Hang On To Your Kids:
Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Their Peers

by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté, Vintage Canada, 2005, 296 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

In this landmark book, a psychologist and a physician join forces to help contemporary parents understand why their children’s peers are increasingly replacing them as primary life-shapers. They argue that in the natural order of things children need attachments with adults more than they need each other. With the breakdown of natural “attachment villages” in which children took their cues largely from adults, children have begun to look to each other to fill the attachment void they now experience. This, argue the authors, has sabotaged the power of parents to parent.

Of course they recognize that it is natural for children to relate to children, but such relationships, they say, should always remain secondary to relationships with caring adults who are capable of providing unconditional love and life direction. The authors note that children’s behavior is determined almost entirely by their attachments. That is why current trends focusing on “behavior modification” while overlooking attachment questions have largely failed to produce maturing children. The writers insist that parents must look beyond symptoms like counterwill, so obvious in peer-oriented children. Focusing on attachment issues will be more fruitful than confronting such problems directly.

The authors argue that peer orientation among children stunts healthy development, leaving them stuck in immaturity. Their need to fit in forces them to shut down emotionally since their peers can not handle vulnerability. Thus the ability to experience a variety of perceptions, senses, thoughts, feelings and impulses at the same time – a prerequisite for natural emergence as an individual – is put on hold. Often this leads to aggression among peer-oriented children, creating the escalating problem of bullying in the youth culture of our day. It fuels the drive among children to seek to fill their natural attachment needs through harmful sexual behavior at increasingly early ages. And it creates unteachable students in our educational systems because of a preoccupation with maintaining tenuous peer attachments.

Having discussed the presence and danger of peer-orientation, the authors then turn in the latter half of the book to suggesting ways we can hold on to our kids – or when necessary – to reclaim them. They provide many helpful suggestions for how we can “collect” our children, preserve the ties that empower parenting, and discipline them without endangering our attachments to them. They strongly recommend avoiding methods that push children away from us. Perhaps parents got away with such techniques in the past, they say, because they did not have to fear the competition for attachments which confront parents of today.

Sometimes, the authors admit, young peer-oriented children appear to be more socially integrated and independent than those with attachments to adults. But they note that the very conditions that usually create such a head start will ultimately trip up these kids as the force of peer-orientation begins to do its dark work of separating them from parental attachments. The authors suggest that if we wish to prevent our children from falling prey to the negative effects of peer-orientation, or if we want to reclaim them for natural attachments with us, we should think in terms of developing attachment villages. Such “villages” emerge when children are surrounded by many adults who are available to enter their lives in responsible ways to form life-giving attachments.

I was profoundly moved by this book. For me it provided insights into the changing face of childhood in our culture and offered helpful suggestions for making parenting and working with children in general more successful in our time. The authors challenge much of the child-development literature available today, but their findings appear to be based on sound research. I suspect this book will become a best seller as we become increasingly concerned about hanging on to our kids in a world that is tearing them away from us prematurely.