Our Culture of Family Separation and Peer Approval

I don’t think we even notice this as a society. It’s so inculcated in our culture that we think it’s inevitable…even normal.

I first started to be bothered by it when I read an article about a researcher who looked into the family life of one of the Columbine shooters. He surmised he would find a poor family life hidden in a closet, but he concluded that they were a perfectly good family; one he would have enjoyed being raised in. So, what went unnoticed in his conclusion? Our culture of family separation and peer approval…the shooter’s family had no idea he had written pages and pages of sadness about his life (family separation), and though they recognized an unhealthy peer relationship, peer interaction and approval are “normal” so nothing permanent was done about it.

Then, I recently saw an innocent enough looking post from a mother about her 18-rule i-Phone contract with her newly-turned teenaged son. You’ll find a bunch of “atta girls” and “I’m gonna do the same thing” comments in response. My reaction? More evidence of family separation and peer approval at work. Interestingly, in her last rule, this mother states that “I am on your team” right after reminding her teen that she will inevitably take the i-Phone from him as punishment at some point in time. Um, how is this being on the same team? Because everyone thinks this interaction is NORMAL! Yet, I see family separation and peer approval at the center of this contract.

And, last, I heard another version of this idea of family separation and peer approval at the center of what we consider normal in a therapy session. One of my sons is experiencing quite a few different mental health difficulties so I decided to consult a therapist to talk out ideas I could use to help him navigate his life better. The therapist asked me what my goals were for the therapy, and I shared what I just said. He proceeded to explain to me that many people have ideas or thoughts in their heads that they may feel ashamed about or worried about and don’t even share it with their spouse. He said maybe 1% of marriages would share. The therapist proceeded to correlate that who would a young teen boy want to share maybe some worrisome ideas with…his mother!? His implication was, “Of course not!”

I explained to him that I totally understood where he was going with his analogy. BUT, our family is part of the 1%. We may not do it perfectly or anything, but I explained that it was part of the family culture I created was to learn about and practice open communication within the family unit. ¬†And with seven children, five of whom have now reached our culture’s age of adulthood, we tell each other quite a bit. We discuss things many don’t or won’t. Again, it’s not perfect and I’m certainly not saying that I know everything there is to know about each of my children, but I know more than the average parent apparently based on various articles and descriptions of typical teen parenting problems.

How does the traditional parent-child paradigm develop? SCHOOL! Think about it:

How many parents seek out a preschool experience for their child to either give them a head start or to give them social opportunities? What does this say? The family unit isn’t sufficient to supply this (family separation) and that peer friendships need to be established young (peer approval). I found out fairly quickly that this wasn’t true when I put my oldest son in preschool for a semester.

Time to send your child to kindergarten. Your stomach is in knots and your child is crying. Or maybe not, because the children’s programming on television convinced your child to look forward to going to school. People commiserate with you as the parent telling you that it’s natural to feel torn but you’ll get over it eventually. What is this doing? It’s our culture reassuring you that family separation is what we do and you’ll eventually fall into the pattern of what that looks like (you’ll see…keep reading). It’s now time for peer approval to lead your child.

What is this you hear in first grade? Your child is shy and having a hard time making friends. Okay, what can you as the parent do? You can make sure your child has the latest fad clothing so that she can attract peer friends that way. Maybe you hook in with a few of the “favorite parents/children” and invite them over for some gatherings to help your child find the right friends. And how about volunteering in the classroom. It’s a great way for your child to get a bit of extra attention from everyone. These are innocent enough strategies, but they emphasize peer approval as the center of a child’s life at this point. Who cares if at home she’s perfectly competent socially? The family unit isn’t as important as the peer environment.

Now third grade rolls around and you find your child struggling learning to read still. It’s not good if a child learns by different methods or in a different time frame. You know she’ll get laughed at during read aloud time, called dummy, and put in a special reading group. You partner with the school to “figure out the problem.” You force the extra practice at home, hire a tutor, or get special therapy. This puts us in the role of us versus them. Family separation widens. How often can we admit that the underlying reasons we fear and aggressively pursue diagnosis or treatment is for peer approval…for you AND your child?

Fifth grade rolls around and your son is off at sleep overs, video game meet-ups, and traveling sports teams. You’re chauffeur, secretary, and team mom. This means all is going well! Family separation is on track, and peer approval is high.

Then comes teenhood and the demand from your child for the latest gadgets “like everyone else,” whether i-Phones, the right clothes, or attending the right activities. As parents, we expect our children will want us to drop them off at the corner, not show affection in public, or have them roll their eyes at us. The surly behavior of puberty is natural when family separation is basically complete. Shutting down our conversations with them about important issues is common when peer approval and direction is sought foremost in our culture. And the need for 18 rules to agree to by contract is necessary when we have to find a way to assert family interest when fighting our culture of family separation and peer approval.

As middle school progresses and high school begins, no wonder many parents don’t know if their child is doing drugs, drinking at parties, being bullied, having sex, cutting class, feeling anxious or depressed, driving recklessly, or any other number of things. What’s interesting is hearing stories about children being constantly bullied, for instance, and the parents know, but feel as powerless as their child as to what to do about it. Why is that? To me, it’s obvious. Get them the heck out of there. But our culture says these things: They have to stand up to bullies or they will always be bullied. (When was the last time you were bullied? Did you choose to stay in it, or leave?) It’s what you have to deal with as part of being in school; it’s mandatory. (We’re subconsciously taught to conform, but we have choices! Not every job, or every neighborhood will be bad. It should be good! Move, quit, find an alternative schooling environment!) My child is a failure if they don’t know how to not be bullied. (No, it’s the fault of the unsupported social environment. We declared it to be our right to the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. That includes while in school.) We just don’t recognize how much family separation and peer approval is now in effect.

By saying this, I’m not saying the way I did things is right and the way many schooling parents do things is wrong. What I’m saying is our culture values the latter and ridicules the former. For instance, because of how my children view the world…family connection is first and peer approval is optional, they are viewed as different, weird, sheltered, or unsocialized. Our culture heavily socializes our children from a young age to be peer-focused. When it’s the blind leading the blind, it creates an interesting dynamic. The core that makes this difference is the way our culture promotes family separation and peer approval.

9 Responses to Our Culture of Family Separation and Peer Approval

  1. Awesome, awesome, awesome. The more time you spend around your child, the more you know, the more they feel loved and the more likely they will talk to you.

    But, of course, what do you know? You’re just one of those weird homeschoolers……..yeah, just like me.

  2. Some fantastic insights – thanks for sharing. My wife comes from a very family-centric culture and it is normal for multiple generations to share a home and domestic and other duties. They have strong family bonds and are more secure about facing the difficulties of life.

    Recently when my parents retired we all moved in to a house together. While it is fraught with difficulties, the family dynamic is something to crow about. My father has a great relationship with my kids, and he takes the youngest to and from school every day. We need no daycare, nor need to fuss over getting her to school and me to work on time. It takes a huge stress off of the family on that point alone.

    At the same time, I take a lot of ribbing at work about “moving back in with my Mom and Dad”. Many people struggle to help their aging parents with their homes in addition to looking after their own. We sit down every night to dinner with all three generations and talk about the day. There are so many benefits to this but our western culture is all about individualism and consumerism – so you need to get out there and get a job and buy stuff and have your own home and oh the extra chore it is to have kids on top of everything else.

    We have been trained as a culture since TV went mainstream after WWII that success is about having stuff. Well I have seen large families with very little stuff and they have more happiness as people than anyone I know.

    Peer approval is so hard in the early years and yet we carry that into our adult years and it continues – we have to have our kids in the right daycare, the right school, the right after-school care, the right sport/music/activity because they need to be exposed to everything and shouldn’t be sitting around reading or thinking or drawing or just spending a bit of down time to think.

    A big topic to be sure, and again, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Cindy, this is an excellent post. Have you read Gordon Neufeld’s book, “Hold on to Your Kids?” I think you would like it.
    The world would be a very different place if we didn’t have this culture of separation.

  4. Pingback: Country Girl » Blog Archive » Realizations

  5. Pingback: The Middle School Teen Brain Shift | The Right Side of Normal

  6. Cathy, thanks for the book recommendation! I see how healthy our family is because of our relationships and I’m just grateful that I was lead to live this way…against the grain. Country Girl mentions what I have with my children…we talk about SO much because we trust each other and are best friends as adults, though I treasure and hold onto the role of mother simultaneously.

    Craig, I’ve been thinking about the multi-generational family cultures and what you share in your description of how that’s working for you all right now is pretty cool. As you say, it’s not without it’s challenge, but the blessings far outweigh it and the family relationships are priceless.

    And, yes, Liese4, no matter what is said, quantity time translates to the higher probability that you will know your child, and they will share with you. For me, it’s been a natural consequence of my sincere desire to be around my children and get to know them as individuals. I feel blessed.

  7. wow. You articulated my concerns with that contract so well. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Love the way you put this all into words so concisely without a bunch of extra BS. You’re right on as far as I have been able to see! :)

  9. Great article!! Points made here mirrors how I feel about today’s society and their definition of ‘normal’… amazing how our priorities are backwards. Family first always, put time & investments into relationship with your family then close friends and workers. I relish the time spent with my kids and parents, of course, occasionally I need space for an hour or so to myself to gather thoughts etc.

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