Renowned physician, best-selling author and public speaker Dr. Gabor Maté wants to connect; he wants to re-awaken primal parenting instincts, dampened by our busy, stressed-out lives and rebuild critical attachments with our children.
He's coming to Whistler to speak on Tuesday, Sept. 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. with a talk titled, "Peer Orientation: Why Children are Stressed, Why Parents and Teachers are Disempowered and How to Restore a Healthy Balance in Adult-Child Relationships."
Dr. Gabor Maté spoke to Pique's Alison Taylor ahead of his Whistler visit.
Pique: What do you mean by "peer orientation."
Gabor Maté: Children need to be connected to somebody. I mean there's no human life without connection. That's true for birds; that's true for any mammal. We all have to be connected in order to survive. That's a primary biological need. Now, we're meant to be connected to our parents. But that depends on parents being around. In our society where parents are less and less available to their kids, they're more and more stressed, the child's brain is in a terrible dilemma: 'I need to be connected but the people I need to be connected to are not around.' Who's around for a kid most of the time in our society? The peer group. So children become oriented towards their peer group. They look to peers now for values, for contact, for validation. As they do that, the parents lose their capacity to parent their kids because the kids are not looking to them anymore. So you have their overwhelming influence of the peer group now and the peer culture. For the first time in human history children are more influenced by their peers than by adults in their lives. And developmentally that's a disaster.
P: When did this trend start happening?
GM: As a broad sociological phenomenon, (it began) around the Second World War, when women first entered the workforce. All of a sudden there was no parent at home. At the same time, changes began to occur in communities, where small communities would break down, people would gravitate to the cities... The extended family was no longer around. Neighbourhoods were no longer warm and cohesive communities... Whereas human beings for whatever reason have always grown up in a village setting, as it were, all of a sudden the nuclear family became the basis of child rearing and the nuclear family itself was less and less available to the child. And these trends have continued, accelerated since the Second World War. So you can broadly date it to that time. It seems to get worse with every generation.
P: Could the problem be more pronounced in a place like Whistler where many families are growing up without their extended families?
GM: That depends on whether there are other compensations. For example, let's say parents in Whistler are away from their extended families. Well, that's a loss for the kids, no question about it. There's a kind of wisdom and peace and love that grandparents bring to the child that the parents are having great difficulty providing. However, if the parents are aware of the importance of attaching with their kids and spend a lot of time with their kids, if the parents are in contact with other parents who parent along similar adult/child connection values then that can be compensated for. But when we're not aware of the dynamic, when we assume that our kids are our kids just because biologically we gave birth to them, because we're responsible for them, and we don't understand the importance of maintaining the child's attachment to nurturing adults, without the extended family and the multi-generational impact, that could be devastating. In a place like Whistler where there are not a lot of grandparents, people have to be super conscious to what's going on. And they have to provide it.
P: Families are busy with working parents, kids are often over-programmed — how do families begin compensating for this lack of attachment?
GM: First of all, you have to become conscious of it. So we have to live a life in such a way that we have to compensate for it. Number two, there are many manifestations of children attaching to their peer group showing up in their form of behaviour, such as arrogance or rudeness towards parents, such as unwilling to spend time with their parents, such as not listening to parents, such as being on the Internet or the cell phone all the time connecting with peers. Now if we perceived these problems as behavioural issues and we try and control the behaviours or punish the kids for it, you exacerbate the problem, make it worse. You have to recognize them as behavioural manifestations, not as problems themselves but as the embodiment of a problem, which is the loss of attachment. We have to rebuild that attachment relationship with our kid very consciously. So it means not losing sight or consciousness of the attachment dynamic in the first place and the second place, if we have lost sight of it or we're not conscious of it, and in society many people are not, and we see the behavioural manifestations, then rather than react to the behaviours, we actually have to react to the fundamental problem, which means we have to look at childhood behaviour in a completely different way.
P: When do you begin to see this move away from parents and adults to peer orientation? Is there a critical age?
GM: Well, the earlier it happens, the more devastating the impact. The reality is that children should be attached to their parents until they're adults. You ask a mother bear when should your (cub) move away from you... it's when they're ready to hunt, to feed themselves and start their own family. Well it's the same with our kids except in a human that period lasts a lot longer. Even in teenagers, well especially in teenagers, it's essential that kids stay attached to their parents. So the earlier that separation between parents and children happens emotionally, the deeper the dynamic goes and the more difficult it is to get them back and the more devastating the consequences.
P: Can you get them back again once they become deeply unattached?
GM: The good news is that even the most alienated teenagers need to be loved, unconditionally. And the parents are in a unique position to provide that. It's going to be difficult and frustrating and slow and at times you're going to feel defeated. But if you hang in there, if you're fully committed, if you get what happened here, then you see past all those difficult days... There are no quick results in this game although the earlier you get it, the quicker the results are, and the more completely you can embrace this perspective.
P: You talk "parenting instincts" — should we not understand this innately?
GM: Well, you don't have to tell a mother bear how to attach to her kid, you don't have to tell birds, you don't have to tell people living in a state of nature. But unfortunately one of the banes of modern culture has been to undermine our attachment intelligence. And so now we have to work at understanding something that is actually innate to us because we've become separate from our innate wisdom, from ourselves.
P: What are the long-term consequences of not finding this healthy balance in the adult/child relationship?
GM: Children stay immature into their 40s because nobody can mature without mature guidance. Poor self esteem, because peer esteem is always very conditional. Addictive behaviours. Bullying. People who are not motivated. People who have not been able to absorb the multi-generational values... People that feel powerless.
P: You mentioned that it's getting worse with each generation?
GM: It is. And now we have the technology of the social media that makes this process viral actually, to coin a phrase. It's even more pervasive now because you can't even keep it out of your home when you shut the door.
Dr. Maté's talk is sponsored by Squamish Savings, the District Parent Advisory Council and Whistler Community Services Society. Tickets are $10. Call 604-932-0113 for more information. Free childcare is available for children under 12 at the Whistler Secondary School venue. Go to www.mywcss.org for more information