Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gordon Neufeld had studied and practiced as a clinical psychologist for many years, but his children gave him a wake-up call he describes in his book “Hold On to Your Kids,” co-authored with Dr. Gabor Mate.

“I realized I had lost the hearts of my two oldest daughters to their peers,” Mr. Neufeld says in a recent interview. “There was a strain in our relationship causing resistance and opposition to us, and it hit home.”

The authors found that many of the profound problems youths are experiencing are caused by peer orientation. Children are becoming emotionally attached to their peer group rather than to their parents, seeking the nurturing and identification that should come from the family system from this inappropriate source.

Peer orientation creates not only an inordinate dependence on friends, but also an extreme fear of rejection by them. Loyalty to peers creates a detachment and hostility to the family, evidenced by aggressive and destructive behavior.

Children with this peer orientation are cut off from their parents and avoid meaningful communication. They are swayed easily by the slightest ripple in the world of their peers. Decisions of serious consequence are made based on their hunger for belonging or gaining respect from peers. Loss of a friendship or a bad rumor can spur sexual experimentation, bullying, substance abuse, violence, poor learning, self-destructive choices and even suicide.

This phenomenon explains why schools are failing. “Attachment is the single most important factor in learning,” Mr. Neufeld says.

“We learn from those we are attached to, who we seek to learn from, to please and to measure up to. When the attachment is to the parent, maturation happens naturally. The emergent child is curious, adaptive and able to express conflicting emotions, and learn as a result.”

In contrast, he says, peer orientation handicaps learning because the child’s needs cannot be met; therefore, he or she has an attachment hunger that “suffocates interest and curiosity, makes the child flee from vulnerability and look for cues from the peers, not from within themselves.”

Bereft of curiosity, empathy or a sense of innate value, the child gets stuck in a cycle of narcissism and immaturity.

Home-schooling, Mr. Neufeld says, “is the antidote to society’s desperate need to right what has happened. It preserves right relationships and soft hearts. It fosters the proper adult orientation because to learn, the child has to be attached to those who are teaching. Home-schooling is the parachute that can protect against what has gone wrong.”

In contrast to the peer-oriented child, who is “numbing out, tuning out and fleeing vulnerability,” Mr. Neufeld says, “the home-schooled child is attached to the parent and feels more, sees more, and their eyes are open and able to water when they are sad. Their emotional health is palpable, so they are more mature, more socially responsible, more naturally curious and interested.”

To counter peer orientation, parents must resist the temptation to deal with behaviors and focus on establishing a relationship. “We are the child’s best bet, and we must win back their hearts,” he says. “We need to make a concerted effort to be the source of contact and closeness and assume responsibility to nurture them and fulfill their need for closeness, connection and belonging.”

Being in the same location, sharing common experiences, honoring their value, and generally “collecting the moments of eye contact, smiles, nods and touch” are what will gradually rebuild the natural attachment, he says.

Preventing peer attachment is better, of course, with parents making family the first priority and arranging work, education and social choices to support family relationships. Home-schooling helps because it fosters attachment through physical closeness, similarity of interest, sense of belonging and loyalty, giving a significant context, sharing feelings and being known and understood by each other.

When parents and children are connected appropriately, balance is created with the rest of the child’s world and experiences. He or she has a way to process information, evaluate choices and interpret events — providing a navigational system to check one’s course and make corrections throughout the journey to adulthood.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.

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