with one another. The belief is that socializing—children spending time with one another—begets socialization: the capacity for skillful and mature relating to other human beings. There is no evidence to support such an assumption, despite its popularity.

In actual fact, the more children spend time with one another, the less likely they are to get along and the less likely they are to fit into civil society. If we take the socialization assumption to the extreme—to orphanage children, street children, children involved in gangs—the flaw in thinking becomes obvious. If socializing were the key to socialization, gang members and street kids would be model citizens.

The kids who spend the most time with one another are the most likely to get into trouble.

Attachment and individuation are necessary for maturation, and maturation is necessary for genuine socialization. Social integration means much more than simply fitting in or getting along; true social integration requires not only a mixing with others but a mixing without losing one’s separateness or identity.

The child must first of all be able to hold on to herself when interacting with others and to perceive the others as separate beings. This is no easy task, even for adults.

By placing getting along at the top of the agenda for immature beings, we are really pushing them into patterns of compliance, imitation, and conformity. If the child’s attachment needs are strong and directed toward peers, she may diminish herself to make things work. She will lose her individuality.

“Children must have friends” is perhaps the most common argument I hear on behalf of placing young kids in peer situations. The very concept of friendship is meaningless when applied to immature people. As adults, we would not consider a person to be a true friend unless he treated us with consideration, acknowledged our boundaries, and respected us as individuals. A true friend supports our development and growth, regardless of how that would affect the relationship. This concept of friendship is based on a solid foundation of mutual respect and individuality. True friendship is not possible, therefore, until a certain level of maturity has been realized and a capacity for social integration has been achieved. Many children are not even remotely capable of such friendships. Until children are capable of true friendship, they really do not need friends, just attachments. And the only attachments a child needs are with family and those who share responsibility for the child. What a child really needs is to become capable of true friendship, a fruit of maturation that develops only in a viable relationship with a caring adult. Our time is more wisely spent cultivating relationships with the adults in our child’s life than obsessing about their relationships with one another.

When a person isn’t comfortable with his own company, he is more likely to seek the company of others—or to become attached to entertainment technology such as television or videogames. Peer-oriented relationships, like too much TV watching, interfere with developing a relationship with oneself. Until the child manifests the existence of a relationship with himself, he is not ready to develop genuine relationships with other kids. Much better for him to spend time interacting with nurturing adults or in creative play, on his own.

If parents have any control over the situation at all, a time of boredom is a time to rein in the child and to fill the attachment void with those whom the child truly needs to be attached to—ourselves.

The point is not that we ought to completely forbid peer interaction, but that we should have modest expectations: play time with other kids is fun, and that’s it.

The friendships we can welcome for our children are the ones that don’t draw them away from us—ideally, they will be with other children whose parents share our values and also recognize the importance of adult attachments. Such children are less likely to become our unwitting competitors. And we can be active here—we can encourage our children’s friends to have relationships with us.

And what type of play? I would discourage reliance on technology when it comes to play, because it preempts originality and creativity. But we don’t have to prescribe for our children how to play—children have always known how to play. We just have to make sure that their attachments to us are strong enough that their emergent, curious, motivated, imaginative selves are not shut down by peer orientation.

The more a child depends on accepting adults, the more room there is for uniqueness and individuality to unfold and the greater the insulation against the intolerance of peers. By throwing our children to their peers, we cause them to lose the protective shield of adult attachments. They become all the more vulnerable to the intolerance of their peers. The more detached from us they become, the more they have to fit in with their peers; thus the more desperate they are to avoid being different. While they may lose their “eccentricity” in this manner, what to us looks like welcome developmental progress derives, in fact, from crippling insecurity.

Today’s parents are gripped by a fear of their children being ostracized. Many parents find themselves buying the clothes, supporting the activities, and facilitating the interaction that is believed necessary to enable their children to win friends and hold on to them. Such approaches seem only right, but they only seem to be right.

We are facing, first of all, a superficial understanding of the very concept of self-esteem. The ultimate issue in self-esteem is not how good one feels about oneself, but the independence of self-evaluations from the judgments of others. The challenge in self-esteem is to value one’s existence when it’s not valued by others, to believe in oneself when doubted by others, to accept oneself when judged by others. Self-esteem that is worth anything at all is the fruit of maturity: one has to have a relationship with oneself, be capable of mixed feelings, believe something to be true despite conflicting feelings. In fact, the core of healthy self-esteem is a sense of viability as a separate person. We can almost see the pride well up in a child when he is able to figure out something by himself, to stand up for himself, know he can handle something on his own. The real issues of self-esteem, therefore, involve conclusions about the validity and value of one’s own existence. True self-esteem requires a psychological maturity that can only be incubated in warm, loving relationships with responsible adults.

Because peer-oriented children have difficulties growing up, they are far less likely to develop a sense of self-independence from the way others think of them. Their self-esteem will never become intrinsic, never rooted in a self-generated valuation. It will be conditional, contingent on the favor of others. Thus, it will be based on external and evanescent factors such as social achievement or looks or income. These are not measures of self-esteem. Genuine self-esteem does not say, I am worthwhile because I can do this, that, or the other. Rather, it proclaims, I am worthwhile whether or not I can do this, that, or the other.

If this view of self-esteem seems strange to some people, it’s only because we live in a culture that indoctrinates an idea of self-esteem based on how we look to others. We all want to keep up with the Joneses, we all long to show off our new car or trophy boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse, and we all experience a rush of heady pride when others acknowledge or envy our achievements. But are we really esteeming the self? No, what we are esteeming is what others think of us. Is that the kind of self-esteem we want our children to develop?

Our challenge is to use our influence with our children to break their dependence on popularity, appearance, grades, or achievement for the way they think and feel about themselves.

To clarify once more, the trouble is not in children playing with one another, but in being left to one another when their basic attachment needs have not been met by the adults in charge. 

Again, I’m not saying that some social play will, by itself, harm a child’s development, but it will not further it either. So, once more, it’s not that children shouldn’t spend time with one another, but we should not expect such play to meet their deepest needs. Only nurturing adults can do that. 

Chapter 18 – Re-create the Attachment Village

We truly feel “at home” only with those we are attached to.

We need to value our adult friends who exhibit an interest in our children and to find ways of fostering their relationships with them. We also need to put a high premium on creating customs and traditions that connect our children to extended family. Being related is not enough—genuine relationship is required. Unfortunately, many grandparents have also become too peer-oriented to assume their role in the attachment hierarchy. Many would rather be with their friends than their grandchildren, and in our mobile and fragmented society, many also live far away. If contact with our extended family is impossible or for some reason not in our child’s best interests, we need to cultivate relationships with adults who are willing to fill in.

Economically and culturally we have reached a different stage. But we do have to ensure that our kids form strong relationships with the adults we entrust to take our place.

For example, to the teacher we may find ourselves saying things like “You’ve made quite an impression on our daughter,” “We can tell our son really likes you and is eager not to disappoint you,” “Our son was asking about you when you were absent. He really missed you.” To our child, we may say things like “Your teacher had some nice things to say about you,” “He wouldn’t take such an interest in you if you weren’t important to him,” “Your teacher said he missed you and hoped you’d get better soon.” One can usually find something that can be interpreted in a positive way to prime a connection between one’s child and the adult responsible for her.

By the time Bria, our third daughter, arrived at this age, we were well practiced at this maneuver. When the inevitable request came along with the plea to make ourselves invisible, we took the initiative. Yes, of course she could have a party. No, of course we would not get lost. In fact, we would be very active hosts and put on a spread none of her friends could refuse. I decided to barbecue so I could ask each guest what they wanted and how they wanted it. Meanwhile, my unannounced agenda was to get into their face in a friendly way, make eye contact if possible, solicit a smile and a nod, get a name and try to remember it, and introduce myself as well. I enlisted Bria’s little brothers as servers. The message would be clear—relating to Bria meant relating to her family. She was a package deal.

Who is to raise our kids? The resounding answer, the only answer compatible with nature, is that we—the parents and other adults concerned with the care of children—must be their mentors, their guides, their nurtures, and their models. We need to hold on to our children until our work is done. We need to hold on not for selfish purposes but so they can venture forth, not to hold them back but so they can fulfill their developmental destinies. We need to hold on to them until they can hold on to themselves.

A Postscript for the Digital Age (How to Hold On to Kids in the Era of the Internet, Cell Phones, and Videogames)

19 – The Digital Revolution Bent Out of Shape

“According to a recent poll, 22% of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day, and more than half of adolescents log on to a social media site more than once a day. Seventy-five percent of teenagers now own cell phones, and 25% use them for social media, 54% use them for texting, and 24% use them for instant messaging.” The results, this prestigious publication concludes, are ominous: “Thus, a large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones.”

Add to the mix the disturbing statistics regarding Internet pornography, the existence of cyber bullying, and the predominance of gaming, and we see plenty of reasons to be concerned that young people between the ages of eight and eighteen spend an average of over ten hours a day engaged with technology of one form or another.

However, as with parenting in general, it is not a matter of specific practices or recommendations. We have emphasized throughout that parenting is not a set of skills and behaviors, but above all a relationship.

Business is not our highest priority, nor is learning, nor entertainment. What shapes our interaction more than any other factor is attachment, whether we interact in person, by mail, by phone, or through the Internet. The technology may be new, but the dynamics are as old as humankind.

It is unsurprising and in line with the perspective outlined in this book that the amazing technology originally designed for information has been pressed, instead, into the service of seeking connection. And by means of distraction and diversion, it has also come to act as a compensation for the frustrated attachment needs of our children. But compensating for a core issue can never resolve the difficulty; it can only make it worse. To those who are vulnerable, digital media is addictive. Our children use these means much less to learn than to form and maintain relationships, much less to solve problems than to escape from them.

Once we understand the need for togetherness, the basic human dilemma becomes clear: how to be close when apart. There are many aspects to this problem: how to feel connected to people from whom we are physically separated; how to experience a sensation of closeness when we are actually not feeling wanted; how to get a sense of significance; how to feel important when we do not seem to matter to those who matter to us.

We can “solve” the problem by recruiting dozens or hundreds of “friends” on Facebook who will “like” us, without any genuine intimacy. These scenarios are incredibly alluring as they give us the fleeting sensations we so desire. They are our modern-day sirens. They take us where we want to go with no hint of the risk involved, no inkling of what lies down that path. These attachment fixes can become more appealing than real life, and for many young people they have. It is far from rare, for example, to see young parents ignore their kids while engaged in texting and other digital communication.

Most peer-oriented children go to school to be with their friends, not to learn about their world.

I believe this was the force that bent the digital revolution into the shape we see now. Remember that attachment is the strongest force in the universe. The digital devices designed to serve school and business became repurposed to connect the peer-oriented with one another. The digital revolution has become, for all intents and purposes, a phenomenon of social connectivity.

The statistics speak for themselves. Internet use is now reported to be 100 percent among twelve-to twenty-four-year-olds, with 25 percent of the time spent interacting on social media. This is a significant amount of time when you consider, as we have noted, that the average eight-to eighteen-year-old spends ten hours and forty-five minutes a day using digital devices.

There is no genuine self-disclosure that would lead to us truly being known. Significance—being important to those we seek connection with—becomes all about making a favorable impression rather than about seeking a vulnerable invitation to exist in the other’s presence as we really are. As such, technology entices and rewards those with superficial attachments: the immature, the undeveloped, and the peer-oriented.

The whole purpose of attachment is to find release, to be able to rest from the urgent need to find attachment. Growth emanates from this place of rest. When rest can’t be found, development is arrested. If attachment activity doesn’t lead to fulfillment, it cannot forward maturation: the anxiety is too great, the vulnerability too unbearable. For emotional growth children need to stay vulnerable, and to be able to stay vulnerable, they need to feel secure.

The root of the problem is that digital intimacy doesn’t deliver. It is essentially empty of the elements required to bring it to fruition. Like a cookie that is devoid of the nurturing elements a body needs, it not only is empty food but spoils the appetite for the food the body does need.

The emptiness of digital intimacy is uniquely illustrated by one study comparing the physiological effects of live-voice connection versus texting on young girls and their mothers. The girls were stressed out by a test and then were invited to make contact with their mothers, either by voice or by texting. Only the former promoted a decrease in these girls’ stress hormones and generated comforting attachment hormones as well.

Facebook is all about presenting ourselves in the hope that those who matter to us will like what they see.

Feeling known is only possible in the context of an intensely personal relationship. We don’t feel known by displaying our insides in a book or in a lecture or even on YouTube.

The partner in psychological intimacy, like the partner in making love, must have the sense that he or she was specifically chosen and that the gift of our self was given specifically to him or her.

Presenting ourselves has meaning, for both recipient and giver, only if it is personally intended.

For this reason, many of us who value genuine psychological intimacy cannot participate in Facebook. I for one would never want to read the postings of my adult children or come to know about them in that way. I want to truly know them, not know about them—there is a world of difference. To know them involves volitional self-disclosure on their part, made personally to their father. I would want and expect nothing less. Anything else would leave both of us feeling empty.

For most children and youth, social media involves managing their image with the aim of making an impression and increasing their status among their peers.

We all want to be liked, of course. But the more we do to influence the verdict, the less fulfilling the verdict becomes. If we are successful in getting a good verdict, it is only what we did that was liked, or the impression we have created that is liked, not our true selves. So our insecurity grows—and with it our obsession with image management. It is an ever-escalating cycle. Why would we ever want to visit this neurosis on our children?

Despite its promise and allure, image management is a game for losers in every sense of the term. The very nature of the pursuit disqualifies the outcome.

Dr. Larry Rosen, past chair and professor of psychology at California State University–Dominguez Hills, has found in his research that there is a strong “link between Internet use, instant messaging, emailing, chatting, and depression among adolescents,” and also “strong relationships between video gaming and depression.”

Fulfillment is not about equality or reciprocation or about contact on demand. The interaction is incomplete and fruitless unless the hug is met with a bigger hug, the “I love you” is responded to by something more, the desire for validation trumped.

By promoting peer orientation and addictive pursuits, it displaces healthy adult connections and thus denies children their essential need for fulfilling human interactions. Mice whose reward circuits are continually electrically stimulated will die of starvation because they will not seek food. Stimulating our children’s brains with digital technology will similarly divert them from what will truly nourish them.

An Australian study found that Facebook users felt significantly less close to their family. The study did not answer the question of what came first, but it does indicate the competing nature of connection.

Most of us can feel that the screens are taking our children away from us. We don’t need research to tell us this. What we do need to know is that through their screens they cannot receive what they truly need. We are still their best bet.

Those with a greater frequency of online interactions were the loneliest of all. Those with a greater proportion of face-to-face interaction were the least lonely.

Digital intimacy can be more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol.

Videogames may seem to be an innocent pursuit, but precisely because they provide a pseudo-satisfaction for unmet attachment needs, they can be extraordinarily addictive.

Being important, feeling like we matter, having a self-image of genuine mastery can only develop in nurturing relationships with people who care about us. They are the outcomes of healthy attachments. When these needs are not met, as they are not for peer-oriented children, we can compensate through fantasy and pretending. Unlike creative fantasy or, say, books, games are highly immersive with immediate rewards and a real addictive pull. We can become “masters of our fate” and “winners” in a virtual reality, which also becomes the place where we can act out some of our pent-up aggression, again a result of unsatisfied attachment drives.

20 – A Matter of Timing

Take sex, for example. Sex is good, but not for children. It is an ultimate bonding experience that releases superglue chemicals in the brain, coupling us for procreation and the parenting responsibilities that come after. It is not to be played around with, especially by children. We need to control sexual activity until there is some developmental readiness.

We want children to be fulfilled with what they truly need before they have access to that which would spoil their appetite for what they truly need.

For sex, the timing is certainly not before the capacity for relationship has fully developed, not before an exclusive relationship has formed in which emotional and psychological intimacy is experienced, and not before the capacity to make and keep commitments has developed. Premature sexual interaction, like premature access to cookies, spoils the appetite for the real thing: deep committed love. For alcohol, the right time is not before we have developed the courage to face our fears and not before we have accepted and can keep the rituals that regulate the intake. Alcohol reduces feelings of vulnerability and can easily be abused by using it for this purpose. The temptation would be overwhelming unless we have first come to embrace reality with its bumps and bruises, have come to accept feelings of emptiness and loss. The problem with alcohol used prematurely is that it spoils the appetite for reality.

Most parents assume that children need connection to their peers, need to be entertained to escape boredom, and need immediate access to information. A full 10 percent of the parents interviewed were concerned that their children were not on the Internet enough. They were afraid their children would be left behind. Today’s parents are more willing to entrust their children to a digitalized society than to the developmental design of nature. Having lost our buffer role and now acting as agents of society, we are more likely to put temptation in our children’s way. What would happen if we put the cookies all over the counter and took the alcohol out of the cupboard and removed the restrictions regarding sexual contact? Yet we put TVs in their bedrooms and cell phones in their pockets and give them unlimited access to personal digital devices.

Parents are all too worried that their children will be misfits if they are not plugged in. We should be far more concerned with helping our children realize their potential as human beings.

We return to the necessity of having rituals and routines and activities where we can collect their eyes, their smiles, and their nods, for no other purpose than to fill them up and help inoculate them against the attachment addictions that are plaguing their friends. They need this dose of fulfilling connection in the morning before leaving for school. They need this after school when they get home. They need this at family meals and special family times. They need this before going to bed. Our job is to get across our invitation to them to exist in our presence so that there is no need to look for it elsewhere. The best immunization against using digital devices for social connection is a well-satiated child.

Nature, we will recall, already has answers for how to preserve closeness when apart. As pointed out earlier, these are: being liked by, belonging to, being on the same side as, being dear to, mattering to, being attached at the heart to, and, finally, feeling known by.

It is best to start early with this if you can. As with watching television, which for my own children was limited to half an hour a day, so should we be building in the structures and rituals to keep digital access under control.

Mealtimes, family times, evenings, and bedtimes are the most important to keep free of digital activities, both to create the space to provide the connection our children really need and to slow down the obsession.

Despite arguments that videogames can lead to improvements in specific cognitive-motor skills, there is no evidence that these isolated improvements are unique to videogames or would not happen anyway as a result of normal development. More significantly, there is absolutely no evidence of increased brainpower, brain maturation, or psychological maturation. There are, however, plenty of concerns regarding the physiological side effects and developmental liabilities of spending time in front of screens. New evidence is coming in almost monthly of the adverse effects on such things as sleep cycles, eyesight development, physical development, and so on.

Children fail to pursue proximity with their family when playing videogames; worse, the activity itself spoils the desire for family connection.

One important function of games is to help children develop resilience when facing the experiences of losing, loss, and lack. Life is full of setbacks, and games give children a chance to adapt to such experiences one step removed. Whether it is losing in a game of cards, losing in a word game, losing in a soccer match, or losing in bowling, it is all preparation for dealing with loss and lack in life and in relationships. To train for the inevitable losses and defeats that life will bring our way—to adapt—we have to experience and accept the sadness of the loss and the futility of wishing it hadn’t occurred. Today’s videogames are remarkably lacking in this regard. The encounter with futility is never long enough to be felt and thus cannot prime the requisite adaptation and resilience. Instead, the child is on to the next round, the next level, the next challenge. Gaming is primarily a tearless activity and thus of little use in preparing a child for the game of life. There is no losing that cannot be overcome, no failure that cannot be undone—hence no learning, no adaptation.

In true play, the fun is in the activity, not in the end result. True play is for play’s sake, not for winning or scoring. Some videogames count, but not many. Myst, which immerses the participant in an enchanted quest without seeking to defeat someone else, is probably a good example of a videogame that would count as true play.

Given the impact of videogames, the best time for this activity is after a child has had the kind of play that is good for him or her. As far as games and play are concerned, videogames should never be the main course. If it is, the child is in trouble. The less a child is driven to play videogames, the less concern we need to have about his or her mental balance and development.

The only way our brains can process information in the first place is by tuning out 95 to 98 percent of the sensory input. The human problem is not that we don’t have enough information, but rather that we have much more information than we can possibly make use of.

Our attentional mechanisms, especially when immature, are simply not built to handle this amount of information overload. Such overload is well known to cause concentration problems, memory problems, retrieval problems, and distraction problems. Attentional systems cannot develop properly while dealing with a constant onslaught of incoming information. Studies show that we need downtime, time away from stimulation, to integrate the information we receive. Constant exposure to media diminishes rather than enhances our capacity to absorb information.

Ironically, when we can’t process and utilize information, it is not more information we need but less.

To provide information about sexuality prematurely is to harm their development.

Neil Postman argues that childhood itself is endangered when adults no longer have any secrets from children.

“If parents wish to preserve childhood for their own children, they must conceive of parenting as an act of rebellion against culture.” Once again, parents must become the buffer to society, not the agent of society. The more we can play that buffer role regarding our children’s access to information, the better. But even if we can’t, all is not lost.

What our children most need to be informed about is not their world but themselves. They need to see their value and significance reflected in our eyes, affirmed through our voice, and expressed through our gestures. Google cannot provide that. What they need most, and what the Internet cannot give them, is information regarding their invitation to exist in our presence. That is why we must hold on to our children.

There are other ways we can compensate for the fact that we are losing our role as the provider of information. In times past, this role was a primary source of dependence. We need to find other arenas in which we can invite our children to depend on us. Many of us have skills and hobbies that our children could benefit from. Part of the alpha-dependent dance is to pass on these activities. Too many of us are outsourcing the teaching of these skills to others: riding a bicycle, flying a kite, woodworking, knitting, swimming, throwing a ball. We send our children to community centers, day camps, and summer camps to learn these skills. We should rather be possessive of these opportunities to invite our children to depend on us. Far more important than the skills that need mastering is the relationship that develops through such interactions. Given that we no longer are the natural providers of information and the keepers of secrets, we can ill afford to lose much more.

Our challenge, more than ever, is to hold on to our children. If we can hold on to them, we can make them immune to the dark side of the digital revolution. We must give them a chance to mature so that they can become the masters of these new tools, not their slaves.

*attachment – In scientific terms, an attachment refers to the drive or relationship characterized by the pursuit and preservation of proximity. Proximity is Latin for “nearness.” In its broadest definition, human attachment includes the movement toward nearness of every kind: physical, emotional, and psychological.

Tereza
Maminka. Přítelkyně. Lékařka. Ráda kreslím, píšu a směju se. Nejvíc sama sobě.

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