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.