The lost children

November 1, 2007 | 24 comments

For as long as I can remember, it’s seemed to me that something is different about children today — and not in a good way. I know that children and teens have always teased one another, talked back to their parents, yearned for independence, etc….but it seems that over the past couple of decades those behaviors have gotten worse, and become somehow darker, more sinister.

When we lived in Littleton, Colorado, at my junior high I would frequently see some group of kids corner one of the awkward, shy, “weaker” children in the class and torment him or her mercilessly (sometimes physically) as the teachers looked the other way. Kids were angry, hostile and cruel. There was an unnatural, “Lord of the Flies” type feel to the culture that went way beyond the type of behavior you’d expect from young adults. (Many of the kids from that junior high went on to a high school called Columbine, which you may have heard of.)

I see teenagers sulking through the neighborhood as they walk down our sidewalks, usually alone, many of them dressed in a manner to present themselves as hostile, reclusive, or threatening. I would certainly know about that — in high school and college I wore all black (including black lipstick), had a nose ring and dyed my hair various crazy colors, and listened to angry, dark music like Nine Inch Nails, Alice in Chains, Korn, and Ministry (no, Ministry is not a religious band…at all). I frequently felt depressed, and had a sort of inner angst that just didn’t seem natural, even by teenaged girl standards.

For a long time I’ve tried to articulate what exactly I think is wrong and what might have caused it, but I could never quite seem to hit the nail on the head. Then I came across the great book Hold On to Your Kids (recommended highly by commenter Steve G.), and I think I finally understand it.

In the book, authors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate describe this dark new peer culture, and lay out their theory that the problem is “peer orientation”: meaning, children use peers instead of parents and families as their compass point, their guide for discovering their identity, morals and values. 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.

The authors go on to explain that various conditions in our culture have combined to leave children with a huge orienting void — that, unfortunately, they fill by orienting themselves to their peers:

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.

And what happens when children no longer orient themselves to their parents, their families, and other adults? The authors offer a perfect description of modern youth culture when they write:

“Hey” is the universal greeting. “Sup” substitutes for “what’s up” as the replacement for “how are you” or “how’s it going”…Such “conversations” can and do go on at length without anything more meaningful being said. It’s tribal language, foreign to adults, and it has the implicit purpose of making a connection while revealing nothing of value about the self.

“Today’s teens are a tribe apart, ” wrote the journalist Patricia Hersch in her 1999 book on adolescence in America. As befits a tribe, teens have their own language, values, meanings, music, dress codes, and identifying marks, such as body piercings and tattoos. […]

Although we have lulled ourselves into believing that this tribalization of youth is an innocuous process, it is a historically new phenomenon with a disruptive influence on social life. It underlies the frustration many parents feel at their inability to pass on their traditions to their children.

In the separate tribe many of our children have joined, the transmission of values and culture flows horizontally, from one unlearned and immature person to another. This process…is eroding one of the underpinnings of civilized social activity. […]

“Children throughout Western civilization, ” declared an MTV announcer not long ago, “are coming to look more like each other than their own parents or grandparents.”

The results of this are disturbing not just because of the implications for society as a whole, but for the individual child. I found myself nodding vigorously as the authors described the defense mechanisms that peer-oriented children are forced to adopt. I moved around a lot, and in the schools I went to where there was a higher level of peer orientation, I saw these behaviors a lot more:

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. Drugs are emotional painkillers.

So how did we end up in this situation?

This was the part I found particularly interesting. When I read the author’s description of a small town in France that has a traditional, multigenerational, family-oriented culture (the type of culture that always existed in America until the breakdown of lifelong communities over the past 60 years), it became glaringly obvious that our society is nothing like that today, and that that is not a good thing:

[In Rognes, France] children greeted adults and adults greeted children. Socializing involved whole families, not adults with adults and children with children. There was only one village activity at a time, so families were not pulled in several directions…Even at the village fountain, the local hangout, teens mixed with seniors. Festivals and celebrations, of which there were many, were family affairs. The music and dancing brought the generations together instead of separating them…One could not even buy a baguette without first engaging in the appropriate greeting rituals. […]

The attachment customs are the village primary school were equally impressive. Children were personally escorted to school and picked up by their parents or grandparents. The school was gated and the grounds could be entered only by a single entrance. At the gate were the teachers, waiting for their students to be handed over to them. Again, culture dictated that connection be established with appropriate greetings between the adult escorts and the teachers as well as the teachers and the students…When the children were released from school, it was always one class at a time, with the teacher in the lead…Their teachers were their teachers whether on the grounds or in the village market or at the village festival. There weren’t many cracks to fall through.

I don’t think I need to detail the differences between this and our own culture today. The difference is striking, and it’s clear which one is more natural and facilitates healthy bonds between children and their families.

So what should we do?

The authors have a wide variety of suggestions that all basically come down to putting structures in place to help foster kids’ “attachment” to their parents, as would have happened naturally if they lived in a traditional village setting (e.g. eat dinner as a family, seek activities that include the whole family, don’t let kids spend all their free time with their friends, etc.) I actually didn’t get as much out of this last part of the book because I didn’t agree with all of their suggestions, particularly concerning discipline. But that didn’t really matter — for all I care, they could have skipped the entire section on solutions — because this is one of those cases where by being able to name the problem you’re half way to solving it.

Now that I understand the concept of peer orientation, I’ll never see our society the same way again. So many things make so much more sense now. I finally understand what’s going on with the kids who sulk around the neighborhood in their black baggy clothes, why I did that myself when I was younger, why so many kids at my high school committed suicide over petty difference with friends, why I get a really bad feeling every time I watch MTV, and so on and so on.

I apologize for the length of this post, I usually try to keep them much shorter, but I found this topic so interesting and enlightening that I wanted to share it in case others find it helpful as well.


  1. Melora

    Sounds like a very interesting book. My nine year old son has a friend who calls our house and simply says “Hey,” when I answer the phone. Always. When I repeat my “hello,” he will respond with “hey,” and he will go on with the “hey” until I say, “Is this ____?” It drives me Crazy, and I’ve told my son that I don’t ever want to hear him doing this.
    I don’t think homeschooling is the Solution for youthful alienation and over-dependence on the approval of peers, but it does allow more time to foster family bonds and more control over Which peers a child is being influenced by. I definitely will look for your book!

  2. will

    This is fascinating, as the father of four kids 10 years old and under it’s doubly so.

    In fact, I think we’re doing as a family everything we can do to keep our kids from falling into that trap…but I think we might start doing it more intentionally now.

  3. Letum

    I’m 19, and I couldn’t agree with you more. I have no idea how I transcended peer-oriented culture. By the grace of God, I seem to not be a child of my age, miraculously. I seem to be traditional by instinct and intuition. I can’t explain it. I naturally rebel against rebellion.

  4. Terri

    Another book to add to my “To Read” list. Sounds fascinating. I have two daughters, and i already worry about them attaching more significance to their friends than they do me or their dad. My husband and I are constantly emphasizing the importance of family and family time.

  5. Anne

    I read that book a year or two ago, and I recommend it, too. It disturbs me that so many parents have abdicated not only their authority in their children’s lives, but their presence, as well. And our culture has really bought into age segregation. It’s become the norm — along with angry, sullen, depressed kids.

    These aren’t the reasons we’ve chosen a homeschooling lifestyle, but they’re some of the reasons I’m really glad we did!

    Thanks for reviewing this book. I hope more people will read it

  6. Melanie B

    This wasn’t too long at all. Very interesting. I’m adding this book to my to read list.

    I have to say, this is one of the many reasons I’m going to homeschool my children. Like Melora says, it’s not a magical fix-all; but homeschooling does socialize children first to their families rather than to their peers. When I see the objection “but what about socialization?” I have to say, the argument this book makes is what immediately comes to mind. I don’t want my children’s primary orientation to be to their peers as school seems designed to do but to our family, the Church, the larger community of friends of all ages.

    This also reminded me of an essay I read a few years ago that contained some of the ideas that it looks like this book fleshes out much more fully: Why Nerds Are Unpopular”

  7. Studying Catholicism

    This is really amazing, and since you’ve pointed it out, I can totally see it! Especially in our lives- My husband comes from a home-schooling family with 14 kids, me from a public schooling family of 5 kids. I can see how him and his siblings look to their parents, and how my siblings and I looked to our friends. That’s just amazing since you pointed it out!

  8. Red Cardigan

    This is really interesting–great post!

    I was homeschooled just for the last two and a half years of high school, but my younger siblings were homeschooled for many more grades. I came home from college once and marveled at the ease with which one of my younger sisters, homeschooled since kindergarten, interacted with adults of all ages at a parish gathering. Without the “peer culture” of school, truly normal socialization starts to happen!

  9. Mojo

    Wow, Jen. Amazing information. I will read this book very soon…thank you for your review of it.

    I pray my husband and I are on the correct path with our children, but it never hurts to evaluate and re-evaluate…again and again. A sort of “parental due diligence” is certainly warranted, most especially in the culture in which we now live. In fact, doing so is truly a matter of life and death for our children.

    Letum, I can be described in much the same way you describe yourself. I also naturally rebelled against rebellion. The big difference, however, is I am more than twice your age. I know it was much easier to stay on the straight and narrow, so to speak, when I was 19 than it has (potentially) been for you. Compared to today’s society, things were very different in my high school and college years (1978-1985). I also was not affected by peer orientation. The opinions I formed then about life, faith and morals, all the while guided by my parents, remain largely unchanged and intact.

    Because of your age (just 5 yrs older than my oldest child, who will begin high school next year), I would like to ask you a few questions. You are certainly free to decline answering, but I would value your input if you wouldn’t mind replying.

    1) Although you say it is ‘miraculous’ and by God’s grace that you transcend peer-oriented culture, can you think of even one thing your parents do/did to predispose you to this character strength?

    2) Would you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert?

    3) Do you mind sharing your gender?

    Thank you!

  10. Odgie

    An excellent post, and you have sold me on reading this book when I get the chance.

    I am currently taking a graduate class on child welfare, and one topic we have covered at length is adult-child attachment, and what the lack of it does to children. I have also done research into risk and protective factors in moral development, and a peer-orientation has been identified as a huge risk factor for anti-social behavior.

    Thanks for writing this.

  11. Sarah

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write about this poignant topic and highlight a book that needs to be read widely.

    I was very fortunate to grow up in a close family and enjoy a school environment with little of which you describe. I grew up in a small town in the countryside of England and had an extremely happy childhood.

    I was aware of peer pressure in my teens and disliked it. I held my parents in extremely high esteem and above all else. however, the peer-pressure annoyed me and it’s one reason I consider home-schooling my own children – or at least giving them that opportunity and letting them know that school isn’t the only option.

    My children are very young, nearly two and four, but I have to say the future does concern me. I am fortunate to be living in a beautiful environment, in Wellington, New Zealand, but this country is by no means, at all, immune to the pressures described in your post.

    Thank you again for your post, it has given me a great deal to ponder on; as have your reader’s comments.

    Best wishes,


  12. nicole

    Very interesting ideas. I think it is a reflection on where we are as a culture that we have to be intentional about fostering the family bonds. With one child in kindergarten at public school, I am already too aware of what is out there and how tightly we have to hold onto our children, without smothering them and making them want to get away. I’ll look for the book, looks interesting.

  13. Christine the Soccer Mom

    Everyone who has said that homeschooling can’t fix it alone is right, but, as Melanie said, it helps. Big Girl’s sports teams have families on the same team (divided up by ages) that practice on the same day, and all the games are on one day. The banquets (ours is Saturday) is for the whole team, 6 to 18, and it’s a big family affair. Our homeschooling co-op is striving to do more as families, too.

    Nothing is perfect, but at least I know that my girls are attaching pretty strongly to our family first. I’d never thought about this much the way the book presents it, but I’ll be looking for a copy of this to read ASAP.

  14. Theocoid

    Thanks for this post. I’m a bit older, but I experienced a similar alienation as an adolescent. I was recently in Spain, and the village life in the suburb where I stayed was quite similar to what the authors of the book describe.

  15. Jennifer F.

    Thank you all for your comments!

    Sarah – you’re so lucky, Wellington is one of my favorite cities in the world! I visited NZ when I was 18 as part of a student trip. We went to a school in Te Kuiti and all of us Americans were surprised at how different it was from our own schools, though we couldn’t put our fingers on what the difference was. Looking back, it’s that the environment in Te Kuiti was *much* more family- and adult-oriented than our own environments.

  16. Diego

    I had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Neufeld speak at our local high school well over a year ago. After hearing his talk, I of course bought his book.

    I too found the ‘How To’ section a little weak (in fact in his talk he mentioned how he never intended it to be a ‘How To’ book, but the publisher insisted he add it). But overall the message to keep your kids at close range and do things as a family seems to be very true. I can see the correlation between a tight-knit family and ‘good’ kids in the families of my friends and relatives.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up. It has been over a year since I read the book and just yesterday a friend was lamenting to my wife and I (for over 2 hours) about how awful her 17 year old is acting. I didn’t even think of this book but I will definitely recommend it to her now. Very providential.

  17. Abigail

    I’ll have to go check out this book. First, I really identify with this problem. I felt angst myself in high school. Then as a young mother in Madison, we shared an apartment building with a group of young adults who were “into” weird hair, multiple-piercing, etc. I operated under the assumption that the more points on a person’s mohalk, the more smiles & hellos they needed from myself and my tiny babies. Each time, we had such pleasant interactions with each other. They still remain my favorite neighbors, ever.

    Even so, I’m not sure that the thesis is the right one. (I’ll have to read the book myself to double check.) As a history major, the start of the “youth culture” actually started in the 1920s. That’s when the auto, or “Tin Lizzie” allowed for youth to escape adult eyes during dating, fashion trend change, etc.

    The differences between us and a French village go way beyond changes in sixty years. I suspect the differences have more to do with France being a singular Catholic country (at least until recent days) and our own much more fractured view of religion, politics, marriage and identity.

  18. Shakespeare's Cobbler

    I think I know even more precisely how we got this way… As technology transformed society the traditional communities became less of a necessity, but even more importantly the cultural revolution has really destroyed the foundations of family and looking to elders. I have heard that the cultural revolution that destroyed tradition and good community was the product of Socialist/Communist/Marxist thinking. (Or at least that it was caused by Socialist plans to undermine traditional society in order to pave the way for Marxism.) Fortunately, like Letum, I somehow was able to escape the Unculture. I would say it was in large part by being raised in a Catholic homeschool family (the kind I will definitely have should I find God is calling me to marriage). Part of the good culture I have looked to instead is a movement called Distributism, so named because it was in part about living naturally off the land as opposed to crammed into cities. G.K. Chesterton was one of the most famous Distributists. What really fascinates me is that Distributism was a response to the evils of over-industrialization and unbridled Capitalism but avoided and equally fought the errors of Communism/Socialism/Marxism. If what I heard about the cultural rebellion being from Marxism is correct, I would be interested to look into how this issue relates to Distributism. (If you would like to look for more on Distributism, I’d say a good place to start is The Blue Boar and the links on the left to Distributist and Chestertonian sites.)

  19. Shakespeare's Cobbler

    Update: In looking around at Chestertonian blogs, I found one that has a huge selection of info on Distributism on the right side if you scroll down just a bit.

  20. marmaladeinstead

    I’m twenty, and one of the things I am most greatful for is that my homeschooling parents taught my sisters and me to relate to adults, instead of allowing us to cruise comfortably in a more peer-oriented culture. Sometimes these interactions with adults were very intentional and required–I remember my mother saying, when I was a very small girl, “Rachel, you MUST answer nicely when Mrs. Smith talks to you,” as well as discussions of how best to converse with someone and be interested and engaged in their lives. That training merely reinforced the overall basis on which my parents operated, though; that family-oriented activities were preferable to age-segregated events, and that homeschooling was worthwhile, in spite what seemed to us (at the time) a horrible disadvantage of having fewer friends our own age. Looking back, I’m so thankful for the way that my parents encouraged us to engage with people both older and younger than we were; perhaps that interaction with and acceptance by adults instead of merely our peers helped to keep us from falling into the kind of culture that you’re describing?

  21. Letum

    Dear Mojo,

    I would be happy to answer your questions. Send me your email through my blog so we can strike up a correspondence.

    Pax Christi,

  22. Sebastian

    I just got this from the library (after reading your recommendation). Very interesting book. It is helpful to be reminded that all those moments of the kids wanting to crawl in my lap while I’m reading or computing are expressions, not of their peskiness but of their desire to connect with me. Heady stuff, almost makes me feel like a rock star.

  23. knit_tgz

    There’s something very important that I want to stress: kids, and adolescents, need to have adults in whom they trust as guides. And I believe it is best if they have several: not just their parents. Because I have seen more than my share of bad parents who cannot be guides to their kids, and they’re usually the only adult role models they know. I believe if kids had a resonalbly large network of adults they dealed with respectfully and gradually could develop trust with them, even the kids who have parents who are not good role models would have some adult to look up to. I say this because I only started having a large range of adult/senior figures in whom to trust and to whom to talk to and to look up to when I entered the Church and started being active on it. Society in general is made such as families (nuclear families, at best father+mother+children) are closed over themselves, and this is NOT GOOD. One thing I find when I read about homeschoolers, is that as they want the kids to be socialized, the kids end up socializing with not only other kids, but also other adults. The most well-rounded people I know not only loved their parents and trusted them, but had several other adults to look up to. And when (as it happens more and more, unfortunately) the adults at home behave worse than teenagers, then these other adult “mentors” become essential.

    Just my 2 cents.

    P.S.: As someone who lives in a nominally Catholic country like France, I can say that in general people in the suburbia or in cities, unfortunately, live mostly in peer groups only. The notorious exception that I know are the families which are active in my parish. I do not know about the ones who only attend mass, but I can vouch that those who are involved in some other activity in the parish have usually a network of people they know and trust of all ages.

  24. Jenny

    Thanks Jen, I’m definately going to check this out…

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