Book Review: Hold on To Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate

Hold on to Your Kids – Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate (Vintage Canada, 2005)

Attachment theory is at the heart of this book. Children need a safe, secure, and nurturing attachment with a loving adult in order to mature and develop in a healthy emotional manner. As our society becomes increasingly peer-oriented, parents unconsciously encourage their children to attach to peers instead of parents, which causes multiple long-term complications in both family relationships and the emotional development of these children.

I started reading Hold on to Your Kids at the beginning of March 2020. I had just registered Pearl for Kindergarten and she was beginning a kindergarten-prep program put on by our local school district. I’d long had the book on my TBR list and wanted to read it and in 2018 I read Rest, Play, Grow by Deborah McNamara which is heavily influenced by Neufeld’s ideas. It seemed like the perfect time to learn more about guiding my children’s peer relationships. Then, in mid-March, a global pandemic hit and we stopped going out. None of our usual activities were occurring and it felt pointless to read a book about holding on to my kids when it seemed like they were never going to see their peers again anyway.

Once I got over that pessimistic idea, I decided I just needed to finish the book, which I had been really enjoying at the beginning of March. I’m glad I read it. Both for the ideas and thoughts to prepare myself when Pearl does eventually start school and for the encouragement now when I worry about the long-term effects of social isolation on my children.

Neufeld is a Vancouver psychologist, specializing in child development. Gabor Mate is widely known and respected for his work with those suffering from addiction in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. While both are contributors, Neufeld is the main voice throughout the book. There’s a lot in this book and if you are at all interested, I highly recommend reading it. While I was familiar with Neufeld’s general ideas around attachment parenting, it was very helpful to get into it in more detail.

Neufeld approaches attachment as a basic human need. Children need to know that they are unconditionally loved and supported and this requires a mature, caring adult. In a healthy parent-child attachment, neither will even be entirely aware of what is happening. The child will orient themselves around their adult, looking to them for moral guidance, and in the safety of that attachment will be able to mature, developing into a well-rounded, unique individual. If that parent attachment is lacking, a child will look elsewhere. And in our peer-oriented society, that child is becoming more likely to attach to another child. The problem there is that another child is unable to offer the same unconditional love and support. Without that security of attachment, a child cannot be vulnerable or curious, they will not be able to fail and learn within a safe environment and so will not reach emotional maturation. According to Neufeld and the research he cites, many of the difficulties parents experience with belligerent and distanced teens is rooted in this lack of attachment. When teens are attached to their peers, they want to be with their peers. They want to act like them and look like them. Unfortunately, those peers are not always positive role models.

Despite what it might sound like, Neufeld isn’t against your kids having friendships. Instead, he argues, those friendships need to be rooted in adult attachments. Once a child is securely attached to a caring adult, they can have friendships without looking to those relationships to define who they are. They will keep their adult as the compass point. Neufeld argues for the “attachment village.” As a culture, we have lost the multi-generational family and neighbourhood structures that we had for countless generations. Parents often don’t know their children’s friends and may never meet the parents of these friends. Neufeld tells us that parents need to take greater responsibility and participation in their children’s relationships. Obviously this is easier when they are little and I see this with my own children now. Most of my daughters’ friends are the children of my friends. Because they’re still so young, when they have made friends outside of our circle, I get to know the parents. My children don’t play with their peers without adult supervision and, inadvertently, this falls in line with Neufeld’s recommendations. Don’t look to your children’s peers to take care of them, Neufeld says. If they need supplementary attachments, look to the adults around them. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, teachers, adult friends.

While I can’t speak to how Neufeld’s ideas work in the long-term or for older kids, particularly teens who might be pushing their parents away, he does offer a lot of practical advice as to how to use attachment parenting to draw your kids close and deal with some of those behaviour issues. Ideally, the attachment would be strong before our kids get to those more difficult stages and, Neufeld proposes, those difficulties and rebellions might thus be avoided. There are a number of tips here that our family already uses, such as the concept of “collecting” your child before you move them on to the next activity, and there are other tips that make sense and that I think we will apply. I see this as a book that our family will return to in the coming years. It’s made me feel more confident in how we parent now and offered something of a blueprint for the years to come.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: Hold on To Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld & Gabor Mate”

  1. Hmm the idea of ‘attachment’ parenting makes me a little weary, because it seems like some parents are overly attached right now-sort of like the ‘helicoper’ parenting people joke about. I’ll be honest that I have’t read any books about attachment parenting so I shouldn’t knock it before I actually understand the concepts, but I’m shocked by how little independence parents give their kids these days. Perhaps these are two different ideas entirely, but I tend to focus on giving my children the tools to do things themselves, rather than relying on me to do it for them, and i think in general, having strong relationships with your peers is really important for children. I think what i really fear are the ‘hovering’ parents LOL

    1. I hear what you mean but I think there’s a difference between attachment parenting vs helicopter parenting. Neufeld really advocates for free play and unstructured time for kids. And he’s not against kids being together, just against that being their primary relationship and source of comfort. The way he explains attachment parenting involves aiding the child to become confident as an independent person so that they can be with their peers without being swayed under poor influences. Like I said, I don’t know how it all works on older kids but a lot of what the book talks about made sense to me and the things we’ve already figured out work with our kids. (Granted, Pearl is a definite introvert and takes a while to warm up to new people.) The other book I mentioned, “Rest, Play, Grow” was really helpful to me when we first started figuring out how we wanted to handle disciplinary issues.

  2. Ah, I wish my parents had read a book like this. My family was very hands-off in parenting- they were there, and they provided, but they definitely praised and encouraged independence from the start; after reading this review, I wonder if that’s part of the reason I became such a loner! Hard to hold it against them when I think they were just doing what had worked for them growing up (the rest of my family does seem to prefer hands-on independent learning), but I had such a tendency as a kid to lie and hide things that weren’t working out. It took me a long time to learn it was okay to ask for help and that the world wouldn’t end if I didn’t master something immediately. But it sounds like you’re on a much better track with Rose and Pearl! They really are lucky to have you. 🙂

    1. Aw, thank you! I’m lucky to have them! I really am realizing as a parent that a big part of it is figuring out my kids as individuals and learning what works for them. I think I was kind of like you as a kid and even from a really young age would never talk about things that bothered me. And I think no one questioned it because I was surrounded by family members who had no trouble expressing themselves when they were upset so I was seen as the “easy” kid. I see a lot of myself in Pearl but she’s very different too. And I’m still figuring out what kind of kid Rose is going to be!

    2. It sounds like we had similar experiences; the rest of my family is also more vocal about what’s bothering them so it felt easy to get overlooked just for being quieter. I was definitely the “easy” kid too, though sadly that doesn’t always mean the kid is having as easy a time as the parents! Luckily I think I turned out fine in the end. And I’m no parent but it really does sound like you’ve got the right approach to it by taking the time to learn your girls as individuals. Feeling understood and accepted as a kid is so important!

  3. Woooooow. I can now see that I was definitely attached to my mom, and that’s likely the reason why I didn’t do a lot of the crazy things my friends did. I just had her moral compass in the back of my head. But there were loads of things she did that I found unacceptable, too, so now I’m wondering how children weed that out. I think that when I was growing up I knew certain things made me unhappy, but I couldn’t voice them (our family didn’t work that way). Then, in my twenties I spent a load of time running away from my parents. Now, we’re reattaching. Thanks, pandemic. <<both sarcastic and genuine.

    1. That’s so interesting to hear. I’m still having trouble figuring out my own childhood attachment and whether or not I truly was attached to my parents in the way he talks about. I think Neufeld would say that as children grow up (and become emotional mature) they will start to find their own moral compass, which might differ from their parents. The key is allowing them to figure those things out on their own rather than strong-arming them or them following along with what’s cool.

  4. I’ve read up about attachment theory before, but mostly on adult attachment, or how our attachment styles remain consistent throughout adulthood. So I’m intrigued to learn something new on the theory, the idea that children can attach to peers instead of parents. It makes sense! I can imagine some friends who attached to peers instead of parents.

    I took a test before and found I had a secure style, which means good job to my parents. They didn’t know about attachment theory but I can definitely say they were a secure base for me—I always knew I could go to them for anything, even the more embarrassing things. Pearl and Rose are fortunate that you’re attuned to their needs this way. I sometimes see you mention that Pearl is quite introverted, and it makes me happy to know that you’ll be considerate and understanding of her temperament. That was one thing I wish I’d had when I was younger. 🙂

    1. Thanks! A lot of what the books talks about is a very instinctual so I can see many parents working that way naturally, especially when kids are small. I was a super shy and introverted kid so I think that’s helped me understand what Pearl needs better and not try and force her. (Because I remember being pushed to talk to people and do things before I was ready and I hated it!)

    2. I hated that too!!! You know, I used to be so shy when I was a kid that when I was interviewed for admission into a certain school here, I didn’t speak at all. The nun (it was a catholic school) thought I had a speech disability and denied me admission. Turns out I was just really intimidated by her. My parents sent me to a smaller school and I was able to overcome some my shyness there. Though I’m still introverted, heh. Would you already have an inkling of what Rose might be like? 🙂

    3. Hahaha! I could see that happening to me as a kid! Pretty sure every report card I ever had said I needed to speak up more in class.

      Rose definitely seems more outgoing and less shy. She’s far more likely to respond to a stranger talking to her than Pearl is, even now. She also seems to like going out of the house and doing things and being around people more.

    4. Same! Comments about me are always, I’m good when it comes to written stuff but I need to participate more.

      Oooh, reminds me of me and my younger brother. He’s definitely the outgoing one. I would be very interesting to watch them grow up together. 🙂

    5. That sounds like me and my older brother! He basically talked for me for the first few years of my life! As we got older though we kind of met in the middle as he quieted down and I opened up.

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