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The Predictable Trap of a Peer Centered Childhood

Hello Friends,

During this time where, for many, it feels like we’re spending way too much time at home, it’s important to consider what an opportunity this is for children to reorient around the family. 

And even as things begin to open up it’s possible that many of you are considering more permanent changes to your family going forward.

So I wanted to share with you this short essay that is part of my book A Father’s Compass that questions the assumption that the best thing for our kids is to be in peer-centered environments.

There are so many ways kids today are growing up in environments never before attempted or, in many cases, even imagined. One of these social experiments we’ve been running both in the church and at school is to raise and educate kids almost entirely in same-age groups. It’s clear the advantages to this system for both control and for curriculum. The transition from the one-room schoolhouse to same-age classes emerged from the need to educate children at a massive industrial scale.

This, in turn, has given rise to a new kind of person: the peer-centered child. We now tend to take it for granted that a child will care less about their parents’ opinions of them and more about their peers’. We assume, because this is so common, this is healthy socialization. But is it?

After spending decades looking at the data, two secular Canadian doctors are now claiming this development is extremely unhealthy and even dangerous. In their ground-breaking book, Hold Onto Your Kids, Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers they lay out this thesis: “Children today look to their peers for direction—their values, identity, and codes of behavior. This ‘peer orientation’ undermines family cohesion, interferes with healthy development, and fosters a hostile and sexualized youth culture. Children end up becoming overly conformist, desensitized, and alienated, and being ‘cool’ matters more to them than anything else.”

Their prescription? Increase parental influence and reestablish proper hierarchy in the home in order to make our kids feel safe and understood, and earn back their loyalty and love.

I find this kind of language fascinating. One reviewer of the book on Amazon summed up the author’s stories: “Like countless other parents, Canadian doctors Neufeld and Maté woke up one day to find that their children had become secretive and unreachable. Pining for time with friends, they recoiled or grew hostile around adults. Why? The problem lies in a long-established, though questionable, belief that the earliest possible mastery of the rules of social acceptance leads to success… Multiple playdates, daycare, preschool and after school activities groom children to transfer their attachment needs from adults to their peers. They become what the authors call ‘peer-oriented.’” 

Again from their book: “Peer-oriented children are obsessed with who likes whom, who prefers whom, who wants to be with whom. There is no room for missteps, for perceived disloyalty, disagreement, differences, or noncompliance. True individuality is crushed by the need to maintain the relationship at all costs. Yet no matter how hard the child works, when peers replace parents the sense of insecurity can escalate until it is too much to endure. That is often when the numbness sets in, the defensive shutdown occurs and the children no longer appear vulnerable. They become emotionally frozen by the need to defend themselves against the pain of loss, even before it actually occurs.”

“Our failure to keep our children attached to us and to the other adults responsible for them has not only taken away their shields but put a sword in the hands of their peers. When peers replace parents, children lose their vital protection against the thoughtlessness of others. The vulnerability of a child in such circumstances can easily be overwhelming. The resulting pain is more than many children can bear. Studies have been unequivocal in their findings that the best protection for a child, even through adolescence, is a strong attachment with an adult.”

The Bible illustrates the danger of this orientation through a story that occurred more than 3000 years ago. One of the greatest tragedies, the division of Israel into the southern and northern Kingdoms was the result of a young, peer-oriented king. Solomon’s son Rehoboam was given sage advice from his father’s counselors but instead turned to the buddies he grew up with to set a policy that would determine the fate of the kingdom. After the people implored the new king for mercy, we read in 1 Kings 12:13-14, “And the king answered the people harshly, and forsaking the counsel that the old men had given him, he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, ‘My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’”

An avid example of what his father Solomon wrote to him in the book of Proverbs (“He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm”), this one act of foolishness cost Rehoboam more than half of his kingdom.

When we seek to build multigenerational families, our children must have both the skill to interact intergenerationally and the experience of deep and enduring attachment to their parents throughout their childhood. Forcing our kids to spend a huge percentage of their childhood in same-age groups without the engagement or protection of their parents or family will predictably give rise to this intractable peer orientation. 

Our entire society is designed around breaking up the children of the family into these same-age groups from sports to schools and even to church programs. Creating alternatives to counter this pattern is challenging and costly to the family but perhaps not as challenging or costly in the long-term as losing the hearts of our kids. 

Jeremy

P.S. You can order A Father’s Compass on Kindle, Audible or at Family Teams.com.


This entry is a part of Jeremy’s Journal, a newsletter Jeremy sends out every Wednesday morning to encourage you on your parenting journey. You can sign up to get them every Wednesday here.

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