Upon a friend’s suggestion, I recently read Hold on to your Kids, Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers by Gordon Neufield PhD and Gabor Mate MD. Both authors are world-renowned practitioners. They've spent their life studying childhood development and establishing attachment theory.
When my mother (a retired elementary music teacher) saw the title of the book she promptly rolled her eyes. She said, “I don’t know about that,” and walked away stiffly. As if the mere suggestion of a book valuing different social structures than what she perceives as “normal” meant I was straying down an irrevocable path of alternative parenting.
Her tone instantly made me feel “less than”. I was ashamed enough to feel like I needed to hide the book from her. I read it secretly out of fear of scrutiny. Even though I’m an adult and mother myself—the residual desire to connect with her, and fear of not-connecting further, changed my behavior. I kept the book out of her sight and only read it when I wasn’t home.
What I was really doing there was avoiding another non-validating parent-child interaction. Ironically, this was a perfect example of what the authors discuss. Parental connection to their children is crucial for children’s sense of self-confidence. It develops positive behavior patterns (even when you are a 30-year-old “child”).
The theory of the book is this:
When children and parents don’t connect, children then seek connections from others. Usually peers. Once this happens, it becomes a breeding ground for behavioral issues. Immaturity and chronic dissatisfaction are prominent characteristics of children with the loss of parental influence.
From what I’ve gleaned, this interaction with my own mother was a missed opportunity for parent-child connection. A more attachment-facilitating reaction could have looked like “Hey, interesting choice of book! How did you hear about it? I’d love to know what you think as you go through it.” In this way, it creates an invitation for connection. Regardless of whether we agreed with the actual contents of the book.
Neufield and Mate's point is that a child must feel safe and secure enough to be dependent on key adults in their life. This enables them to feel safe and secure enough to know and be true to themselves. Here are some of the book's major takeaways:
So, for example, give your child a hug and exclaim how neat it is that you both like pizza with pineapples. It can go a long way toward making them feel emotionally attached to you if their sense of touch is met, and a feeling of “sameness” and belonging.
The key to activating maturation in children is to take care of attachment needs. To foster independence long-term, we must first invite dependence. (This thought was pretty revolutionary to me). People must feel safe and sustained before feeling free to express their full selves.
The ultimate gift is to make a child feel invited and welcome in our presence. They are welcome exactly as they are. And we must express our delight in their very being. The child must know she is wanted/special, significant, valued, appreciated, missed, enjoyed. This is why time-outs don’t work. It conveys the message that the child is invited to exist in our presence only when he/she meets our expectations. In other words, our relationship with them is conditional.
We liberate children by not making them work for our love, but letting them rest in it.
As someone who has a “have-to-earn it” mentality, this was impactful to read.
Here's a good example:
A child is unhappy with their karate lessons. The parent says, with unconditional positive regard, “I’ll love you if you do karate. AND I’ll love you if you don’t do karate”.
There are so many times in my life I felt like I had to stick with something I didn’t enjoy to avoid letting down anyone or disrupting an identity everyone associated with me. Loving someone through their choices and change bestows grace.
Telling your kid “don’t cry” turns off their emotional intelligence mechanism.
Tears of futility and our brain are linked. They bring a release within the brain. They signal that the brain truly apprehends something that is not working and must be let go of. Futility must sink in for a shift in emotional energy to occur. The shift in energy leads to acceptance, from frustration to a sense of peace with how things are. It is not enough to register an experience rationally or intellectually. It must be felt deeply and vulnerably. In the very heart of the limbic system. This is the core of the brain's emotional circuitry. Futility is a vulnerable feeling. It brings us face-to-face with the limits out of our control. The inability to go from mad to sad is a major source of aggression and violence. Let boys and girls cry, without shame.
Rituals of simple quality time together are important seasonally, weekly, and daily. Even a little bit of orienting at the beginning of the day can go a long way in keeping your child close. Saying things like:
This is what we’re doing today.
This is where I will be
This is what’s special…
What I have in mind for this evening is…
Orienting them about their identities is valuable too. You can say things like:
You have a special way of…
You have a real gift in…
You have what it takes to…
Acting as a child’s compass point engages the attachment instincts.
Effective activators for social attachment are:
"If we have a twinkle in our eye and some warmth in our voice, we invite a connection that most children will not turn down.”
A child may enjoy gifts that are expected, but their attachment needs are not fulfilled by them. “For a child to become attached, you must convey a spontaneous delight in the child’s very being. Not when he is asking for anything, but when they are not.”
It is widely believed that to give in to a child’s requests is to “spoil” the child. According to the authors, that fear contains no more than a grain of truth. Children need to feel their needs being met.
A great way to respond to a child’s request to spend time with them is to say:
“Oh! That’s a great idea! I was wondering how we could spend time together! I’m so glad you thought of it.”
Rather than language like:
“Hold on. One Minute.” or “Go play by yourself”.
We are in our children’s lives as a “guide and interpreter.” This does not mean helicopter parenting. It does not mean keeping them from self-discovery and exploration. Here is the difference: we must experience life with our children, rather than keeping them from it.
Our primary objective is not to correct them or teach them, but to connect with them.
It’s important that the author’s note that holding on to our children is not about forcing ourselves on them. But engaging their attachment instincts.
No matter how close your children’s friends may be to their hearts, it is rare for children to share their true hearts and vulnerable feelings with each other. Their innermost feelings are typically guarded. The territory is usually too vulnerable to take the risk of shame. This is good for parents. The closeness that comes from feeling deeply known and understood creates a bond. This can transcend the most difficult of physical separations. The power of such an intimate parent-child connection cannot be overstated.
Many children need an invitation to share their mind and heart. Asking them what they think/feel rarely works. The trick is finding the right kind of structure, where they feel comfortable enough to volunteer their inner feelings. A time when they know they have your undivided, uninterrupted attention. It could be:
Regular outings together
Going for a walk
Feeling mixed feelings is a GOOD thing. It ameliorates impulses that get people into trouble. For example: if you want to draw on the wall. But you also want to stay on your parent’s good side. Then you’re less likely to draw on the wall than if those mixed feelings hadn’t occurred.
The trick is to draw mixed feelings into consciousness at the same time. We, as parents, should leave room for mixed feelings. Say things like:
Isn’t it funny how we get so mad at the ones we love?
It seems like right now it’s easy for you to do what I asked, a few hours ago, you felt like I was bossing you around.
This is approaching problem behavior by drawing out the tempering element is attachment-friendly. Take the lead in seeing both “this” and “that” in a child. Acknowledge their humanity.
Reading this book made me feel consoled and excited at the same time. I’d been feeling guilty about not being able to send my son to a preschool this year. I was worried it would affect his confidence and social skills. But, it has allowed us endless hours of simple bonding time. It feels right, but, until reading this book, I had a nagging societal pressure of what I “should” be doing, that felt contrary to my parental instincts. We don’t have to rush the socialization process.
And, I also want to say, I do not want to vilify my mother for her reaction. She has a depth of real-world experiences with children. I deeply respect that, having never been a teacher myself. I certainly agree with the authors when they say our culture promotes autonomy and normalcy over community and individuality. We are all products of our culture to some extent.
The interaction that took place between my mother and I was a prime learning opportunity. Especially as I seek to be as intentional as I can with communicating and connecting with my son. My ultimate goal as a parent is to foster his physical and spiritual well being. This can't happen without fostering his emotional intelligence as well. I hope to achieve this through meaningful connections with myself, family, friends, and nature.
Have any thoughts about this book? I'd love to compare thoughts, strategies, and goals with you. Shoot me an email anytime to chat.
*Disclaimer-I am not a psychologist! :)
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