Attachment Theory and Home-Based Education

Brian D. Ray

National Home Education Research Institute, Salem, Oregon, USA

Attachment theory was clearly developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Bretherton, 1992) (e.g., see Bowlby, 1951). Bowlby, over a half century ago, was very clear about the importance of a mother, and father, to children’s healthy and proper development. He wrote the following:

The basic principles of this theory of the origins of mental health and mental illness will be discussed more fully later. For the moment it is sufficient to say that what is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment. (p. 11)


In addition, Bowlby (1951) rattled the thinking and practice of many contemporary professionals in the fields of psychology and child development when he presented the following:

It is against this background that the reason why children thrive better in bad homes than in good institutions and why children with bad parents are, apparently unreasonably, so attached to them can be understood. Those responsible for  institutions have sometimes been resistant to acknowledging that children are often better off in even quite bad homes, is the conclusion of most experienced social workers with mental health training and is borne out by the evidence of Simonsen and of Theis, already quoted. [p. 68].”


With attachment theory and Bowlby in mind, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté (2004) published the book Hold on to Your Kids, and their work has a clear and uncanny relevance to the world of the modern homeschool movement and its families. Neufeld is a developmental psychologist with 30 years of experience as a developmental and clinical psychologist in Canada. Maté is a is a Hungarian-born Canadian physician.


Neufeld and Maté define attachment in the psychological realm this way:

… attachment is at the heart of relationships and of social functioning. In the human domain, attachment is the pursuit and preservation of proximity, of closeness and connection: physically, behaviorally, emotionally, and psychologically. As in the material world, it is invisible and yet fundamental to our existence. A family cannot be a family without it. When we ignore its inexorable laws we court trouble. (p. 17)


The thesis of their book is “… that the disorder affecting the generations of young children and adolescents now heading toward adulthood is rooted in the lost orientation of children toward nurturing adults in their lives” (p. 7). The authors, before publishing their book, concluded that a major problem in modern western (and other) societies is that a seismic unnatural shift has taken place; “… 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” (p. 7). That is, children and youth are peer-oriented rather than parent- and adult-oriented. This, they explain, is having devastating effects on individual children and youth, family relationships, and society in general, worldwide.

Neufeld and Maté provide full detail about why what may seem “normal” – that which has become most common or conforms to the norm – to today’s adults is not natural or good for children. Today’s adults or parents think it is normal for children to be peer-oriented and often antagonistic toward their parents. They explain, however, that this is not natural, historical, or good for children. “Peer orientation masquerades as natural or goes undetected because we [adults] have become divorced from our intuitions and because we have unwittingly become peer-oriented ourselves” (p. 9). For millennia, always until recently, culture was handed down vertically from generation to generation (p. 9). Now, however, children are generating their own culture and transmitting it “… horizontally within the younger generation” (p. 10).

Some of the negative effects of peer-orientation, rather than parent-orientation (or adult-orientation), are unnatural attachment voids; rudeness to parents, a preference for being with peers over parents, secretiveness around parents, undermined parenting, and family breakdown; frustration, anger, aggression, bullying, and violence among children; precocious sexual activity and the debasement of sexuality among children; and unteachable students. Using both cited research and clinical experiences, the authors are lucid and convincing in their presentation of the aforementioned negative impacts on individuals, families, and society.

One of Neufeld and Maté’s key points is that “… children cannot be both peer-oriented and parent-oriented at the same time” (p. 27). This is a clear statement that is consistent with the fundamental logical law of noncontradiction.

Several who have been cautious about or negatively critical of the renewed practice of parent-led home-based education have claimed that homeschooled children will be more likely to (a) not be properly or healthfully socialized, (b) not properly individuate (e.g., Buss, 2000), (c) not properly become autonomous adults (Buss, 2000; Reich, 2005), (d) be ethically servile (Reich, 2005), and (e) not become as civil, decent, and respectful as those who attend State (public) schools or homeschooling that is not sufficiently regulated by the State (Reich, 2002). Research shows that homeschool parents think just the opposite. They say that some of the main reasons they home educate their children is to properly guide their children’s social associations, teach them values and behaviors that will be a boon to society, and give them a better chance at free-thinking and critical thinking than if they were enrolled in institutional schools. So far, research suggests that the home educated do as well or better than students in institutional schools in terms of their social, emotional, and psychological development (Medlin, 2006; Ray, 2005).

One might ask, What is the connection between Neufeld and Maté’s work to the world of homeschooling? The link is unmistakable to those who have given any careful attention to the homeschool movement. For example, it is easy to find in popular homeschool literature, going back at least 25 years, references to the importance of children mainly taking their cues from and modeling after their parents and the ill effects of peer-orientation or peer-dependence. Advocates of parent-led home-based education believe, based on both their experience and worldview-based beliefs, that their younger children and teenagers should be mainly oriented toward their parents, and dependable adults, and not toward peers. They think this is best for their children becoming adults and for society in general. Homeschool advocates advance the theory that a strong character developed mainly under the direction of parents and not by others – both same-age peers and adults who are relative strangers to the child’s family – in institutions called schools is the best road to a healthy self-concept and individuation.

Consistent with the claims of advocates of homeschooling, Neufeld and Maté carefully explain that genuine individuation and individualism into adulthood emerge only after a robust sense of self is cultivated in a parent-oriented life.

To be sure, socializing plays a part in rendering a child capable of true social integration, but only as a finishing touch. ….. The real challenge is helping children to grow up to the point where they can benefit from their socializing experiences. ….. Mixing indiscriminately and prematurely, without adults being involved as the primary attachment figures, will lead either to conflict, as each child seeks to dominate the other or has to resist being dominated, or to cloning, as a child suppresses his sense of himself for the sake of acceptance by others. (p. 242) ….. Until children are capable of true friendship, they really do not need friends, just attachments. And the only attachments a child needs are with family and those who share responsibility for the child. (p. 244)


Neufeld and Maté directly address, in a way not commonly discussed among advocates of institutional schooling, an aspect of the socialization concept the homeschool community regularly discusses. The authors explain that institutional schooling – at least as it has been practiced for the past several decades  in most nations – interferes with parent-orientation and encourages peer-orientation. For example, they write the following:

Peer orientation breeds both bullies and their victims. We have been dangerously naïve in thinking that by putting children together we would foster egalitarian values and relating. Instead we have paved the way for the formation of new and damaging attachment hierarchies. ….. School is now a place where peer-oriented children are together, relatively free of adult supervision, … Because of the powerful attachment reorganization that takes place in the wake of peer orientation, schools have also become bully factories … (p. 152)


In talking about the negative tribalization of youth gangs, the authors explain that the “… school milieu is rife with such dynamics [that cultivate such gangs]. ….. If the tip of the peer-orientation iceberg are the gangs and the gang wannabes, at the base are the cliques” (p. 91).

Neufeld and Maté offer many concrete examples of how to “collect” one’s children, develop or re-establish connection with them, and help them to be parent-oriented (and adult-oriented) rather than peer-oriented, including building a “village of attachment” (Chapter 18). They imply (p. 255) that keeping children at home during most days would be a very effective way to raise children and help them be parent-oriented but, they write the following: “Keeping our children at home, for most of us, would not be feasible” (p. 255). This is a key point at which many advocates of homeschooling would part perspective with the authors.

In their 296-page book, they mention homeschooling only about two times, and only briefly. While Neufeld and Maté suggest or claim that home-based education is too radical or too much to expect of many families to choose in order to hold on to their kids, it is clear that many who practice homeschooling do so for the sake of healthy family relationships and individual psychological and social development (e.g., Bielick, 2008; Ray, 2011). The book’s authors claim the following: “We cannot turn the clock back to some idealized past when one parent, usually the mother, stayed at home until the children were grown, or at least in school” (p. 257). The movement back to homeschooling over the past 30 years, however, is tangible proof that many more can do this than some observers think. Many parents who choose homeschooling do so in spite of the argument some make that these families cannot afford to have one parent at home all day with the children and not have two incomes; tens of thousands of homeschool families are choosing to live on low or very modest incomes (Ray, 2010, 2011).

Neufeld and Maté’s solution for engendering more parent- and adult-orientation (and attachment) and less peer-orientation (and attachment) is to “re-create the attachment village” (Chapter 18). They hold that “village building” must be intentional and “… must become a conscious activity” (p. 255). Parents must find their adult friends who exhibit an interest in the parents’ children and help build relationships between these adults and the children. In addition, the authors call for more inter-generational socializing and cultivating more “hierarchical connections” (p. 256). One of the authors admiringly described the social life in one nation, that he visited for a prolonged period of time, in this way:

During our stay in Provence, we saw that socializing almost always included the children. Meals were prepared, activities were selected, and outings were planned with this in mind. The adults took the lead in collecting the children. This kind of family socializing took us by surprise at first, but it made perfect sense from an attachment perspective. The greater the number of caring adults in a child’s life, the more immune he or she will be to peer orientation. (p. 256)


The preceding description of intergenerational everyday living and Neufeld and Maté’s advocacy of parent- and adult-orientation of children has been a part of the warp and woof of homeschool articles and books for the entire life of the modern homeschool movement, and research indicates that such is also a main motive of a large portion of parents who never stop homeschooling their children, or begin it after having put them in institutional schools for some years. Research also finds that homeschool families are consistently and intentionally a part of teaching/learning cooperatives, sports programs, church functions, and other activities that support the environment of home-based education that encourages children to be parent-oriented rather than peer-oriented.

Research findings and popular books and articles show that advocates and practitioners of parent-led home-based education do not claim that all homeschool parents do an excellent job of developing sound and loving relationships with all their children. They do claim, however, that home-based education makes available, in a way institutional classroom schooling systemically cannot, rich and positive adult-attachment – especially with parents – opportunities and parent-orientation that leads to healthy psychological and social development à la Bowlby (1951).

Keywords: Homeschool, home-based, education, attachment.



Bielick, Stacey. (2008, December). 1.5 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education (National Center for Education Statistics). Retrieved December 23, 2008 from

Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. World Health Organization Monograph (Serial No. 2). Retrieved December 15, 2011 from and (see also,, for a searchable PDF of Part 1.)

Bretherton, Inge. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775. Retrieved December 15, 2011 from

Buss, Emily, (2000). Without peers? The blind spot in the debate over how to allocate educational control between parent and state. U of Chicago Public Law Working Paper No. 08. Retrieved 3/26/07 online

Medlin, Richard G. (2006). Homeschooled Children’s Social Skills. Home School Researcher, 17(1), 1-8.

Neufeld, Gordon, & Maté, Gabor. (2004). Hold on to your kids: Why parents need to matter more than peers. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Ray, Brian D. (2005). A homeschool research story. In Bruce S. Cooper (Ed.), Home schooling in full view: A reader, p. 1-19. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Ray, Brian D. (2010, February 3). Academic achievement and demographic traits of homeschool students: A nationwide study. Academic Leadership Journal, 8(1). Retrieved February 10, 2010 from

Ray, Brian D. (2011, January 11). Research facts on homeschooling. Retrieved December 27, 2011 Salem, Oregon: National Home Education Research Institute.

Reich, Rob. (2002). The civic perils of homeschooling. Educational Leadership, 59(7), 56-59.

Reich, Rob. (2005). Why home schooling should be regulated. In Bruce S. Cooper (Ed.), (2005), Homeschooling in full view: A reader.  Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing. ¯




1. The “Perspectives – News and Comments” section of this journal consists of articles that have not undergone peer review.