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Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter

by Gabor Maté and Gordon Neufeld

In Hold On to Your Kids, Vancouver doctor and writer Gabor Maté and developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld detail Neufeld’s theory of peer orientation. Using examples from his own life and from the children and families he’s worked with during almost 30 years, Neufeld explains why so many parents are losing their grip on the lives of their children.

According to Neufeld, it is not so much that parents are parenting differently as it is that they no longer have the knowledge (or the time) to connect with their
children. We all need someone to look up to – children more than adults. It is through such orientation that we learn what is acceptable behaviour, how to act, and what to do in social situations. In the past, children took their social cues from the adults around them: parents, grandparents, teachers. Children were, in Neufeld’s words, adult-oriented.

In an attachment void (when there is no clear attachment between adult and child), children turn to their peers to meet that need. Hence the rising number of children who are peer-oriented, rather than adult oriented. We encourage our children to work in groups, to be together through the day. Class sizes are larger, with fewer adults available. Parents work longer hours, usually out of the home, if it even is a two-parent family.

With clarity and supportive examples, Neufeld explains that we are doing a grave disservice to our children by allowing them to orient to one another rather than to adults. Socialization, he says, places third in a child’s development, after connecting and maturing.

In part one, Neufeld and Maté explore the basic theory of peer orientation, outlining six ways of attaching and how children meet each need with the adults in their lives. These are needs we all have, including feelings of belonging, being known, and being physically touched. In contemporary society there are fewer adults, with their greater wisdom and experience, able to attach to children and help them navigate the ups and downs of growing up. Neufeld attributes many of the behaviour problems we see today to a reliance on peer orientation.

While this material is crucial, and the theory sound and compelling, it suffers in its presentation. Neufeld’s theories are well supported and clearly illustrated, but the material lacks the vitality of his seminars. Maté and Neufeld’s conclusions about peer orientation are often dry and repetitive. A tone of personal familiarity, rather than clinical reserve, would have helped make the book more accessible.

The presentation improves later in the book. In the second part, the authors narrow their focus to specific types of problems (aggression, bullying, immaturity), and then broaden the scope with examples and explanations. The reader is given hints and insights into the lives of children today. Parents may see their own child within an example, or the child they fear their own may become.

The last section deals directly with parental concerns. Here Maté and Neufeld instruct readers how to hold on to their
children, pull them in and keep them, and become the child’s compass point while still providing boundaries and discipline. With simple ideas and steps, this book is directed not only to parents, but to all those – educators, social workers, counsellors – whose lives and work bring them into contact with children.