As our kids get older, a lot of things may start to place themselves between them and their family. Their social circle extends ever further beyond their home and their siblings. They want to participate in new activities, take on new experiences, explore ever-widening territory, identify and hone their skills, talents and interests. All of these things are good and healthy and help our kids to establish their own identities. But this can make it harder for us as parents to maintain that connection that used to seem more natural. Just as we discover about making and keeping adult friends, it becomes work.
Often parents find that it’s harder to bridge the distance between themselves and their children as they grow into teenagers and young adults. Part of this is due to a phenomenon which is largely beyond our control, but important for to keep in mind: in today’s culture, our kids are finding themselves more and more among their peers. It starts to happen from an early age and only intensifies as they get older. In the book Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, authors Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté suggest that this phenomenon is a relatively new one, and that it makes staying connected to our tween or teen children that much more challenging. In fact, it renders any connection between children and adults—even trusted, nurturing and mentoring adults such as teachers and coaches, more difficult. They write:
“For the first time in history young people are turning for instruction, modeling, and guidance not to mothers, fathers, teachers, and other responsible adults but to people whom nature never intended to place in a parenting role—their own peers. They are not manageable, teachable, or maturing because they no longer take their cues from adults. Instead, children are being brought up by immature persons who cannot possibly guide them to maturity. They are being brought up by each other.”
This phenomenon is termed by the authors peer orientation. We want our kids, in the common parlance, to be socialized, to have experiences with a variety of people and to accept and honor differences among them. But we place them in a variety of situations—otherwise valuable and necessary settings such as public school, extracurricular activities, sports teams, camps—in which they are more likely to be influenced by people their own age, and as a result they may not be getting the adult guidance they need in order to grow and extend their skills and knowledge. And of course, parents are feeling this disconnect most strongly.
What can we do about this? We are busy as well, and often find that to be in the same place in the same time with our kids is a rare and precious commodity.
One answer is something to which we keep coming back around: routines. Establishing times in which to be together with our kids that is protected, even sacred, can never happen too early. When they are young it comes easily, in things like bathtimes, bedtimes, reading and play. But it is just as important to keep these times sacred and continue them as our kids get older.
- Eating together, if at all possible, is one of the most basic and powerful ways that families can maintain that bond. For many families, in which parents work or go to school at different times, and kids are busy with their own activities, this is not always manageable. But even to set aside one night a week in which the whole family gathers together for a meal can forge a connection that runs through whatever changes may occur.
- Family meetings are another valuable way to set aside time that strengthens family bonds. This can be accomplished in any number of ways, and can work according to each family’s needs; daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, even yearly. They can be as structured or as informal as you like, and incorporate Powerpoint, a whiteboard, a piece of notebook paper, or…not. The Nurturing Parenting program has some good resources on how to start and manage family meetings.
- A few years ago I instituted the Daddy Date, in which I, with one of my four daughters, leave the house and spend some deliberate time together. We might go to a coffee shop and read books, run errands or shop for groceries, go for a walk or a bike ride. The important thing is that this time is for us, and that my focus remains on the child. Daddy Dates are not always consistent or regular, and sometimes I find to my dismay that months go by before we can reestablish them. But my girls will take the opportunity whenever it is offered, and often make their own plans for one. The best part is that there will never be any reason to discontinue them; there is no growing out of this sacred shared time.