Skip to comments.'That's what it's come to . . . We see children who are adult oriented as being aberrant'
Posted on 01/31/2004 3:47:29 PM PST by mark_interrupted
By ALANNA MITCHELL Saturday, January 31, 2004 - Page F1
The two boys are wearing identical outfits -- baggy, chemically faded jeans, oversized winter coats and immaculate white runners, laces untied and tongues jutting up over the cuffs of their pants.
The two girls have a more revealing uniform: ultra-skinny jeans and puffy coats that skim the waist, one in brilliant white with a belt at the bottom and the other in tan.
They've claimed a sweet vantage point in the mall, right at the entrance to the Famous Players theatre. It's a game of "see and be seen," of scanning the packs of passers-by, checking out the swagger and identifying the various tribes here in the natural element of the mysterious, modern teen.
Few adults appear. When they do, they're in pairs, determined to make their movies on time. They glance almost furtively at the four teens monopolizing the corner of the entrance and at the throngs of other teens descending on the mall on a bustling Friday evening.
From a distance, the kids seem fresh and full of potential. They can't be anything like the ones who have spawned the parent-freaking headlines of the past few years: suicide, gangs, early sex, pregnancy, alienation, Littleton, Taber, Reena Virk and other random acts of violence from coast to coast.
Or can they? Let's try talking to them.
White coat bolts straight away, without making eye contact, and flees in horror to the embrace of the rest of her pack several metres away. Tan jacket stands her ground with the boys, a hostile look on her face. So what is it with teens today, they're asked.
Delivered by one of the boys, the brush-off is immediate and absolute. "We're kind of busy," he says, with a hard look on his face. Then he turns his back.
When Gordon Neufeld hears this story a few days later, he laughs. An experienced clinical psychologist in Vancouver, he recognizes the symptoms all too well. This is a sign of what he calls "peer-orientation" or "peer-attachment disorder," which he contends is a modern blight responsible for today's dangerous teen landscape and getting worse all the time.
According to Dr. Neufeld, teens who are peer-oriented dress alike and reject contact with adults. Their obsession with their friends and acquaintances supplants any real interest in adults to the point that they are emotionally detached even from their parents.
In fact, they despise grownups and often shun them. They have no stake in pleasing them any more because their emotional compass has switched from their parents to their friends. They're almost impossible to nurture or teach. And they certainly feel no obligation to explain themselves to an adult in a shopping mall.
"I'm convinced that peer-attachment disorder is the greatest disorder of our times," Dr. Neufeld says, adding that the problems of 90 to 95 per cent of the patients he sees are rooted in a skewed attachment.
In effect, he says, children are bringing up other children, and that's a recipe for dystopia straight out of Lord of the Flies. It's the death of parenthood.
This is the hypothesis that Dr. Neufeld and co-author Gabor Maté, a family physician and therapist in Vancouver, outline in their new book, Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Matter, published today in Canada and to appear next year in the United States.
Already the topic of controversy in the medical community, Hold On is a product of a billion-dollar industry devoted to counselling troubled parents striving to figure out what, if anything, is really wrong with their kids. One school of thought holds that it was ever thus -- causing parental angst is almost a childhood rite of passage.
But the thesis of these two specialists is anything but reassuring. They contend that the current generation of parents has pretty much lost its authority over children, either through negligence or indulgence, leaving them in an emotional void. To fill that void, kids bond with people their own age and wind up "peer-oriented."
This theory has its roots deep in the brain's biological survival instincts. Infants attach themselves to the grownups who take care of them and the grownups, in turn, attach to the children. As a result, babies will "make strange" with other adults. They want their parent and no one else.
But as the child grows older, reaching the age of 8 or 9, some parents withdraw their attachment, thinking they are acting for the best, and push children to be independent. Faced with an unbearable and unnatural attachment vacuum, the authors argue, such lost children will cling instead to whomever else is around. The brain, programmed to attach, goes for what's there, even if it's someone unsuitable.
This process has gained increasing momentum ever since the Second World War, as families have become more mobile and been allowed to break up more easily, and mothers have gone back to work and technology has advanced. Children have become attached to their peers and then been given little incentive to beak that bond. In effect, they've begun to make strange with their own parents.
As a result, parents lose the power to direct their children -- even if, as the Supreme Court of Canada ruled yesterday, they have a right to get physical with the younger ones. If kids don't care what their parents think, why do what they want?
What follows, according to Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Maté, is the death of curiosity, of maturation, of proper development with an aberrant society rising in its place.
Dr. Neufeld, who has pieced together this theory over 20 years of clinical practice and research, likens the situation to what could happen to a mother goose and her goslings. In the past, it didn't really matter if one or two of the youngsters wanted to follow other goslings because, as a group, they still traipsed behind the mother. But today, things are so topsy-turvy that she's now chasing the goslings, begging for a piece of the action.
At least she realizes that something has gone wrong. Today's parents, Dr. Neufeld says, grew up with a similar attraction to their peers, remain that way and so are often blind to what's going on. They think kids should be with other kids and work hard to make sure they are.
A couple approached him for help recently, upset that their 13-year-old son wanted to be with them all the time. "That's what it's come to," he says, sighing. "We see children who are adult-oriented as being aberrant."
Dr. Maté puts it another way: Even when the generations get together, they're not.
Think of the last party you went to -- it's unlikely that kids were invited. Even if they were, chances are they simply had a party of their own, gathering around the television set and ignoring any grownup bold enough to draw near.
Back at the Scarborough Town Centre, evening is becoming night. More adults have shown up, but they are still vastly outnumbered in the promenades, music stores and Old Navy by the tribes of teens.
The kids roam around in tightly defined groups of five or six, warily eyeing each other. They are concentrated most densely at the food court now, the girls sipping on diet pop, boys munching on fries. Almost every one of them brandishes a cellphone, evidence of the technological bubble in which they exist. Many keep checking the phones for coded text messages, some of which, to judge from the hilarity and waving, are from friends a few metres away.
Three girls sit primly at a round table, feasting on McDonald's food and so less likely to bolt if approached. They look identical, right down to the silhouette, the colours, the long hair, the heavy eye liner and thick makeup. One has just put down her cellphone to launch into a tirade about her boyfriend.
Perhaps they would like to offer their views on today's teens?
One responds with a withering look. "It's not a good time right now," she says dismissively. The girl just off the phone doesn't miss a beat, as though grownups are invisible. "That speech I just gave," she tells her friends, gesturing to her cell, "he didn't hear a word. He hung up on me."
To the authors of Hold On, that kids can behave this way illustrates abject failure for parenthood. But to U.S. researcher Judith Rich Harris, parenthood never had a chance -- it's been next to irrelevant all along.
Ms. Harris is the author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, a 1998 book whose subtitle says it all: Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.
She contends that adults have no lasting effects on the personality, intelligence or mental health of their children, apart from providing the raw genetic material. In other words, it's game over at birth. All the hugs, music lessons, bedtime reading, homework homilies and walks through the park make no real difference in the long run.
The very best thing parents can do? According to Ms. Harris, it's make sure that your kids look good, because their peers will notice and that's what really matters.
Published around the world, the book was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and the 1995 research paper that first outlined her views won an award from the American Psychological Association. She has eminent defenders in the academic world (as well as many detractors) and her intention was to relieve parents of guilt. If the kids don't turn out, it's not your fault, she told them. It's either because of their genes or their friends.
But to Dr. Neufeld and Dr. Maté, this kind of advice is badly mistaken. Peers may well have lots of influence, but they shouldn't, they say. Instead, children's compass point must be their parents.
And parents, far from giving up, must do everything they can to hold on. They need to establish the hierarchy of the family and of the generations and "embed" children in it. They need to glory in their children's dependence on them, at least until the children are mature enough to go off on their own. Friends are fine. It's just that they can't be the be-all and end-all.
The duo recognize the irony in their theory. It's a U-turn from the prevailing attitudes on how to raise children. Advice from the reigning parental experts assumes children need to be pushed toward independence, urged to do for themselves, coaxed to derive their self-esteem from other kids. To help them do that, parents gobble up advice from self-help books, boning up on the latest tricks of the parenting trade.
A classic example, Dr. Maté notes, is the advice from experts to give a misbehaving child a so-called time out. He says parents do so faithfully for years, thinking it's the right thing even though it runs counter to a child's biological need to attach to the parent.
This and other means of thrusting children away, Dr. Neufeld says, are rampant but "developmentally illegitimate." Parents are running around trying to figure out what to do, when they should be re-examining who they are to their children.
Dr. Maté tells the story of what happened when his niece had a baby and took to holding the child on her belly. By the third day, the neonatal nurse had had enough, and told her to stop before she spoiled the baby.
"Try telling a monkey that," Dr. Maté says. "The fundamental thing is, we're trying to awaken people's parental intuition."
At least one expert on the childhood mind calls all this bunk.
Jean Wittenberg is head of infant psychiatry at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and president of the Canadian Alliance for Children's Health Care. He also represents a middle ground of sorts, arguing passionately that parents matter, but dismissing the theory expressed in Hold On as far too simplistic and a misapplication of developmental attachment.
"It's like there is one secret or one answer to everything," he says. "Life is too complex to reduce it to one idea. There is no magic bullet."
A psychiatrist trained in attachment theory, Dr. Wittenberg describes it as just one of many key factors, along with such things as discipline, play and intimacy.
As well, he says, the Hold On theory fails to take into account the march of human development over a lifetime. A parent's job is to help a child move from the breast, to toddlerhood, to school, to summer camp, to university, to the job market, learning to cope with friends and acquaintances along the way.
"It is tremendously important for our children to be successful with their peers," Dr. Wittenberg insists. "It's very important for parents to help them. If a child is failing with his or her peers, it's misery."
In his view, a 13-year-old who seems distant from her parents is more apt to be going through a necessary struggle for independence rather than losing her attachment to her parents.
Neither does he see a dystopia looming. Roughly 20 per cent of Canadians have some psychiatric problem, and the other 80 per cent are fine, he says. Children are still growing up, remaining close to their families, having children of their own, caring for their relatives. Parents are still heavily involved with their children, as they should be. Even in the families of his young patients at the hospital, where the relationship is by definition not ideal, Dr. Wittenberg says he sees a great deal of love.
So what are parents supposed to do in these troubled times? Be there for your children in appropriate measures throughout their lives. Acknowledge that being a parent can be difficult, and try to walk in your child's shoes with what he calls a "sophisticated empathy." Understand what the child is thinking, feeling, doing, before trying to make a diagnosis.
The mall is really getting busy now. Friday is, without question, the busiest night of the week for many teens.
A boy of 5 or 6 walks by, all bundled up. His mother tugs him along at a good clip and he follows obediently. Duelling experts aside, how do you get from him to the self-absorbed tribes all around?
Unlike so many of the younger kids, Melissa Pupo, 18, and Farzana Farook, 17, have a few thoughts to offer. Both are in Grade 12 and, since their companions have wandered off for a few minutes, they politely agree to an interview, a sign, in Dr. Neufeld's analysis, that they are properly parent-oriented.
Fiddling slightly with the metal in her pierced lower lip, Ms. Pupo says she sees signs of trouble already in the Grade 4 kids she helps to teach in her co-op program: They have "attitude." If they don't get what they want, they just get mad. "Kids don't care any more about anything except their friends."
They've got no respect, Ms. Farook adds, her eyes scanning the crowd non-stop. Their parents haven't disciplined them properly; they don't respect their elders.
Ms. Pupo says she has 15 friends who already have kids, although just three of the dads are still in the picture. She knows another eight girls under 18 who are pregnant.
Both young women say they care deeply what their parents think. They confide in them. This is the secret to good family life, they say.
"I talk to my mom about everything. I can tell her everything. She knows everything there is to know," Ms. Pupo says, affection in her eyes.
A few shops away, Lynsey Ross, 16, also has a few thoughts to share, although her two friends have categorically refused to talk and stalked off in their puffy jackets. But she wants to let grownups know what she's thinking, which is: Friends are just friends. Parents are forever.
She knows because her dad died when she was 13 and she went off the rails until last year. She and her mother fought like there was no tomorrow. Finally, her mom broke through, telling Ms. Ross that she was responsible for her own life. Everything changed after that.
Her advice to worried parents? Don't give in too easily. And don't let go. Never let go.
Alanna Mitchell is a senior feature writer at The Globe and Mail.
Signs of trouble
Timing: The switch in allegiance from parents to peers can begin as early as 5, according Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté, authors of Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Matter. The problem often comes to a head at 12 or 13.
Behaviour: Some signs are subtle, and others brutally obvious. When with other kids, peer-oriented children can seem animated, talkative, even demonstrative but, when a grownup approaches, refuse "even the most elementary rituals of attachment, such as eye contact, greetings and introductions."
They feel they must meld with their peers, which includes looking exactly like them.
If such children come to visit, they will appear uncomfortable, answer in mumbling monosyllables, and try to herd your children away from you. On the phone, they will refuse to identify themselves or to greet you by name.
Rejection: Disengaged children spurn any notion that they resemble their parents. They will go out of their way to take an opposing point of view and embrace different preferences, opinions and judgments. "If these children could, they would walk on the opposite side of the street in a contrary direction," the authors write.
Results: Such children make a parent's life difficult. They are hard to teach, aggressive and disobedient. Not caring what grownups think, they are immune to most forms of punishment.
Parents can find themselves feeling acutely rejected, if not crushed, neglected and even outright angry at being emotionally rebuffed.
What parents can do
Be aware: The most important thing is to understand the theory of attachment and recognize when it has gone wrong, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté say. Most often, it's not that a child is behaving badly, but that the relationship with the parent has been ruptured and replaced with a dependence on peers.
Be wary: For example, the authors don't suggest abandoning daycare although they contend the "seeds of peer-orientation" are sown there. Instead, parents with kids in daycare may want to take extra care to nurture their attachment with them.
Control access: One specific suggestion, Dr. Neufeld says, is to keep your children's peers "out of their face." For example, don't automatically turn to peers as a cure for boredom. Don't encourage a child to gain self-esteem from them. Try to make sure that he or she is exposed to adults and learns to interact with them at social gatherings, rather than being with other kids all the time.
Be bold: If the attachment is lost, don't give up. It can be revived. "In may ways, peer orientation is like a cult, and the challenges of reclaiming children are much the same as if we were facing the seductions of a cult," the authors write. "The real challenge is to win back their hearts and their minds, not just have their bodies under our roof and at our table."
Be assertive: Once you realize what has happened, you can train yourself to put your attachment with your child first and to reinforce it every day. Then it's a question of relying on your natural parenting instincts. "What we're really saying is that you don't need us, you don't need experts. You'll know what to do. Nature will tell you," Dr. Maté says.
Radical surgery: In extreme cases, one suggestion is to separate the child from the peers so that he or she, faced with an intolerable void, reattaches to the parent. But be cautious. "It is important not to reveal one's agenda, as this can easily backfire."
Meet the authors: Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté are scheduled to appear Feb. 9 at Alumni Hall as part of the University of Toronto Reading Series. Four days later, Dr. Maté will be in Peterborough, Ont., for an appearance at Showplace Peterborough.
Before I talk about this particular group at school, let me start by saying that my school is considered the "brainy" school in the city. We have the only "enriched" or "gifted" program in the city and I take "enriched" classes. The school has a disproportionately large group of Middle Eastern students, as well as a disproportionately large group of Asian students. I would guess the population at about 30% from the Middle East, 30% from the Far East, and 30% of European descent. This may help to explain my comments below.
They look identical, right down to the silhouette, the colours, the long hair, the heavy eye liner and thick makeup.
And that's the root of the problem isn't it? They look identical, they feel identical, they're fake. Of the 30% of the students at my school of "European" descent I would say a good third to half fall into this category. They cause me the most grief. I look at them and think about how they can lie to themselves like that. Of course this group also includes the requisite "jocks" who share the same sort of qualities. For anyone here who still watches mainstream media, these are the kind of people you see depicted on MTV...completely self-absorbed and oblivious to anything but themselves.
Fiddling slightly with the metal in her pierced lower lip
This is another group that I just don't get, they make up another quarter of the 30%. Why? I just don't understand the whole self-mutilation thing.
The final part of the 30% are people like me. Well, and you may call me a hypocrite for saying this, they're not like me. There is no one I know quite like me. Most of the people that I know and associate with are sheep. They go with the herd, no matter what.
A very good friend of mine has constantly egged me on to have "just one beer" (yes, I know, underage drinking...) when I'm driving. I always refuse, I've got too much to lose. Every time we're out, he asks me, "Please, just have one beer." I politely refuse the first time, but if he continues I get quite hostile, he only has his beginner's permit, but has stated that he will have "just one beer" when he gets his license. And I have said that I won't ever drive with him. I tell him to his face that he is irresponsible, but he doesn't care. And that's fine. To each his own, but I'd like to think that I have at least one thread of moral fiber left.
My friend is typical of today's teens. I am not. He follows the crowd, but says he doesn't. He dresses, acts, and all around is like them. I have bigger plans.
Sorry about the rant...but this is one of the few topics I can speak from experience on. Phew, this was by far my longest post ever on FR.
I feel no obligation to explain myself to adults either. How about an obligation to leave other people alone or let kids be kids?
Who says the kids of today are? FBI stats indicate that juvenile violence is at a twenty-year low. I think kids are somewhat more independent of parents (cars, urbanization, mass transit, etc) and have a greater space to experiment with different things but overall this image of the youth out of control is more fearmongering by the usual powerhungry sources.
Thus has it ever been, AK - I felt the same way about my high school peers a few decades ago. Maintain that autonomy, and never let the "flock" make your choices for you!
Short answer, and I think I stated it in my first post, is that they're sheep.
Long answer, and I've had this discussion with someone in my family, probably my mom, is that some people can't differentiate between the virtual world and the real world. Example, television violence, most people my age watch lots of TV. Most watch stuff that's basically mind-numbing. I like shows that have some sort of plot (except the Simpsons, hold that thought for a second). I watch Law & Order, CSI, and NYPD Blue on a regular basis. Basically the only other shows I watch are on Discovery Wings channel or the Discovery Channel (gotta have the gearheads of Monster Garage and American Chopper). See...now I've gone off on a tangent and lost my train of thought.
The point is, many people my age watch violence on TV or play so-called violent video games and can't differentiate it from the real world. That's where we get the fringe groups like Columbine et al. They see it and they absorb it as if it's real, and althought they may know it's not real, their brain can't differentiate it from anything else because they don't think about it.
I agree that a majority of people my age show no respect to their elders. Another example of a kid I went to grade school with. We have the best math teacher, probably in the country, and we're his last class. My friend continually comes in late to class, and when our teacher tells him that he has a ten minute detention at lunch he says something to me like "I don't see why he's so stupid." I have to try to keep from staring at him wide-eyed and saying "are you really dumb as a post?"
This teacher teaches both Calculus and Algebra, at the "enriched" level, two classes of each. He has a policy that if you have a spare during the other class of that math you can go to either your scheduled class or the other one, as long as you go to one. My friend decided that he wanted to have a double spare in the morning and so he told the teacher that he would be going to the afternoon algebra class from now on. The second day of that he skipped both classes and the teacher stated to our class that he won't play that game, and continued to mark the student absent. I told my friend about it and he said "I told him that I was going to the other class, why is he so dumb?"
Complete lack of respect for our elders. Check. It's sad, it really is.
Thanks. :D...check my profile though. Been around since mid 2000. Actually earlier, but my account was deleted for some reason early on and I re-registered.
That's the idea.
As compared to what - the Garden of Eden? I only claimed that violence is today low relative to near history (at least in the past 10 not twenty years). There was never an ideal time and in a country of 300 million people you're going to get some bad eggs.
Who are the "usual powerhungry sources" that you mentioned?
Typically people who misuse statistics to increase their power and authority to solve non-existent problems.
And the evidence for this is?
There is a noticable difference between tennagers of today and the teenagers of 15 years ago.
Except in terms of fashion, I disagree. Kids are pretty much the same as they always were. Wally Cleaver was a fictional character not a realistic depiction of how teenagers used to behave.