Saturday, February 2, 2013

Holding on to your kids: problems with child-centered "sociability"

I've just finished reading Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, with no time left today to digest it. Here, instead, are some memorable passages that I want to return to later on:

In response to the intensifying cruelty of children to one another, schools all over this continent are rushing to design programs to inculcate social responsibility in youngsters. We are barking up the wrong tree when we try to make children responsible for other children. In my view it is completely unrealistic to believe we can in this way eradicate peer exclusion and rejection and insulting communication. We should, instead, be working to take the sting out of such natural manifestations of immaturity by reestablishing the power of adults to protect children from themselves and from one another. (p. 103)

Given that peer orientation is devastating our educational system, one would think that we would be alarmed, seeking ways to reverse the trend or at least slow it down. On the contrary, we as educators and parents are actually aiding and abetting this phenomenon. Our "enlightened" child-centered approach to education has us studying children and confusing what is with what should be, their desires with their needs. A dangerous educational myth has arisen that children learn best from their peers. They do, partially because peers are easier to emulate than adults but mostly because children have become so peer oriented. What they learn, however, is not the value of thinking, the importance of individuality, the mysteries of nature, the secrets of science... Nor do they learn what is distinctly human, how to become humane, why we have laws, or what it means to be noble. What children learn from their peers is how to talk like their peers, walk like their peers, dress like their peers, act like their peers, look like their peers. In short, what they learn is how to conform and imitate. (p. 174).

Compared with adult oriented kids, peer oriented children come across as less needy and more mature... [A]tleast initially, peer-oriented children also tend to be more schoolable. The cost of that mistaken impression [is] the loss of teachability. (p. 236)

We usually think of shyness as a negative quality, something we would want children to overcome. Yet developmentally, even this apparent handicap has a useful function.  Shyness is an attachment force, designed to shut the child down socially, discouraging many interactions with those outside her nexus of safe connections.
Adult-oriented children are much slower to lose their shyness around their peers. What should eventually temper this shyness is not peer orientation, but the psychological maturity that engenders a strong sense of self... (pp. 238-9)

One of the largest studies ever done on [the subject of daycare and sociability] followed more than a thousand children from birth to kindergarten The more time a child had spent in day care, the more likely she was to manifest aggression and disobedience, both at home and in kindergarten. (p. 239)

The belief is that socializing--children spending time with one another--begets socialization: the capacity for skillful and mature relating to other human beings. There is no evidence to support such an assumption, despite its popularity. If socializing with peers led to getting along and to becoming responsible members of society, the more time a child spent with her peers, the better the relating would tend to be. In actual fact, the more children spend time with ane another, the less likely they are to get along and the less likely they are to fit into civil society. (p. 241-242)

Peer interaction is routinely prescribed for yet another purpose: to take the rough edges off children who may be a bit too eccentric for our liking. We seem to have an obsession in North America with being "normal" and fitting in. Perhaps we as adults have become so peer-oriented ourselves that instead of seeking to express our own true individuality, we take our cue for how to be and how to act from one another...
The more a child depends on accepting adults, the more room there is for uniqueness and individuality to unfold and the greater the insulation against the intolerance of peers. (pp. 248-249)

Another pervasive--and pernicious--myth is that peer interactions enhance a child's self-esteem... The ultimate issue in self-esteem is not how good one feels about oneself, but the independence of self-evaluations from the judgments of others.  (p. 249)

But don't children need to play with one another? We have to see the difference here between what children want and what they need. The play that children need for healthy development is emergent play, not social play. Emergent play (or creative solitute) does not involve interacting with others... If playmates are involved, they stem from the child's imagination... The parent is always the best bet for this kind of play, serving as an attachment anchor--although even the parent must not overdo it, lest the emergent play deteriorate into social play, which is far less beneficial. Children are not able to serve the function of an attachment anchor with one another, so their emergent play is almost always preempted by social interaction. Because of the strong emphasis on peer socialization, emergent play--play arising from the child's creativity, imagination, and curiosity about the world--has become endangered. (p. 252)

In the mean time, I welcome your reactions to these!


C T said...

I recently started that book myself and look forward to reading a discussion of it on your blog. I mostly homeschool and thus choose to have my children spend less time surrounded by peers than is now typical, and it seems to me that Neufeld keeps almost--but not QUITE--saying that young kids need less time at school and more with their parents.
I care deeply about the subject because I care deeply about my children. In my experience, peer orientation leads to heartbreak for some children because they lag behind in social skills. Genetics being what they are, I have a bright, left-brained eight-year-old girl who probably would be on the spectrum as having mild Aspergers if we got her a diagnosis; she would be so sad if she had to rely on school friends for society and acceptance. She just doesn't understand how to play the social game very well, and the other children, bless their innocent hearts, react in ways that sometimes get labeled "bullying" nowadays even though they're exhibiting relatively normal reactions to her obstinacy or introversion. My daughter needs for her family to be most important to her because we understand and love her best. (We can also call her on her selfishness, when that's what it really is, which doesn't seem to happen much in a school setting because of the moral overtones of such reprimands.)
Does the book happen to discuss imaginary friends? Our daughter was was delighted when she discovered Calvin & Hobbes. She soon talked me into going to the dollar store where she bought herself a little stuffed tiger she named "Susan". That tiger is her best friend; it goes along with every game or scheme that she comes up with. Her peers can't understand her eccentricities because they're still little children themselves, but Susan can be counted on to unconditionally accept her. At first I was annoyed that she loved a cheap stuffed animal so much, but now I'm starting to bless Bill Watterson's name. My daughter, who only goes to school part-time partly due to our concerns about her lagging social skills but mostly due to curricula issues, is slowly developing social skills according to her own timetable, but in the meantime she has a BFF, thanks to the example of a comic strip.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I've noticed that homeschool social events are a great place for quirky kids to learn social skills, because the moms are quick to step in and enforce standards of politeness and kindness.

The fact is, kids are not naturally kind. That has to be taught, and in recent years many kids don't have enough attention and never learn basic kindness and manners.

In my own experience, teachers seldom helped. They tended to think the physical, mental, and social abuse was good for the quirky kids because it would teach them not to be so weird...

Anonymous said...

No, kids are not naturally kind, and even those disposed that way expect other kids to follow the accepted behaviors in whatever venue. As my swimmer daughter moved into elite status and I became better-acquainted with other parents, I noticed that some kids had some difficulties with locker-room hierarchies and expectations. Since the pool where she trained had one outdoor (seasonal) and two indoor pools, it was common for several practice groups (defined by USS cut times)to practice simultaneously, but particular areas within locker rooms were used only by kids in the highest-level group and were further separated by age within that group. My DD luckily had no problems,but in retrospect, I would probably advise parents of shy or less socially adept kids (problems did exist in both M and F locker rooms)to ask/have them ask where they should put their gear. Believe me, coming in on day one and shoving the highest-status kids' gear onto to floor and putting your stuff on "their" bench, makes for a rough start. Since my older kids were soccer players, whose gear stayed at the field and who (even in HS play) really didn't use locker rooms, I hadn't realized the differences.