I remember my relief when I first heard Dr. Gordon Neufeld, in talking about peer orientation, say that playdates weren’t important. I couldn’t believe my ears! Did he really say that playdates (and “socialization”), which were touted by teachers, pediatricians and parenting books everywhere as necessary for healthy development, weren’t necessary…and that they might even be contributing to arrested development? Yes he did.
Peer orientation, one of Dr. Neufeld’s signature contributions to the world of developmental psychology, refers to the phenomenon of kids orienting to each other rather than to their parents, grandparents and teachers. Peer orientation can begin in children as young as two-years old and, of course, is almost ubiquitous when looking at today’s adolescents.
While much current thinking views peer orientation as “normal” (in fact, you might be saying to yourself right now: “Aren’t teens meant to be hanging out with their friends all the time?“) it is actually not natural or healthy, even though it is the norm. Children (and teens) are meant to be oriented to those who can take care of them: those whom they can lean on and who take responsibility for their care. Kids and teens are meant to be oriented to “their adults” until they have individuated and, in accordance with nature’s remarkable plan, it is actually just this adult orientation, and the resultant care-taking, that launch the immature into maturity and individuation.
Once teens have individuated/differentiated (which isn’t developmentally feasible until at least the mid-teen years), they will be capable of healthy and nourishing peer relationships. Until then, however, peer relationships should be viewed like “dessert”: fun, after-the-fact, once-in-a-while indulgences, not the main event or the main source of nutrition.
As parents, we need to ensure that we are in the lead; that our children are in orbit around us just as planets are in orbit around the sun. Dr. Neufeld calls this being in “right relationship”, and being thusly aligned sets our children up for healthy growth.
While our current culture has lost sight of the wisdom that kids must be in right relationship to their caregivers, Dr. Neufeld reminds us of this necessity. While our current culture can fool us into thinking that our children need playdates to develop social skills, empathy and the ability to share, developmentalists (and wise grandparents!) have known all along is that being in right relationship with caring adults takes care of all of those things, authentically and in due time.
So feel free to say no to the playdates, knowing that your loving connection with your child can provide them with far more than any sleepover or birthday party ever could.