This past weekend I finished Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate's Hold on to Your Kids, and had just enough time to excerpt some key passages before lending the book to one of my many friends who urgently needs to hold on to his kid. And today I have just enough time to digest what seem to me to be the most important points within these excerpts.
But first, a bit of background.
Neufeld and Mate's focus is on the rise of peer-orientation, or children who orient to their peers rather than their parents--and, as a result, are increasingly raised by these peers, educated by these peers, and look to these (highly fickle) peers as their primary source of love, acceptance, and emotional support.
Neufeld and Mate date the rise of peer-orientation to the 1950s, but argue that it's worse than ever. While they don't flesh out entirely why this is so, it seems to me that the following factors are at play:
(1) more and more kids, from infancy on, spending their weekdays in day care centers, and, once they reach school age, in after-school centers.
(2) the unprecedently large fraction of the school day that students spend in groups--and facing one another in desk "pods" rather than facing the teacher.
(3) the fact that parents themselves, ever since the 1950s or so, have themselves been increasingly peer oriented--such that we care more and more about our kids fitting in, and spend more and more nights out with our adult friends rather than home with our children.
(4) the rise of social media--making kids and parents alike more peer-oriented
Neufeld and Mate blame a host of problems on the rise of peer orientation and peer culture:
Societal: the rise of bullying and criminal behavior
Psychological: pediatric and adolescent psychological disorders (especially oppositional defiance, social pathology, anxiety, and depression),
Academic: the decline in teachability, academic knowledge, vocabulary, reading, and culture.
Turning now to Neufeld and Mate's key points:
First, what seems so obvious that nearly everyone in our society acts on it simply isn't true:
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.In fact, what data there is supports the opposite conclusion:
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.In other words:
The more children spend time with one another, the less likely they are to get along and the less likely they are to fit into civil society.And--a second key point--the less likely they are to become creative, imaginative and curious:
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.Third, anti-bullying measures are backfiring:
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.
In particular, self-styled anti-bullying "experts" think the way to prevent bullying is to make students do cooperative group activities; but, as I've argued, this actually creates more opportunities for bullying, and, by intensifying peer orientation, may cause more bullying in the long term.Fourth, teachers are making students less teachable:
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.Peer teaching--all that heterogeneous grouping and "differentiated instruction." Peer editing--all that "Writer's Workshop". More generally, all that "cooperative" group work that also facilitates bullying. One thing I've noticed in my after school tutoring ventures is that we're having to undo not just the effects of Everyday Math, but of Constructivist teaching. Students don't expect to sit facing the blackboard or to listen at length to their teachers.
Fifth, and perhaps the most poignant point of all:
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...