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Parenting - Attachment and Orientation

Excerpted from

Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers

By ,

Closely related to the orienting instinct introduced in the previous chapter, attachment is crucial to parenting, to education, and to the transmission of culture. Like attachment, the orienting instinct is basic to our nature, even if we rarely become conscious of it. In its most concrete and physical form, orienting involves locating oneself in space and time. When we have difficulty doing this, we become anxious. If on waking we are not sure where we are or whether we are still dreaming, locating ourselves in space and time gets top priority. If we get lost while on a hike, we will not pause to admire the flora and fauna, or to assess our life goals, or even to think about supper. Getting our bearings will command all of our attention and consume most of our energy.

Our orienting needs are not just physical. Psychological orientation is just as important in human development. 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 suffer disorientation, to be lost psychologically-a state our brains are programmed to do almost anything to avoid. Children are utterly incapable of orienting by themselves. They need help.

Attachment provides that help. The first business of attachment is to create a compass point out of the person attached to. As long as the child can find himself in relation to this compass point, he will not feel lost. Instincts activated in the child impel him to keep that working compass point ever close. Attachment enables children to hitch a ride with adults who are, at least in the mind of a child, assumed to be more capable of orienting themselves and finding their way.

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. Even adults who are relatively self-orienting can feel a bit lost when not in contact with the person in their lives who functions as their working compass point.

If we as adults can experience disorientation when apart from those we are attached to, how much more will children. I still remember how bereft I felt when Mrs. Ackerberg, the first-grade teacher to whom I was very attached, was absent: like a lost soul, cut adrift, aimless.

A parent is by far a child's best compass point-or another adult, like a teacher, who acts as a parent substitute. But who becomes the compass point is a function of attachment. And attachment, as we all know, can be fickle. The crucially important orienting function can be bestowed on someone ill-suited for the task-a child's peers, for example. When a child becomes so attached to her peers that she would rather be with them and be like them, those peers, whether singly or as a group, become that child's working compass point. It will be her peers with whom she will seek closeness. She will look to her peers for cues on how to act, what to wear, how to look, what to say, and what to do. Her peers will become the arbiters of what is good, what is happening, what is important, and even of how she defines herself. That is precisely what had occurred in Cynthia's case: in her emotional universe, her peers had replaced her parents as the center of gravity. She revolved around them-a complete subversion of the natural order of things.

Only recently have the psychological attachment patterns of children been well charted and understood. Absolutely clear is that children were meant to revolve around their parents and the other adults responsible for them, just as the planets revolve around the sun. And yet more and more children are now orbiting around each other.

Far from being qualified to orient anyone else, children are not even capable of self-orienting in any realistic sense of that word. Our children's peers are not the ones we want them to depend on. They are not the ones to give our children a sense of themselves, to point out right from wrong, to distinguish fact from fantasy, to identify what works and what doesn't, and to direct them as to where to go and how to get there.

What do children get from orienting to each other? Let us imagine ourselves, once more, on a dark and entangled wilderness trail completely unfamiliar to us. On our own, we may feel intense fear or even panic. If led by a guide who seems to know where he is going, or if we believe that he does, we would proceed with confidence. There would be nothing to trigger an alarm unless, of course, our guide betrayed his own anxiety.

In the same way, by using each other as compass points, children defend themselves against the nightmarish anxiety of experiencing an orientation void. On the conscious level, they are able to prevent feeling lost, muddled, or confused. Peer-oriented children are remarkably devoid of these feelings. That is the irony: they look like the blind leading the blind, like a school of fish revolving around each other, but they feel just fine. It does not seem to matter that their operational compass points are inadequate, inconsistent, and unreliable. These children are lost and truly disoriented without consciously feeling bewildered.

For children who have replaced adults with their peers, it is enough to just he with each other, even if they are completely off the map. They do not accept direction from adults or ask for guidance. They frustrate us with their apparent certainty that they are all right, no matter how clearly we sec that they're heading in the wrong direction or in no direction at all. Many parents have had the vexing experience of trying to point out reality to a teenager w hose world may be in shambles but who is blithely and adamantly insisting that absolutely nothing is amiss.

Superficially, one could argue that their attachment with peers is serving them well if it keeps them from being lost and bewildered. In reality, it does not save them from getting lost, only from feeling lost.

Tags: Parenting and Families