The lost children

August 25, 2008 | 21 comments

This post was originally published on November 1, 2007. I wanted to re-post this one because I’ve found this book to be all the more insightful and accurate since I’ve gotten to know my little neighbor friends. It precisely describes what I see happening with them and their friends.

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 my classmates 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 Helmet. 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”: children using peers instead of parents as their compass point for orienting themselves in the world, 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 schools 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. Sorry this is a longer post, but I found this topic so interesting and enlightening that I wanted to share it in case others find it helpful as well.

8/25/08: Updated to note that if you find the subject matter of this post interesting, Steve G. also highly, highly recommends the author’s Power to Parent DVD series, which expands on these subjects. I’m looking forward to checking it out soon.


  1. Anonymous

    I am always struck by how our homeschooled grandkids relate so well to adults as well as other kids. They LIKE and respect adults and are comfortable with them. My 11 year old grandson isn’t embarrassed to be seen with his grandmother at the library or laundromat. He and his siblings haven’t absorbed the what will others think mentality at all.

    Homeschooling isn’t for every family, but parents must stay connected to their kids instead of everyone flying off in a thousand directions. Judy

  2. Jaibee

    Great read – very interesting! Now to figure out how to undo that peer-orienting….

  3. Soul Pockets

    This is one of the reasons we have decided to homeschool. It is getting closer to actually doing it and friends and family are finding out our plan. Many times the reaction is, “I knew a homeschooler once and they were weird.” I just smile and pray that my children will be weird too. Weird in the sense that peer pressure and the attitudes you have described will be foreign to them. I too know homeschooling is not for everyone, but for my family it is the way to go.

  4. Melora

    I recently finished that book, having bought it on your recommendation, and have been meaning to thank you for it! Even though we homeschool and my kids are still well “parent oriented,” there was a lot that I found valuable in that book. (I hope it will help me Keep them looking to us rather than peers for guidance as they grow older!) Also, we are hoping to become foster parents soon, and there is a lot there that I think might be relevant to children coming from troubled homes.
    Anyway, I am now sending the book on to my brother, who needs it for his children, and I thank you for the recommendation!

  5. Beth/Mom2TwoVikings

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Your post and the reviews at Amazon *finally* articulated for me our reasons to homeschool as well!

    I posted my thoughts and linked back to here as well.

  6. Kelly @ Love Well

    Being a fairly new reader, I love your repeated posts. Double the interesting information, double the fun.

    I’ve added that book to my library list.

  7. Tausign

    This was a post well worth repeating. Just this brief synopsis speaks of wisdom in child raising. The village scene of children entering school seems strikingly similar to what I witness at our Cathedral Parochial School. My wife teaches there and our daughter attends.

    Parents drop their children off in the schoolyard (sans formal greeting) as all teachers rotate morning duty to be with children. A few minutes later each teacher arrives and at a specific time children line up to each classroom teacher. Morning offering is said in the schoolyard and then they process silently each class, one at a time into school.

  8. Marian

    This is a great book, one of those that sticks with you and changes the way you look at things.

    Having been raised in the culture, I was surprised when reading the first few chapters how difficult it was for me to assimilate the idea that a separate youth culture really is a new, unnatural thing. We take what is a sick perversion of how we are made and call it natural.
    I appreciated his reference of, “No man can serve two masters,” in regard to the attachment drive. as it made even more sense for me in thinking about it.

    Now, yes, the what to do with it in the midst of a culture that is so strongly oriented in a different direction…

  9. Maria

    I put this on my reading list the first time you ran this post…still haven’t got to it. I really need to bump it up to the top of the list. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. Bender

    I don’t know, Jen. This seems to be way off the mark, not in its identification of a problem, but in its diagnosis of the problem, examples, and conclusions.

    Kids aren’t with their parents enough and hang around other kids to much? It seems to me that, in the modern age, kids don’t spend enough time with other kids. When I was growing up, kids — young kids — basically just went out to play and roam the neighborhood all day long. Given security concerns today, parents would be accused of neglect if they let their kids do this, keeping kids locked up in their homes and prefering to schedule play dates instead. Socialization with other kids is actually reduced.

    The greater problem is the whole moral relativism thing going on, where parents do not want to seem judgmental and harsh and thus do not teach their kids not to act like jerks and bullies. And they are not taught to stand up to bullies, i.e. a punch in the face. When they finally can get away from the clutches of mom and dad, they carry that spirit of rebellion and relief over into relations with others and don’t know how to act.

    Rather than seeing all the failings as being in kids, who are merely a blank canvas, we should rightly point the finger where it belongs — at parents of the last 35 years and other authority figures who have let them down and failed to pass on the heritage of morals and values that kids are entitled to, in a false sense of freedom and autonomy that does not want to impose meaning and moral truth on others but lets them struggle like any existentialist to find their own meaning and purpose in life.

    As for teen-speak, I am quite aware of this phenomenon, but “hey” and sitting around not saying much is hardly new or unique to kids. Just watch an episode of The Andy Griffith Show from the early 1960s!

  11. Mary Catherine

    I loved this post so much that I copied the entire thing onto my blog. Don’t worry, I’m not taking credit for it – linked to you three times. This is an issue that can’t be talked about enough.

  12. 'Becca

    I’m a developmental psychologist. I’ve read this book since you originally posted the article. I agree that peer orientation as a person’s primary attachment is harmful–and I’ll take it farther and say this is true not only for children but for anyone. For example, elderly people who hang around only with elderly people and are hostile to new ideas are less healthy and less functional as members of the wider society, than elderly people who mix with folks of all ages.

    In the link behind my name, I talk about (among other things) the way I used to attach to my teachers as grown-up friends. I see my 3-year-old doing this now. His teachers comment that he talks with them more than the other kids do, and he tells me as many anecdotes about teachers as about the other kids. His dad and I purposely treated him like a person from the very beginning (as opposed to treating him like a different, inferior kind of creature) and now he is interested in and expects to relate to people of all ages. He’s been in full-time childcare since 18 months.

    I can see how homeschooling can encourage parent-orientation, but it’s not a magic bullet. As a Girl Scout leader, I’ve come to know two homeschooled families. One has parent-oriented kids, but the other has some of the most peer-oriented kids (younger than teens) I’ve ever met–it is very difficult for me as an adult to get them to make eye contact or continue a conversation with me. My best guess is that it’s because their parents have many children close in age and have a strong “we are the adults and get to live by different rules and order you around” attitude; the kids see themselves as being in a separate group from their parents, with each other as allies. The kids are very obedient to adults (now; it’ll be interesting to see how they do as teens) but it’s hard to engage with them as people.

    In my own experience, school was a place where I met peer-oriented kids who tried to entice me to orient to them, but I found that frightening because it threatened my existing attachment to my parents and “tribe” of family and friends. I did have friends, and we sometimes kept secrets from adults, but I remained connected with my parents and enjoyed talking with them about the dumb things “those crazy teenagers” were into, even when I WAS a teenager! If you build a foundation of secure attachment with your kids, I think you have little to fear from school.

  13. SuburbanCorrespondent

    I of course in theory agree with all this. Imagine my surprise then to find my 13-year-old, homeschooled, family-oriented daughter do a violent 180 and refuse to orient to anyone but her peers. I think some personalities are more subject to this “wrong turn” than are others, is all; and for the more extreme ones, there is precious little you can do to prevent this teen peer-orientation phase.

    Doesn’t mean I’ll quit trying with the younger 4, however…

  14. Meta

    I went to a Catholic grade school, public high school and Catholic college. Spending all day with only people your age does have a strong peer-orienting effect on one's social life. However, my parents are also very involved in a Christian community where we constantly had interactions (dinners, community service projects, praise & worship services) with adults and kids of varied ages from ourselves. It did wonders for our ability to socialize beyond our peer group (among other benefits).

    My point is that homeschooling is not the only solution (though a very good one). Parents have to make a conscious effort to fight this modern trend, but it is indeed possible amidst normal schooling. Our community lifestyle in many ways ties back into Jen's discussions on the watering hole–sharing everyday tasks being the basis for socialization across any age.

  15. Christine

    I have this book and also found myself nodding throughout. He really hits the nail on the head, and this higlights one of the main reasons why we decided to homeschool. The benefits thus far have been amazing and I pray the relationships we have with our kids, and they have with each other, will continue. I don’t think it’s impossible to keep connected with your kids if they are in public school, but it is certainly infintely more difficult.

  16. 'Becca

    Bender has a good point about the loss of free play. One thing that bugged me about the book was that it advocates reducing or eliminating this type of play. Something I’ve noticed about my son’s playing with neighborhood kids (which I didn’t get to do, growing up where everyone stayed inside with their AC and TV unless we had a scheduled playdate) is the willingness to play with kids of other ages–whoever’s there. Striving to keep up with bigger kids and adapting to the abilities of younger kids are valuable experiences.

    Yes, socialization with other kids is reduced for many kids these days. Socialization with adults also is reduced: Houses are bigger, many families spend most of the time they’re in the same room watching TV, many families use convenience products and services rather than make things together and take care of each other (see link behind my name), and many parents arrange for someone else to care for their kids whenever they do anything outside the home rather than include the kids in their activities.

    Bender mentions “a false sense of freedom and autonomy” created by leaving children to find their own moral principles. I think it’s ironic that this coincides with greater restrictions on children’s physical freedom and autonomy. Many parents these days seem to think raising children is a matter of leaving the kids to raise themselves in a padded cell with television.

    Some books I recommend:
    The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz includes a fascinating chapter about how niche marketing affects families.
    The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff is about balance, attachment, and community.
    In the Country of the Young by John W. Aldridge explains how our culture went off the rails during the Baby Boom.
    How Children Learn by John Holt includes many examples of children benefiting from informal interaction with adults, other children, and everyday objects.

  17. Sandy

    Sounds like a very interesting book that I will try to get.

    We just completed homeschooling our two dc (from 4th and 2nd grades on). One of our primary motivators was that we wanted to be the primary influencers in our children’s lives and NOT let the prevailing culture do it. I do agree with the other commenters, however, that homeschooling in itself is no guarantee for cross-generational socialization. My two dc have homeschool friends who are very much peer socialized and they also have friends who went to public school who are cross-generationally socialized. The parental influence and involvement is the key, I think.

    Just yesterday I attended a funeral service for the stillborn 7th child of a homeschool family. It was so comforting to see older teenage boys who were there to support their friend, the 18 year old brother of the deceased child. (Those boys’ mothers were also there, as the families are all part of our homeschool community.)

    I must say that our family is very close in a way I don’t think we ever would have been if we hadn’t homeschooled. Again, that’s what worked for us, not saying it works for every family.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking re-play of a post I hadn’t seen.

  18. lyrl

    I enjoyed this repost – I had read the original post, but the discussion in the comments here added depth to the information in the original post. Thanks to Jen, and also to all who commented!

  19. Grafted Branch@Restoring the Years

    What a great article! You’ve researched and eloquently said everything I’ve tried to discuss and display on my blog for 2 years!

    You’ve done it better.

  20. Sheri

    Thank you for reposting this, it’s so timely for me. We’re dealing with some issues with our 13 year old, everything you wrote fits perfectly. If I didn’t have to work I would love to homeschool, I’ve always wished it was an option for us but since it’s not we’re doing the best we can.

    I’m definitely getting that book you recommended, can’t wait to read it.

  21. Lynne

    I’m going to go through your post again to better digest it but I wish you had written it 5 years ago… 😉 My daughter is 17 and with just 2 years left in high school, she’s almost ready to leave the nest.

    I blogged on an aspect of this phenomena a week or so ago, the isolation of teenagers.


  1. The goal-oriented life : Conversion Diary - [...] Have a close relationship with our children, so our family is their home base (i.e. so they’re not peer-oriented)…

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