A consciousness of attachment

“There’s a power in words. There’s a power in being able to explain and describe and articulate what you know and feel and believe about the world, and about yourself.” Tracy Chapman












Today I am going to refer to a book I’ve been reading for quite a while now. I usually get through books within a week or two, unless I am looking for particular information in several books at the same time or doing a lot of drawing, which takes up time. Anyway, I have found this book valuable, not only for parents and caregivers of children, but for everyone, as it can help us discern relational dynamics and patterns of our own adolescence and childhood, which often become the templates for our later relationships that impact the quality of our lives. And as Mother’s Day is approaching the book seems more relevant.  The book I am referring to is Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté. They write: “It is not a lack of love or of parenting know-how but the erosion of the attachment context that makes our parenting ineffective.……  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. ……. 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.”

Part of the book is dedicated to the relevantly recent phenomenon of peer orientation. Neufeld and Mate define orientation as the drive to get one’s bearings and become acquainted with one’s surroundings. They claim that the need for orientation is a fundamental human instinct and need and that attachment and orientation are intertwined. Humans and other creatures automatically orient themselves by seeking cues from those to whom they are attached to. Children, like the young of any warm-blooded species, have an innate orienting instinct, which means they find their bearings by turning toward a source of authority, contact, and warmth and they need to get their sense of direction from somebody. In some sense, this orienting instinct of humans is much like the imprinting instinct of a duckling.

In their book it is supported that peer orientation has come about as a result of specific sociocultural and economic trends in society over the past 5 or 6 decades that have essentially displaced the parent from his intended position as the orienting influence on the child, which has allowed the peer group to move into this orienting void, with deplorable results. Neufeld and Mate explain how children cannot be oriented to both adults and other children simultaneously because the child cannot follow two sets of conflicting directions at the same time. They write: “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.” They demonstrate how in adult-oriented cultures, where the guiding principles and values are those of the more mature generations,  children still attach to each other without losing their bearings or rejecting the guidance of their parents. However, in our contemporary societies, especially, in the West, peer bonds have more and more come to replace relationships with adults as children’s primary sources of orientation. They note that peer orientation is still foreign to indigenous societies and even in many places in the Western world outside the “globalized” urban centers and that throughout human evolution and until WWII, adult orientation was the norm in human development. They suggest that what is unnatural is not peer contact, but that children should have become the dominant influence on one another’s development, and although this may have come to be viewed as normal it is not necessarily “natural” or “healthy.” Far from being qualified to orient anyone else, children are not even capable of self-orienting in any realistic sense of that word.

They discuss how culture, until recently, was always handed down vertically, from generation to generation and they cite research and Joseph Campbell who wrote that for millennia “the youth have been educated and the aged rendered wise.” Nowadays, instead of culture being passed down vertically, it is being transmitted horizontally within the younger generation, but the existence of a youth culture, separate and distinct from that of adults, dates back only fifty years or so, and in each new generation this potentially corrosive to civilized society process, gains new power and velocity. They cite studies, which includes one conducted by leading scholars from sixteen countries that linked the escalation of antisocial behavior to the breakdown of the vertical transmission of mainstream culture. They claim that for many children peers have replaced parents in creating the core of their personalities, but what is of concern is that what is absolutely missing in peer relationships are “unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other, the willingness to sacrifice for the growth and development of the other.” As a result the more important peers are in a child’s life the more the child can be devastated by the insensitive relating of their peers, by failing to fit in, by perceived rejection and even ostracization.

Fitting in with the immature expectations of the peer group is not how the young grow to be independent, self-respecting adults. Thus, they say by weakening the natural lines of attachment and responsibility, peer orientation undermines healthy development. They add that peer-oriented children have superficial attachments and that their intense need for difference from their parents is not to be confused with the child’s quest for individuality because what looks like independence is really just dependence transferred. Embedded in our inborn brain apparatus there are archetypal positions that divide roughly into dominant and dependent, care giving and care-seeking, the one who provides and the one who receives, and that peer orientation results in the flattening of the natural parent-child hierarchy. This power of attachment among peers can foster abuse as children may come to tolerate the violation they experience at the hands of their peers.

The book also emphasizes the importance of our becoming informed and conscious of attachment nowadays because economics and culture  no longer provide the context for the natural attachment of children to their nurturing adults. They write that “from the point of view of attachment we may truly say that as a society we are living in historically unprecedented times…..and….. social, economic, and cultural bases for healthy child-parent attachments have become eroded.” They deem it important that we find our way back to natural parenting that best serves healthy child development, and a consciousness of attachment is probably the most important knowledge a parent could possess. They go into the neuroscience and explain that the “attachment brain,” is where our unconscious emotions and instincts reside and even though we share this part of our brain with many other creatures, we humans alone have the capacity to become conscious of the attachment process.

As a result of socioeconomic changes and other factors children are more frequently placed early, sometimes soon after birth, in situations where they spend much of the day in one another’s company, where most of their contact is with other children and not with the significant adults in their lives, and thus, spend much less time bonding with parents and adults. Neufeld and Mate claim that if we are to share the task of raising our children with others, we need to build the context for it by creating what they call a village of attachment— a set of nurturing adult relationships to replace what has been lost. They refer to the attachment void that has been created by the loss of the extended family and ask the questions: Where is the adult attachment safety net should parents become inaccessible? Where are the adult mentors to help guide our adolescents?

They expand on why and how the natural attachments of children to their parents are actively discouraged in contemporary societies. Gordon Neufeld describes, for instance,  how as a family physician Gabor Mate “often found himself in the ludicrous position of having to write letters to employers justifying on “health” grounds a woman’s decision to stay home an extra few months following her baby’s birth so that she could breast-feed— an essential physiological need of the infant, but also a potent natural attachment function in all mammalian species, especially in human beings. It is for economic reasons that parenting does not get the respect it should.” On a similar note,  in her book, Own Your Self , Kelly  Brogan writes “One example is how we treat babies in our culture, ignoring how they are designed, expectant of and singularly oriented toward human skin-to-skin contact. In indigenous living, and throughout ancestral time, babies are held from the moment they are born until they can crawl (six to eight months) and are not left without human contact for one minute. It certainly is not a life begun in a sterile, quiet bed, alone in a nursery. Immediate skin-to-skin contact is so embedded in the evolutionary mother-newborn dyad that in the absence of this imprinting (in a hospital birth where the baby is whisked off for cleaning and testing), a mother’s physiology begins to prepare for the grief of a stillborn, potentially contributing to anything from poor milk supply to a diagnosis of postpartum depression.”

Finally, in the last part of the book the two authors discuss ways  to heal and restore.  Very briefly, they suggest our becoming conscious of attachment and the importance of relationship, creating traditions that connect our children to extended family, including our children when socializing and not separating them, participating in village like activities like cultural, sports and other events with our children, knowing who our children’s friends are and connecting with them. Also, parents need a support team and if it does not exist naturally due to sociocultural shifts or other reasons, they need to cultivate one by design.

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