Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Reiew: Hold On To Your Kids

Probably my all-time favorite parenting book is Hold On To Your Kids:   Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers.   I am just rereading it now -- studying Poetic Knowledge kept bringing it to my mind, and Reviving Ophelia described vividly the same peer-orientation behavior that you see described in Hold On To Your Kids.   I like the way the authors write, and find their insight almost always convincing. 

I wrote about this book several times on my old blog:

What distinguishes their book from other parenting manuals is that as it says, it does not simply offer a list of strategies.  The authors say that thinking of parenting as a set of skills or strategies is one of the things that got us into trouble in the first place.  Learning skills means becoming a student of "experts".   In the past, people were born as parents at the same time as their children were born, and the difference between those two dynamics is significant.  Plus, they often learned from what was around them --  their societies and extended families supported them and often provided perspective and some relief from the grueling 24/7 of vigilance and care.   This is the sort of thing that is not so common anymore and we find we can't count on the media or the classroom environment to support our efforts. 

In the past, almost any kind of parenting "worked".  Sure, once in a while a child turned out bad and there were certainly harsh or neglectful parents, but the landscape of parent/child relationships looked very different than the way they look today.    A lot of books talk about how parenting was better in the old days and try to teach us to act more like our grandparents did -- or sometimes, about how the kids of earlier days were repressed and punished into surface compliance, so we should do the opposite of our grandparents in order to raise free, balanced children.

Neufeld and Mate would say that the difference was in attachment and orientation.  In the old days most children were more or less adult-oriented.    Even if their parents were missing or substandard -- you think of Tom Sawyer being raised by his spinster aunt and Huck Finn's alcoholic, mean dad -- society tended to step in quickly and fill the void.   Nowadays, and relatively uniquely, an "attachment void" created by missing, ill, or emotionally unavailable parents is often quickly filled by a peer or peer group.

The authors say that attachment is a biological event and unavoidable.  You know the study about the orphaned monkey that clings to the wire "mother" that has been covered with soft hair, even if the milk is available from the unupholstered wire "mother".   We attach naturally and then become "oriented" to the figure of attachment  -- this makes us teachable, which allows us to meet our potential as learners.  If the attachment figure is a mature adult, we are acculturated to grow towards adult maturity -- not all at once, but over time.

We are designed to be adapable.   If our primary attachment figure goes away or is somehow unavailable, we experience a "void" which feels unendurable, so we look for a replacement.   This is probably why studies on resilient children show that those who find a secure person to attach to, outside of a dysfunctional family, like a teacher or grandparent, often fare way better than the children from troubled homes who don't manage to build a relationship with a stable person.

If a child fills the attachment void with peers, it is dangerous because very often, peers actively hinder maturation.  They feel threatened by vulnerability, curiosity, and other things that help us build towards maturity.  So peer groups have a leveling effect --  keeping peer-oriented children frozen in immaturity.

The solution, when a child is pulling away and becoming hostile and resistant to parental authority, is not to "crack down" or "teach the kid who's in charge" or alternately, shrug the shoulders and figure it's a stage or that it's too late to do much.   The solution is to fight to win your child back from the competition, to win back attachment.

Even if your child is not peer-attached, it's important to think this way.  In the old days, parents could get away with harsh severity because everything in the culture supported their parental rights.   It might not have been best for the child, but it didn't create a toxic peer situation.   Nowadays, though, severity and harshness and lack of understanding and neglect can provide the fuel for a toxic situation.

The most important thing the authors say is to think in terms of "connecting" with your kid when you are disciplining.  They believe that discipline is crucially important but it can't take place in a non-attached situation.   People don't listen to or learn from those who seem opposed to their interests.  They may obey if frightened enough, but they won't learn to value what the parents value.   They'll disobey sneakily and when they feel powerful enough, they will defy openly.

The book uses a word "collecting" to refer to the act of retaining or regaining attachment to one's child.   For example, you can "collect" your child in the morning when he is first waking up by a gentle cuddling time, if that's the kind of child you have.  When I had nursing babies obviously that was a perfect and natural way to "collect" them in the morning.   Aidan wants to get going in the morning, not cuddle, so I have an opportunity to "collect" him when we make breakfast together in the kitchen when everyone else is still asleep.

There are many other ways to "collect".  If the child is already being drawn off course by a peer group, sometimes you might have to take them away from their group -- say, on a family vacation.   One of the authors of the book had two daughters who went through some very peer-oriented stages in their lives.  By taking them away from the environment (one girl loved to hike so the dad would take her on hiking trips) they were able to restore connection.

Connection is bound up with influence.  In other words, people will be influenced by those to whom they are oriented, and orientation is caused by having one's needs for emotional closeness met in some way..  In particular this is true of immature people or children.   They can't get true emotional nourishment from relationships with other immature people, but they will look there if they don't have any place else to look.    This is exactly what St John Bosco says in his letter about how to reach troubled boys from the streets (who were probably peer-dependent, come to think of it) .   He noted that when the teachers stayed detached, the boys started trying to get away with things and keeping their true nature hidden ("defended") but when the teachers got involved in their games and shared himself with them their hearts turned towards the teachers.

I can see where this might seem mushy and somewhat humbling to some more choleric parents, who might think the kid should do what is right and that the parent's job is to make sure he does it.   Though that is the ultimate goal, doing right things for their own sake is the behavior of high maturity, which many adults never reach.    By "collecting" the child and connecting with him (Ross Campbell calls it "filling the emotional tanks") you make it easier rather than harder for the child to act well.  

There is a lot more I could say.  Most parenting books make me slightly itchy.   Either they are choleric "Make sure that kid does the right thing or else!" or they are way too soapy,  declaring that children will do right if they are treated respectfully.    Both of these approaches will work tolerably if the child is attached to the parents and adult-oriented, but both will fall flat if there are obstacles to the child's attachment.   Hold On To Your Kids is a book that acknowledges and explains the dynamic underneath the parenting strategies or style.   In real life you see great kids who are raised by parents across the temperamental spectrum and parenting style.   You also see floundering kids who have parents who are great people, and you wonder "What could they have done that is so wrong?   Why does their kid seem so resistant to the fact that his parents are simply wonderful human beings?"

I believe the authors are totally correct in looking at attachment first before the exterior behavior signs, both for the problem and the solution.   I don't agree with every single suggestion they make and I think it could be argued that they over-extend the attachment idea to every single parenting issue but I do think that when a kid seems on a completely different wavelength and is resisting normal parental input that it's a good habit to step up on the attachment behavior while working on the discipline issue. 

Just a quick note:  It is not always the parents' fault if the child has become detached from parental influence.   Sometimes one child is more easily attracted to peer dynamics than the other children in the family; sometimes there was a high-stress family event like death or illness that caused an attachment void; sometimes, as in the case of St Therese of Lisieux's family, there is someone actively trying to detach a child from parental influence -- Therese's sister Leonie became deeply influenced by a servant in the home during the years while her mother was ill with cancer and preoccupied with a lacemaking business.    So it's not that the parents are blameable for things out of their control.   Rather, understanding attachment can help you re-collect your child and bring him back == as in the Martin family, once the servant was gone, Leonie changed back and eventually joined a convent as her sisters had done.  

Finally, I think the ideas in this book very well complement Dr Conrad Baars' teachings on emotional problems -- he worked with troubled adults and saw that often healing came not from psychiatric strategies but rather from interpersonal commitment -- attachment, more or less, allowing the patient to "impress" on the psychiatrist and remediate missed maturity steps.    And if also fits in with the Poetic Knowledge ideas of learning being closely related to love and admiration and desire to draw close.


  1. Thank you for this, Willa. Normally, I shy away from books written by so-called 'experts', but this does make sense.

    Do you find that there are writers who seem to get mileage out of telling mothers what their inadequacies are and, then, offering their expert solution? Maybe, I'm just too comfortable with mediocrity!:D

    This attachment view seems worth reflecting on, though. I'm really interested in trying the collecting idea:)

  2. I second Vicky's comment. I liked what you described about attachment and the collecting idea. And because as you say it fits in all the parent's personality spectrum.
    Like her, I got tired of books that either made me feel bad, or said what I know with a bit of 'expert' tone, and still stayed on the strategies or scenarios mode. I think it's more like planning, achieving a state of mind, working each situation with a frame of mind, with principles, and feeling good about our own personalities. I many times have wanted to change myself, or my girls, but that's not the right step to take.
    And this book seems to be away from the dichotomy stern parenting like in the old times, where you let the child know you are in charge, and the other tendency that, excuse me, it has something eerie and I can't say what it is, the one of respecting, acknowledging, that if you do the 'right' things the child will never need correction, will always be great, that in my eyes, makes children demi gods. (Maybe I'm more choleric, but it doesn't mean I just think disciplining is snapping at them and making them obey by fear). I also found out I do collecting rituals, and attachment sounded so familiar. Starting with nursing, and cuddling, and doing things with them and talking about how to be and our things not only at the heat of the moment.

  3. Hi Vicky,

    Yes I do notice that, and the book brings it up -- that "parenting books" started getting popular after World War II, right along with some other changes that made it more difficult for parents and children to form attachment bonds. So "experts" started providing strategies and attitudes for parents and parents seemed more vulnerable to accept the advice, because they felt more lost and confused than they had in the past.

    Silvia, yes, I agree about the two extremes. I don't think discipline is just yelling, but the funny thing is I've seen parents do "good yelling" -- where it's part of a real relationship. And I've seen parents who hardly ever yell and have respectful children. So I can only think that if the basic relationship is healthy, you have a lot of freedom to parent without learning a bunch of so-called "skills" but if the relationship is ugly, hardly anything seems to work.

    Great comments, thank you.

    I should have added that the book has some grim things about real life kids who are totally falling through the cracks, so it can be hard reading in the What We Are Homeschooling to Avoid type genre.

  4. That sounds very interesting. I also avoid most parenting books because I'm insecure enough as it is, thank you, but one that explains and doesn't lecture sounds great.

    Off topic, a friend who teaches public school told us that for the past several years, her school has dropped all music and art in favour of drilling for pre-set tests in math and English. This makes my wavering desire to homeschool much, much stronger.

  5. Hi Lissla,

    It's probably a good idea to avoid parenting books! Sometimes the authors start having conversations inside your head which can be sort of hard to deal with at the same time as dealing with your children ;-).

    I read somewhere that lots of schools are eliminating recess too, as well as music and art. Sad because I think math and English skills come from the things set up around them, not from endless drills and quizzes.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!