Should We Rethink the Idea of Friendships for Our Kids?
Insights on the book, Hold Onto Your Kids, Peer Orientation, & Our Children's Attachment Needs
When my son was around two years old, we joined a weekly playgroup that my neighbor started. The kids ranged in age from babies in arms to five years old. Each week I showed up eager to make “mom” friends and to offer my son opportunities to socialize with other children. I, like many parents, believed that children needed to be around other children and that we were doing right by them to set aside specific time for our kids to play together.
However, I noticed quite a few things.
While my son did play, he mostly played with me. If he ventured towards the sand and water table it was not because other children were there, it is because he wanted to play with the sand and water. Actually, there were times when he waited for the other children to be done so he could have it all to himself.
He loved to play with balls, but he did not go up to another child who had a ball and try to join in. Instead, he waited until the child abandoned the ball and then went to get it or asked me to.
As the playdates went on, it grew increasingly clear that I was not taking him to those outings for him, but for me. I was in need of time with other adults and I was the one thinking he needed the socializing. Even though, at age two, he was talking in complete sentences and expressing himself well. He was funny, playful, loving, and curious. He had an amazing memory and recognized our neighbors in the grocery store and would call out “hello” to them, much to their delight. All this despite not being in the presence of children his age regularly.
So why could I not see he was doing just fine without this weekly playdate? Where did the idea that immature children actually need to be around other immature children for “socialization”?
An Inconvenient Truth
A few years after those playdates, I got my hands on the book, Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Dr. Gordon Neufeld and Dr. Gabor Maté. They got me really thinking about peers, friendships, and whether or not we have misunderstood the role of children in our own children’s lives. Truth be told, I had to put it down after a little while because their message felt so dramatic and dire that I wasn’t sure it was going to offer me any guidance of helpful insights. Instead, it caused me worry.
I was a vulnerable, new mom and I didn’t need to add more stress to my already worried mind. Their caution about “courting the competition” (other children) and perspective that “parenthood is being undermined” made me feel like I had to be extra vigilant about who my son played with. I mean, I was thoughtful about this already, but their words made me wonder if I had already invited the Trojan Horse into the front door. Was I losing my 5 year old son to peer orientation because he looked forward to playing with our neighbor’s children on the weekends? Was I courting the competition by setting up gatherings and going to activities with other children? Is it possible I had not done enough to secure my attachment with him which is why he was excited about being with other children?
While these questions almost seem silly to me now, they were not silly to me then. However, I eventually finished the book and eventually started recommending it to other parents. It’s actually one of the books on my list of favorite books because, despite the worry it caused me at first, they hit on some of the fundamental issues we are facing as parents and families, which are:
*the erosion of our extended communities,
*the widespread failure of “experts” to understand the role of secure attachment with parents, and
*the normalization of peer orientation through compulsory schooling and daycare.
After close to 15 years, I recently started rereading it for several reasons:
I find conversations around peer relationships and peer orientation to be lacking in the overall discussions on raising healthy children.
Attachment theory is being recognized by a much broader audience than it was a few decades ago and I think people are curious to know more.
Post pandemic, I think more people understand that something is terribly wrong with how we have gone about raising our kids and I sense that the urge to find or build nurturing communities is stronger than ever.
In this essay, I will share some of the ideas the authors present while adding my own commentary. Keep in mind that they wrote this book as a response to what they were witnessing with their own children as well as in a professional capacity. The premise of their work is that our children have become increasingly oriented to their peers instead of nurturing, present adults and based on my 50 years on Earth, I tend to agree with that assessment.
“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. It is the thesis of this book that 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.” (pg. 7)
The authors do provide caution about the word “disorder” and ask us not to think of it as another medical diagnosis, but more as “a disruption to the natural order of things”. They go onto say:
“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.” (pg. 7)
For reference, the book was originally released in 2004. An updated version came out in 2013 and a study guide was released in 2021. I’ll be quoting from the 2004 version.
While some may recognize the importance of attachment when our children are babies, many fail to see how attachment is a thread that must be sewn into each season of our children’s lives.
Healthy attachment to caregivers is a critical element for building a strong emotional and mental foundation. It has also been linked to increased self-awareness, autonomy, and a deep knowing that they belong somewhere, which to me, is paramount to human flourishing.
Why Parents Matter
In an essay I wrote a while back, I likened the parent-child relationship to dance partners. The structure of that relationship requires one to take the lead, especially in the beginning. And in the case of our children, it is the parent’s responsibility to take the lead. Not in a dictatorial sense, but in more of a mentor/guide one.
Furthermore, it is not our children who must work to receive our attention and affection. It is us who must work to be sure our children know they belong, are seen and heard, and do not seek to give their attention and affection to other children who are not cognitively capable nor emotionally able to provide them with the complex support and love they truly require.
What’s important to understand and an interesting insight from their work is that humans cannot be oriented to two competing forces at once. Our brains pick:
“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.” (pg. 8)
Because most everyone reading this has been unwittingly influenced by peer culture and misled to believe that kids need other kids at a young age in order to develop into sociable and healthy members of society, I believe we have all contributed to and participated in a mental health crisis—the dissolution of the healthy family unit in favor of societal norms and pop culture that centers peers instead of parents.
“Our failure to foresee the ill effects is understandable, since the early fruits are appealing and enticing. 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 the costs to follow in the long term.” (pg. 235)
While this all may sound dire, we can do something about the culture we find ourselves in and we do not need to be afraid of our children’s peers. I think it helps to be aware of the allure and influence of peer culture and peer orientation, and the downstream effects of children being oriented early to their peers instead of emotionally healthy parents.
We can consciously cultivate an environment that welcomes our children’s peers in while maintaining a healthy partnership with and attachment to our own children. In order to do that, we need to understand the developmental needs of our kids and get a better sense of what friendship is really all about.
Are Early Childhood Friendships Necessary?
Have we thought about friendships incorrectly all along? Is it more accurate to say that children like to have playmates, but don’t need friends? Here’s what the authors have to say about friendship:
“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.” (pg. 244)
It’s easy to see how children can not fulfill the role of “true friend” as the authors describe. Many instances come to mind from my own childhood as well as situations that my children experienced with other kids that prove the author’s point.
Can you recall times when you or your own children had difficulties relating to or being with other kids?
When young children disagree or face challenges with one another, they don’t have the experience or emotional awareness to sort through the complexities of feelings and perspectives. They are egocentric and built to protect themselves, which is by design. What they require is guidance, support, and nervous system regulation from adults who understand, care, and are patient.
Yet, how often have you heard adults tell children who come to them with peer issues to “figure it out”? They simply can not. We don’t ask our children to shop for groceries, manage our budget, or drive us places because we know their brains are not developed enough for those complex tasks. So why then, do we expect them to have a robust understanding of interpersonal relationship skills?
“Until children are capable of true friendship, they really do not need friends, just attachments.” (pg. 244)
“Until children become capable of independent self-appraisal, our duty is to give them such powerful affirmation that they will not be driven to look elsewhere. Such affirmations go much deeper than positive phrases of love and praise—they must emanate from our very being and penetrate to the child’s core, allowing her to know that she is loved, welcomed, enjoyed, celebrated for her very existence, regardless of whatever “good” or “bad” she may be presenting us with in any given moment.” (pg. 251)
According to the authors, our time as parents would be best served by “not courting the competition”, i.e. turning our children over to other children for entertainment and as a way to seek a break from parenting, but instead spend our time “cultivating relationships with the adults in our child’s life”.
It is far more important for children to know themselves, to emerge as aware of their inner world, to be comfortable and confident in themselves, and to reach maturation than it is for them to socialize with other children under the false belief that they need it for their own growth and development.
The evidence is pretty clear that peer orientation is a creation of our modern society not a continuation of the natural order of things.
Attachment First and Foremost
Parents are needed for an extended period of time, especially in our modern yet fractured culture. We may be fooled into believing that we are better off these days because of our access to more resources, more people, and more information. But, from a psychological lens, we are really struggling because of the disruption to strong communities and family bonds. Our children do not need more friends or peer groups, they need an extended community of healthy, stable, dependable, and nurturing adults.
“Only recently have the psychological attachment patterns of children been well charted and understood. Absolutely clear is that children were meant to revolve around their parents and other adults responsible for them, just as the planets revolve around the sun. And yet more and more children are now orbiting around each other.” (pg. 19)
Why is attachment to a parent or parents important? Because it gives our children a home base. It is how they orient themselves in the world. If we do not provide them with foundational relationships that nurture them and provide those basic psychological human needs of being seen, heard, and needed which creates belonging, they will seek them elsewhere.
Peers can and will fill any belonging void we create. Not because peers are conniving or trying to usurp parents, but because children are placed into institutions at younger and younger ages with one another. And many children are searching to fill their own attachment needs and belonging voids. Attachment to parents, however, is the buffer our children need. It is the emotional life preserver that buoys them in the sea of peer culture.
Here’s how the authors describe it:
“Attachment is the womb of maturation. Just as the biological womb gives birth to a separate being in the physical sense, attachment gives birth to a separate being in the psychological sense.” (pg. 116)
At this point you may be wondering if the authors are now going to suggest you move to a cave and hide your children away from other kids. That’s kinda what I thought they were getting at when I first read this book. Ha! Sure, their caution can be intense, especially if this is your first time hearing their message; and they make a strong case for literally holding onto your kids, but they do live in reality. They understand that babies turn into toddlers who turn into preschoolers and young kids who eventually want to be around other children. And that’s not wrong, bad, or to be avoided.
Children are not Trojan Horses. They are not regularly plotting to turn your own kids against you. Many young kids simply find each other entertaining, funny, and fun. It is the enjoyment of similar activities and the similarities in energy that can draw kids together. It’s as if their minds say, “Hey! There’s another one of me!” And Peter Gray makes a great case for why children need to play with other children in his book, Free to Learn. (Another favorite!)
It is important to understand that there is a significant difference between playmates and being turned over to other children for many hours a day and week in the absence of nurturing, present, and loving caregivers. Immature children need help regulating their emotions. Parents and caregivers provide mature insights that can help them navigate their feelings and situations. And this is the main issue with peer oriented children: they do not receive the loving guidance and support they need to develop their independence, to differentiate from another, or to mature.
Children are not meant to raise and care for the psychological development of other children. Period.
Looking at the Past to Create a New Future
We used to live in villages and tight-knit communities of 200-250 people. Everyone had a role, a purpose, and could contribute in meaningful ways to the good of the community. People knew each other and cared deeply for the health and well-being of one another. Children were looked after by multiple caring adults.
Challenges and disagreements were faced head on. When people were suffering or in pain, the wagons were circled and support was poured into them. I remember reading about how one indigenous tribe would place a struggling member into the middle of a tribal circle and members would take turns speaking beautiful words about the person and tell stories of the wonderful things this person had done. The goal was to overwhelm him with positive love and light. To connect and remind him of his importance. It was restorative versus punitive.
The power of the village, in a sense, was not in the physical resources they had or the status of individual members, but in the absolute cohesiveness of attachments to one another. A deep sense of belonging was the glue.
I do not share this to romanticize “the way things used to be”. It’s not like our earlier ancestors or indigenous tribes across the globe had it easy or that they were psychologically healthy and supportive of one another in every way. However, learning about evolutionary biology, our innate desire for community and belonging can help us merge the best of the past with the best parts of our modern society.
Since most of us in our western culture are not born into large families who maintain regular contact with extended family members, it is rare to feel a deep sense of belonging inside a larger group of people who we know has our back. I think it is why people continue to get tribal and get crazy attached to sports’ teams or party affiliation or immutable characteristics. It’s why some youth can get swept up in unconscious activism or gangs. Everyone wants to feel they matter. Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone needs to belong somewhere.
And if our children do not feel this within their own family unit, they will seek it. So, what can a concerned, caring parent do?
“Attachment villages can be created, if we posses the vision and the drive. Like attachment itself, village building must become a conscious activity. We have no reason to pine over what no longer exists, but every reason to restore what is missing.” (pg. 255)
To create an extended village, the authors suggest we “develop a supporting cast”, “matchmake with those responsible”, and “defuse the competition”. I walk through these ideas below.
Develop a Supporting Cast
We can be intentional about the adults and people we let into our lives. Some things to consider and to ask yourself are:
Who is influencing my children?
Who offers support, grace, love, and guidance?
Am I confident the adults in my circle understand how important and vital they are to our family?
Do my children feel this adult is a natural surrogate to us? Do they understand they can go to them with questions, concerns, support, and insights?
Do my children witness me engaging with these adults in positive and respectful ways?
“Every parent needs a supporting cast, and the less one exists naturally, the more it needs to be cultivated by design.” (pg. 256)
Matchmake with Those Responsible
“If we lived in a world in harmony with developmental design, parents and teachers would first establish friendly connections with each other, and then parents would assume their rightful role in making that introduction.” (Pg. 259)
We do not spend the time necessary to cultivate relationships. The open house at the beginning of the school year is no replacement for genuine connection with the adults we are turning our children over to. In our rush to work, to school, or to some other event, we assume that our children will just allow adults to care for them.
We assume this incorrectly.
Why do you think substitute teachers tend to have such a terrible time when they show up to a classroom full of kids they have never met? Could it be related to the fact that the kids do not have an established relationship with this new adult and there is no trust or respect developed?
“Matchmaking” is a necessary component of relationship development. As the authors say:
“We often matchmake quite instinctively to foster warm connections between siblings or, say, between our children and their grandparents. We need to employ this instinctive attachment dance in creating an attachment village.” (Pg. 258)
Here are some matchmaking considerations.
Create working relationships. If your child has an interest or a skill where they can volunteer or work, determine how you can matchmake a situation where they can be guided and supported by caring adult mentors.
Pay attention to who your kids naturally like. If you notice that your child likes one of your friends or a neighbor, take notice. What is it about that person that your child likes? What characteristics of that adult, draws them in? Do they show patience? Do they listen to your child and take their ideas into consideration? How can you matchmake an extended community relationship with that person?
Host dinners and activities with extended caregivers and their families. Invite them into your home and into your family life. Play games together and make time for everyone to interact. Don’t segregate by age. Keep this in mind when hosting or when visiting other families, too.
Establish community relationships. For instance, with the librarian, server at your favorite restaurant, or barber/hair stylist. When our children interact with community members regularly, they develop a sense of being a part of a larger community. In addition, they get to witness adults who are in roles that are directly impacting your children’s lives. This creates belonging.
Defuse the Competition
“Once children are sufficiently peer-oriented, they would often prefer to pretend that we don’t even exist. Our only hope to counter this is to insist on making ourselves present-in a friendly way, of course. “ (pg. 261)
If our children are embarrassed by our presence or think we should disappear when their friends come over, we need to do some investigating. Are we being too much with their friends? Do we think we are being fun-loving and friendly, but are actually embarrassing or harassing our child in some way? Are we holding on too tightly and creating anxious attachment vibes instead of confident, trusting ones?
We may also need to consider the influence of peers on our children. Are there certain friends who do try to pull your child away from the family? Are there instances when friends talk negatively about you as a parent or pick on or harass your child for being into family time? If so, don’t brush this off. The truth is, there are children who have not experienced connected families and find it odd when kids actually like their parents. Address your concerns with your child, but also get curious. Ask her what she enjoys about that particular peer. Maybe find out what characteristics she admires. And especially ask her if she has any concerns and/or feels as if this peer is not acting in good faith. This can provide a great opportunity for you and your child to get clear on your family values, what their personal needs are, and how they can communicate effectively.
Peers are not going anywhere. Your children will play with, engage with, observe, learn from, and interact with other children from the time they are born until they leave your home. Our children do not need to avoid peers to maintain healthy attachments with us. They can be both confidently attached to us and enjoy the many ways peer relationships can add to their lives. We just need to be intentional, aware, and active participants in the process of community building while caring for the emotional and physical needs of our children. We don’t need to be helicopter parents, we need to be respectful and engaging ones.
I did not spend much time discussing how children can positively impact one another, but I trust you understand this from your own firsthand experiences. My kids have enjoyed and maintained long-term connections with children we have known since they were babies and the benefits of being known by someone outside of your own family unit your whole life is truly powerful.
While the relationship we have with ourselves is foundational and is built through secure attachments in the early years, relating to and being in relationship with others is also a necessary part of a joyful human experience. We do need each other, but healthy relationships and communities do not “just happen”. They take intention and work and they are worth it.
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