Parents: Beware the Danger of Peer Orientation

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Every now and then you read something that changes the way you see the world. For me, one such paradigm-shifting book was Hold on to Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D. In this 2006 work, Neufeld and Mate discuss the concept of “peer orientation,” the phenomenon of children becoming more attached to their peers than they are to their families. The authors write:

As children grow, they have an increasing need to orient: to have a sense of who they are, of what is real, why things happen, what is good, what things mean. To fail to orient is to…be lost psychologically—a state our brains our programmed to do almost anything to avoid. [...]

What children fear more than anything, including physical harm, is getting lost. To them, being lost means losing contact with their compass point. Orienting voids, situations where we find nothing or no one to orient by, are absolutely intolerable to the human brain.

They go on to outline the various conditions in our culture have combined to leave children with a huge orienting void—a void that kids fill by orienting themselves to their peers. They summarize the situation by saying:

In adult-oriented cultures, where the guiding principles and values are those of the more mature generations, kids attach to each other without losing their bearings or rejecting the guidance of their parents. In our society that is no longer the case. Peer bonds have come to replace relationships with adults as children’s primary sources of orientation…Children have become the dominant influence on one another’s development.

I moved around quite a bit when I was growing up, and attended eight different schools all over the United States. Though I’d never heard the terminology at the time, some places were more family-oriented than others: People socialized across generations, with children, teens, adults and the elderly mixing together; sit-down family dinners were common; parents were interested in their kids’ lives, and took care to maintain open lines of communication in the family. These places had their own problems, of course, but it was nothing like what I saw in the areas where peer orientation had taken over the culture. When I read Neufeld and Mate’s description of the impact that peer orientation has on kids, it sent chills down my spine because it resonated so deeply with what I’d seen and experienced:

If many kids are damaged these days by the insensitivity of their peers it is not necessarily because children today are more cruel than in the past, but because peer orientation has made them more susceptible to one another’s taunts and emotional assaults. 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. [...]

No wonder, then, that “cool” is the governing ethic in peer culture, the ultimate virtue…It connotates an air of invulnerability. Where peer orientation is intense, there is no sign of vulnerability in the talk, in the walk, in the dress, or in the attitudes. [...]

Peer-oriented kids will do anything to avoid the human feelings of aloneness, suffering, and pain, and to escape feeling hurt, exposed, alarmed, insecure, inadequate, or self-conscious. The older and more peer-oriented the kids, the more drugs seem to be an inherent part of their lifestyle. Peer orientation creates an appetite for anything that would reduce vulnerability.

Sure enough, the schools where the kids were more connected to one another than to their families were the schools that had the worst problems with drugs, depression, bullying and suicide. Everywhere I lived, I saw the typical problems that seem to be just part of life for young people: the tendency to form cliques, children picking on one another, teen angst, etc. But there was an unmistakable darkness among my classmates in the places where kids’ inner compasses were oriented to their peers, and it was something entirely different than the normal ups and downs of childhood. (Interestingly, I’d always described the feel of those places as being like something out of Lord of the Flies—which, as it turns out, is the ultimate story of peer orientation.)

Understanding peer orientation has changed the way I parent; specifically, it’s made things a lot simpler. I believe that this phenomenon is behind many of the most serious problems our kids face today, and that doing our best to raise family-oriented kids can go a long way toward avoiding these issues. Whether it’s developing a strong faith life, avoiding drugs, achieving acadamically, or anything else we might want for our children, it’s all an uphill battle if they’re more closely connected to their peers than they are to us. Obviously there’s no parenting magic bullet that makes everything perfect and simple, but I think that if parents do nothing more than nurture a close attachment with their children, their other goals for their family will be much easier to realize.

For those of you who work with young people, what do you think? Have you seen this phenomenon in your community?