Hold Onto Your Kids (Understanding where your students come from)

Peer Attachment

Why would I put a recommendation for a book about parenting on my ESL website? First of all, I wouldn’t put any book on my website. I think this one merits attention. It opened my eyes to the phenomenon of peer attachment which I think if anything is more common among ESL students even than your average students. Peer attachment is when students attach to their peers instead of their parents–something that the authors say goes against nature. In the words of the authors, “the disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents now heading towards adulthood is rooted in the lost orientation of children toward the nurturing adults in their lives” (7). These disorders manifest themselves in various ways, but some manifestations the authors list include that children seem “less innocent and naive” and that some seem “inappropriately sophisticated, even jaded in some ways, pseudo-mature before their time” (4). We also see “bullying” and “the murder of children by children” (5). As an educator, or, perhaps, even just as an observer, you might be able to think of manifestations you’ve seen.

We have probably all experienced that uncomfortable moment in our classrooms when a student says something inappropriate. We have probably been surprised that students even know about what they are talking about. It might be as simple as a child singing inappropriate lyrics from a song. Sometimes, it is completely unknowing, but often children sense that inappropriate language and topics are powerful and adult.

Why it happens

The attachment between children and adults is threatened by our culture and society: “Children’s attachments to parents are no longer getting the support required from culture and society. Even parent-child relationships that at the beginning are powerful and fully nurturing can become undermined as our children move out into a world that no longer appreciates or reinforces the attachment bond” (7). To the authors of the book, the corroding of adult-child attachment is a new phenomenon which began around 50 years ago with the creation of a youth culture with its own music, form of dress, and way of behaving. As the authors point out, children generally listen to music that their parents and grandparents never heard.

Arguably, another reason why this link is so often severed is our work-culture which among other things hardly supports women during pregnancy and birth. Women often feel that they have to make difficult decisions, and in general parents often may feel that they have insufficient time with their children. This is especially the case with the parents of ESL students who may be working several jobs if they are even living in the same country.

A loss of a cultural heritage

As suggested by the authors,with the loss of adult-child links comes a loss of cultural heritage. We see this in our own society in which children gravitate towards a youth culture that disconnects them from their past. ESL students are a great example of this since to fit in with their peers, they often feel compelled to give up their cultural roots and the things that make them seem different. Some, of course, are kept but others may be lost in the great melting pot of America. Sometimes but not always language is one of the things to be cast aside in a urgent desire to fit in.

Outside of the US, the same process is happening as the youth culture, which usually emanates from US entertainment, dictates more and more what music children listen to, how they act, and what they wear. This erosion of culture is tragic and often uprooting, leaving children without a set of cultural values to rely on. It can even effect our history and legacy as a human race.

Peer attachment vs Parent attachment

There are many crucial features missing in peer attachment that can be found in parent attachment: “Absolutely missing in peer relationships are unconditional love and acceptance, the desire to nurture, the ability to extend oneself for the sake of the other. When we compare peer relationships with parent relationships for what is missing, parents come out looking like saints. The results spell disaster for children” (11). Children who do not have attachment to parents are missing the strong emotional life and emotional stability of children who do. They are looking for an attachment that they cannot find in the world since only their parents can give it to them. This makes kids “act-out” and “misbehave.” Generally, it also makes them willing to experiment if that means becoming a part of the peer group they want to join.

What we can do

We as teachers and child-rearing adults have an important task. We must make sure we are not replaced by the peers that surround our children or students. The authors explain that we have to battle the culture to do this “because culture no longer leads our children in the right direction–toward genuine independence and maturity” (13). The keys to this are “understanding and empathy” (14). There is no magic method that will let us back into our children’s or student’s lives if we do not first know ourselves how to get back in touch with them.

As an ESL teacher, we have to show empathy and support to students who may be more at risk than others to feeling vulnerable. We have to be there for these students since likely their parents won’t be.