As we approach a quieter, simpler holiday season amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the Lord is giving us an opportunity to focus on what is essential: our faith and our family. Along with the hardships and the fears, the pandemic has given many busy families the chance to step back from overbooked schedules, spend more time together, and strengthen the crucial parent-child relationship. Not only is this relationship of supreme importance to the health and well-being of children—and, so, to everyone; it’s also a rich field of discovery for understanding our culture and our relationship with God.
Have you ever walked past a group of teenagers and noticed that every one of them studiously avoided making eye contact with you? Have you ever tried teaching a group of children who show absolutely no interest in what you have to say? Has your own child changed from an affectionate, cooperative child into a hostile one obsessed with spending time with friends? All of these situations from normal, pre-pandemic life are manifestations of peer orientation.
“Peer orientation” (as opposed to “parent orientation”) is the term coined by Canadian psychologist Gordon Neufeld to describe the psychological phenomenon of children turning away from their parents and other trustworthy adults and looking instead to each other as guides along the path of life. Neufeld posits that peer orientation emerged in the wake of World War II as the traditional context that supported parenting eroded. Culture, he points out, has always served as a means of transmitting the wisdom and experience of the older generation to the younger generation. After World War II, however, there began to exist a “youth culture”: music, language, hairstyles, and so forth, generated by and transmitted directly to other young people. Today the concept of a youth culture is so commonplace that we may not realize what it signifies about the health of our society, but Neufeld warns us that it is a sign that something has gone deeply awry.
The two essential components of the parent-child relationship are attachment and orientation. Attachment begins in infancy with tangible practices such as rocking and carrying. If all goes well, attachment to parents grows and progresses with the child beyond the physical to include emotional and psychological attachment that can withstand temporary physical separation. Healthy attachment need not be limited to parents; it can expand to include grandparents and other trusted caregivers and teachers. Within the context of attachment, children naturally take their cues from adults and respond to discipline.
The related concept of orientation describes children’s need to make sense of the world and their need to be shown how to grow up. In the normal course of development, children’s inner compasses point to their parents for answers to these questions; that proper orientation, however, is by no means guaranteed. Like attachment, orientation must be solidly established and actively maintained. Orienting your child can be accomplished by major things such as modeling healthy communication with your spouse and by seemingly minor things such as telling your child what to expect from a new place where you are going.
When parents and children spend long portions of their days apart, when traumatic events intervene to threaten a family, when aspects of the culture seek to erode the parent-child bond, and when well-meaning parents encourage their children to spend excessive time with friends at the expense of family time, children are at risk of losing their adult attachment and orientation and turning instead to each other. Then it is a case of the blind leading the blind, to the detriment of all concerned (Luke 6:39). Children become obsessed with being together, seek acceptance from their peers at all costs, and become hostile to adults who try to direct them. Since peers can never offer each other true wisdom and unconditional love, peer-oriented children can never fully mature.
More than ever, parents must consciously and actively claim their role as their children’s models and guides, patiently wooing them back into loving attachment until the children are truly grown up. We can and should insist on family time over excessive peer time. We must be brave enough to make the lifestyle changes necessary to hold on to our kids, even if they seem to hate us for it. We do know better than our children, and they desperately need us to act that way.
Peer versus parent orientation has some fascinating ramifications beyond the individual parent-child relationship discussed by Neufeld and his coauthor Gabor Maté in their book Hold On to Your Kids. The first phenomenon to consider is how peer-oriented many of today’s adults are. One of the easiest places to see this is on social media. Such media encourage us to be constantly looking at what is happening now—what is “trending” among our adult peers—and to join in it. The fear of missing out and the desire for acceptance on social media are peer-oriented children’s concerns writ large among adults. I suspect that this culture-wide peer orientation may at least partially explain how we have so quickly embraced a radical redefinition of marriage and sexual identity that would have been incomprehensible to the majority of human beings who preceded us on the earth. Like peer-oriented children, we adults are scared to be different.
If an obsession with what is trending is a manifestation of peer orientation among today’s adults, what would be the corresponding “parent” orientation for grown-ups? In a word, tradition. Peter Kreeft makes my point with his characteristic pithiness in The Philosophy of Tolkien: “Humility entails learning from others. Learning from others entails respect for tradition, for tradition is simply learning from dead others. As Chesterton famously said, tradition is ‘the democracy of the dead’.”
In order to confront the challenges of the present and chart a wise course into the future, we must remain connected to what is good and enduring from the past.
A related phenomenon is the tendency in modern education to belittle the wisdom of the past and assume the moral and intellectual superiority of the present generation. Great historical thinkers are routinely dismissed as racist, misogynist, or otherwise hateful, and we are thereby deprived of their enduring insights into how to live a good life. Contemporary thinkers such as C.S. Lewis, Anthony Esolen, and Jordan Peterson have spoken and written at length on this topic, exhorting us not to forget the “treasure troves of the past,” as Dr. Peterson calls it.
The modern distrust of authoritative tradition has its roots in the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Christian lives a “parent-oriented” faith: we look with trust to the Pope (the Holy Father) and the divinely appointed Magisterium to interpret Scripture, to our older siblings the saints as our models, and to Tradition as our guide. The Protestant Christian lives a “peer-oriented” faith: beginning with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others, Protestants rejected Tradition as untrustworthy and corrupt. They turned instead to the individual as the ultimate arbiter of the Bible, thereby setting the stage for the countless versions of Protestant Christianity that come and go with little or no reference to historical Christianity.
Protestant Christians are therefore prone to peer orientation in their churches. They often splinter into homogenous groups such that they only worship with and listen to people who are similar to them in terms of cultural and socioeconomic background. The globality and universality of the Catholic Church help to keep Catholics from falling into the same predicament.
Our culture has lost another important “parent orientation”: that of a respectful connection to Mother Nature. While the contemporary environmental movement does exhort us to care for the gifts of nature, it does not necessarily encourage us to respect and treasure our own natures as manifested in our bodies. Ancient wisdom sees the task of every human as that of discovering reality and conforming himself to it. A contemporary approach is rather to decide what reality should be and then to conform reality to our opinion. Contraception, abortion, and sex-change “medicine” are all manifestations of an attitude that says, “We know better than Mother Nature.”
Ultimately, all of these manifestations of large-scale peer orientation are ripples of the one primal peer-orientation move: the Fall of man. Our first parents were created to live in a loving, trustful relationship with God the Father—the ultimate parent orientation. When they listened instead to the voice of the Tempter and followed a creature (a “peer”) rather than the Creator, the filial relationship was dramatically disrupted.
What is Our Lord’s response to our peer-oriented confusion? “When he saw the crowds, [Jesus] had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Our Savior shows us what relationship we need with God—one of absolute trust and loving dependence—by living that relationship perfectly Himself and then inviting us into it. In an exact parallel with Neufeld and Maté’s descriptions of a good parent-child relationship, Jesus has established the means for our salvific attachment and orientation in our relationship to God.
The sacraments are God’s attachment tools. We first become attached to God in our Baptism, and we maintain and strengthen that attachment through Confirmation, Confession, and Holy Communion. Through the Bible and the Church’s Magisterium, God orients us on the path of life: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). When we let this most important relationship be put to rights through God’s grace, we will also see clearly to restore the proper order in other aspects of our lives.
We should not be surprised at the parallel between a good parenting book and our faith. If something is true of the parent-child relationship, it is likely to be true of the God-human relationship. It is no accident that God arranged our existence to begin, continue, and end within the context of the family. The family is the best material analogy to His own inner life, the Blessed Trinity, which is why defending marriage and family is so essential. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues into its first holiday season, let us courageously embrace the opportunities that Providence is giving us to reclaim our children and let God reclaim us.