Excerpt from Hold On To Your Kids, by Dr. Gordon Neufeld
Today’s parents love their children as much as parents ever have, but something has gone awry. To our dismay, our love seems not to be getting through. Try as we might, we sense we are unable to bridge the gap that inexorably seems to be opening up between adults and children. We feel that our capacity to guide our children’s development has slipped through our fingers. They live and act as if seduced away from us by some siren song we do not hear. We fear, if only vaguely, that the world has become less safe for them and that we are powerless to protect them.
We struggle to live up to our image of what parenting ought to be like. Not achieving the results we want, we plead with our children, we cajole, bribe, reward or punish. We hear ourselves address them in tones that seem harsh even to us and foreign to our true nature. We sense ourselves grow cold in moments of crisis, precisely when we would wish to summon our unconditional love. We feel hurt as parents, and rejected. We blame — ourselves for failing at the parenting task, or our children for being recalcitrant, or television for distracting them or the school system for not being strict enough. When our impotence becomes unbearable we reach for simplistic, authoritarian formulas consistent with the do-it-yourself/quick-fix ethos of our era.
The question of parental influence would not be of great moment if things were going well with our young. They are not — and many of us feel that instinctively, even if we cannot explain exactly how and why. Our children do not seem to listen to us, to be as ready to learn from us as previous generations were to learn from their elders, to embrace our traditions and culture as their own. Even that would be acceptable if we felt that they were truly self-sufficient, self-directed and grounded in themselves, if they had a positive sense of who they are and if they possessed a clear sense of direction and purpose in life.
We see that for so many children and young adults those qualities are lacking. In homes, in schools, in community after community developing young human beings have lost their moorings. Many lack self-control and are increasingly prone to alienation, drug use, violence and a general aimlessness. They are less teachable and more difficult to manage than their counterparts of even a few decades ago. Many have lost their ability to adapt, to learn from negative experience, and to mature.
The crisis of the young has manifested itself ominously in the increasing problem of bullying in the schools and, at its most extreme, in the callous murder of children by children, whether in British Columbia or New York, Quebec or Colorado.
The psychologist Carl Jung wisely pointed out that when a disease has many proposed cures, it is only because none of them works. It is the same with parenting today. The bewildering array of books and courses on how to parent are sure testimony that we have lost touch with something previous generations took for granted: the instinctual human ability to nurture and raise children.
It is the thesis of this book that the insidious disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents now heading towards adulthood is rooted in the lost orientation of children towards the nurturing adults in their lives. For the first time in history young human beings are turning 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. Our children are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from us. Information and influence no longer flow vertically, from one generation to the next, as nature would have it, but horizontally within the young generation. The result is that children are being brought up by immature individuals who cannot possibly guide them towards maturity. They are being brought up by each other.
Some thoughts on parenthood and parenting
When something is amiss, it is only natural to become preoccupied with “what to do.” For today’s parents, this has become an obsession. We are looking for the right technique, the right strategy, the right thing to say, the right way to act. Experts and publishers are not only indulging this obsession, but fueling it outright. We have even invented a word — parenting — that until recent times, was not even in the dictionary. Parenting has become an activity. This was not how it was in previous generations.
Having considered the dynamic of attachment and made distinct the problem of peer orientation, I am absolutely convinced we have been barking up the wrong tree. The problem lies not with our parenting but with our parenthood. By parenthood I mean our office, in the way the ancient Romans used the word — a special duty, charge or position conferred upon a person. For the Romans, this special work was conferred upon them by their government. For us as parents, this special service is something that can be conferred only by attachment — the attachment of a child. We are charged with the duty of being a parent and equipped for parental service by Nature and Nature alone.
In this sense, parenthood is not something that giving birth can confer upon a parent. Neither is parenthood something that money can buy, parenting courses can prepare for or governments can decree. Other than attachment, no power in heaven or on earth can bestow the office of parenthood. When Nature thrusts parenthood upon us, we are both charged with a duty and enabled for service.
Every parent needs to be inducted into the office of parenthood. Because historically this has happened automatically and spontaneously we have been able to take attachment largely for granted. When the process is not spontaneous, for whatever reason, we need to become conscious of attachment. It is now becoming more and more difficult to hold on to this sacred office. The more culture disintegrates, losing the attachment wisdom embedded in its traditions and customs, the more we need to become personally conscious of attachment.
The most important thing to remember about parenting is that it must flow from our parenthood… Parenting was never meant to stand alone, as an activity in itself, that could be focused on, talked about, trained for, prescribed by experts and scripted by advice-givers. Parenting outside of parenthood is an aberration that, unfortunately, cultural decline has imposed upon us. Unless we get to the root of the problem, we are likely to become trapped in a futile battle against the symptoms.
Fortunately, the child’s attachment not only charges us with the duty of caring for the child but also furnishes us with ability to carry out the task. Nature entrusts us with a child and, at the same time, invests us with the wherewithal to bring the child to maturity as a viable, separate human being. Attachment makes all this possible.
The word “invest,” before it was hijacked for financial purposes, meant to clothe or to adorn. In a time when clothes signified a person’s office, to be clothed was to be furnished for office. To parent, we need to be invested with our child’s attachment to us. We need to be dignified by the respect that comes instinctively to well-attached children and empowered by the authority granted us by our child’s dependence upon us. We need to have the attributes of comforter, compass point, cue-giver, home-base, and shield against stress. In short, we need to be covered by our child’s attachment.
What comes to mind is the children’s tale about the emperor who unwittingly paraded naked before his subjects. The emperor, if you remember, was taken in by so-called experts. Likewise, we as parents and teachers, supported by advisors who instruct us on how to parent and how to teach, are parading in front of our children and students without being properly adorned by their attachments.
We are thus stripped of any aura of authority, denuded of honour and respect, divested of influence and effectiveness, disabled as nurturers and comforters. We were never meant to be so naked before our charges. Outside of attachment, we as parents and teachers are just ordinary human beings to children, of no special significance, not deserving of deference, and without any natural authority.
It makes no difference what our station in life may be, how important we may be to others, what our status may be in adult society. To work with children, we need to be adorned by their attachment to us. To be an emperor and yet not be clothed with the requisite dignity and honour would be humiliating but disempowering. To be a parent or teacher and without natural authority and power is equally debilitating and demoralizing. Being charged with the most important responsibility on earth without being clothed in the vestments of office is an aberration of both nature and culture.
The problem today is that parenthood is no longer lasting as long as childhood. Childhood is a function of immaturity and parenthood is a function of a child’s attachments. The duration of childhood is increasing in our society while the duration of parenthood is rapidly decreasing. Unlike sainthood or knighthood, there is no security or tenure in our parenthood. It only lasts as long as the child is actively attaching to us.
This is where peer orientation comes in: when attachments are skewed, we lose our parenthood. For parenthood to fade before the end of childhood is disastrous for both parent and child. When we become stripped of our parenthood, our children often lose their childhood as well.
We need to hold on to our children and help them hold on to us. We need to hold on to them until our work is done. We need to hold on, not to hold them back but so that they can venture forth. We need to hold on not for selfish purposes, but so that they can fulfill their developmental destinies. We need to hold on to them until they can hold on to themselves.