Years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Vancouver organized by CIJSHA (Canadian Independent Junior School Heads Association). I have long forgotten the specific theme of the gathering, but I remember very well the message of one of its keynote speakers, Dr. Gabor Maté. Dr. Maté is a respected Canadian medical doctor and expert on addiction, stress and child development.
The theme of Maté’s talk was based on his then-recent book, co-written with colleague Gordon Neufeld, entitled Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. I have seldom been more attentive to the message of a keynote speaker than I was on that evening. Maybe it was because I was the father of four young children at the time or maybe it was because the April weather in Vancouver was beautiful. Whatever the case, I was captivated by his message about the impact of the peer culture on youth.
In a nutshell, Maté believes that “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”. Wow. This caution still manages to get my attention all these years later. Our children’s friends are important, but is their growing influence about the important things in life what we want? Is it what our children need?
Maté believes that 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. Could it be that increasing numbers of youth are not manageable, teachable or maturing because they no longer take their cues from adults who are willing to do the hard work? Are children increasingly being brought up by immature persons (i.e., friends) who cannot possibly guide them to maturity? Are they being brought up in the important ways by one another?
I must admit that I no longer know where my copy of Hold On To Your Kids is these days. I lent it to a parent a few years ago and honestly cannot remember who! I do hope whoever it was has read it by now and passed it along to the next person because I believe the essence of the message is an important one: it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.
Kids may know what they want, but it is dangerous to assume that they know what they need and that is always where the rubber hits the road. Maté points out that it is only natural for the peer-oriented child to prefer the contact of friends to the closeness of family – a reality made even more challenging in our world of ubiquitous social media and unknowable modes of communication. When we were kids, our parents knew who we were talking to because the phone rang and half of our conversation was audible in the kitchen! We could physically see the “visitors” to our homes. Not so today with personal devices, apps and stealth modes of communication.
A child and his or her peer group usually do not know best. And that’s what makes the job of parenting so challenging when we begin to feel like we’re working at cross purposes to our children and their friends (…by the way, when you feel at “cross purposes”, that usually means you’re doing the right thing!).
The good news is that our children want to belong to us, so we must never relinquish the duty of our influence. Kids of all ages actually want boundaries, hard messages and high expectations.
It may seem hard to believe at times, but if we do our job right, most of our kids will be amazed to see how much we will have learned by the time they turn 21.
Ric Anderson, Head of School