Ep. 45 – Dr. Gordon Neufeld – True Play & The Six Stages Of Attachment
- The Six Stages of Attachment and how attachment allows our child to grow out of the preschooler phase.
- How parents provide connection, even when they’re apart from their child.
- Why family is the essential unit of society.
This episode is a popular repeat from season one of family360 and our first interview (of two so far) with Dr. Gordon Neufeld. In this episode, he identifies the six stages of attachment upon which a child builds their ongoing capacity for caring and for relationships. Dr. Neufeld is a world leader in child growth and development and attachment theory. He is also the author of the international best-selling book, Hold Onto Your Kids.
Dr. Gordon NeufeldDr. Gordon Neufeld is a world leader in child developmental theory. “We liberate children,” he says, “not by making them work for our love, but by letting them rest in it.”
Dr. Neufeld’s best selling book, Hold Onto Your Kids, his International Course work and the Neufeld Training Institute lay the foundation for much of what we are now discovering about attachment and play, in both children and adults.
Transcript: Ep. 45 – Dr. Gordon Neufeld – True Play & The Six Stages Of Attachment
Rachel Cram – Dr. Gordon Neufeld, thank you so much for allowing us to come into your home and spend a bit of time with you. This is a real honor.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – My pleasure.
Rachel Cram – I hope this comes across as the admiration I intend. I kind of feel like I’m sitting across the table from Gandalf and I’m not sure I’m going to have time to ask all I want to know.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yeah, let’s give it a try and see.
Rachel Cram – We’ve decided to focus on a subject for which you are well known; Attachment and the capacity for relationship, which you break down into six stages of growth and development.
Before we jump into that, you are in your fifth decade of this work, and you’re a world leader on Child Development and attachment theory. I’m wondering at this stage in your career Gordon, what’s pushing you to want to know more?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Unfinished business. For me, it’s all about insight, making sense of things. And it takes a while. It’s a big world out there and there’s a lot to make sense of. And that’s what I love about preschoolers. Preschoolers hold the secrets to human development. If you can understand the preschooler from inside out you really can understand everything. They represent every possible disorder. Usually they qualify for five diagnoses right off the top. Oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, you know, an anxiety disorder or two. Bipolar disorder. They qualify for it, not because there’s anything wrong, simply because of developmental deficits.
So if you can understand those. Way back, Piaget, one of the greatest developmentalists, said that preschoolers are like no other. They are completely different. And when we understand their differentness, and we’re not trying to make them like us, when we can truly get a sense of them, they really do solve the riddles of the universe.
Rachel Cram – You just used the phrase developmental deficits and I know a big part of your work is helping parents, of young children in particular, recognise that so much of what we often see as behavior problems in our children, are really just developmental stages and part of being a preschooler. Are preschoolers the main focus of your research?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Everything begins there really. Everything begins there. It’s understanding what those deficits are and what resolutions there are. There’s no guarantee of growing up. There’s no guarantee. There’s many many adults that are preschoolers with adult bodies. Our problems as adults are when we don’t grow out of the preschooler period.
Rachel Cram – Wow. That’s a provocative statement about growth and development. Now, I’m wondering, before we jump into your acclaimed description of ‘The Six Stages of Attachment’, in your current research, is there something that you’re just hungering to know more about right now? Something that’s captured your imagination.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes there is. In a lot of different sciences, what is emerging is the role of play, of true play in human development. When we have been all about outcome and work and accomplishment, there comes a realisation that that’s not what life is about. There was something else. And it’s emerging into the new science. It’s only about 10 years old now, with huge international conferences. It’s the science of play and if we understand what it really is about, it is equally as applicable to adults as it is to children.
What is so significant is that this is the key to, now how should I put it? Play is nature incognito. And it ends up to be this context of true play which is actually the place of true rest in the system. It is unfolding as the most significant understanding in terms of human psychology. Culture, religion, all of these things are being reframed in a new way as examples of where play is absolutely essential. And what is happening is we’re losing the place of play. Children are behind screens. We have become outcome-based. School is all about work, not about preserving that place of play. And that is interfering.
Rachel Cram – Can I just interrupt with a quick question? Could you define what you mean by play? I’m sensing your meaning something more than games or toys?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. So the kind of play I’m talking about is emotionally based play. It is emotional playgrounds. We usually think of play as toys and so on and that’s not the kind of play I mean. But even the play that simply has to do with physical play and physical playgrounds has reduced significantly in the last two generations and paralleled exactly the increase in mental illness, in all kinds of behavioral problems, it exactly parallels that. And now, we have all kinds of research. When we deprive monkeys of play, they develop all the kinds of problems that humans develop. And so, it’s going back to play-deprivation. And the most important thing to preserve for our young children is play.
Rachel Cram – So when you’re saying it doesn’t necessarily have to do with toys and playgrounds, is it more that it has to do with giving the space for that? The time? The removal of structure? Or of expectations? Like, what creates,
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – All of that is important Rachel. Time. Space for this. But there also have to be conditions that are conducive. Somehow the parents need to take care of the drive for connection. As soon as a child’s attachment needs are met, a young child, they spontaneously emerge into play. It happens but we’ve got to do the work.
This is a play that is absolutely essential for our emotions. Emotions have work to do. They need to have a place of rest. This is where a child rests from the work of attachment, from the work of emotion.
In evolutionary history, when emotion first appeared in birds, when it first appeared in mammals, play is there immediately. And so, it’s as if the way nature takes care of us is through our emotions. Emotions are meant to serve us. But play takes care of our emotions. And when we have insufficient play in our life as adults, we suffer tremendously. We get emotionally exhausted.
Rachel Cram – So what was the role of those early mammal parents with their children? What do you see as the role for us as people, parents?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well, the role of the parent is to preserve a sense of connection with the child. And when this is there, the child automatically, if the conditions are conducive, ventures forth into this wonderful play that is from inside out. It is a bubble of safety. It is not for real. And it’s not outcome based.
There are seven distinctives of true play which are now being discovered. Books are being written on them. And again, tingles go down my spine when I realize what’s emerging was right underneath our noses, about something that we all thought was frivolous, it didn’t count, that was just for children and about toys and now it is the most significant thing of all. In fact, I am trying to re-incorporate for myself the place of play in my life. It’s becoming the single most important factor in emotional health and well-being.
Musical interlude #1
Rachel Cram – Thank you for that incredible answer to my question, about where life is heading for you. And I feel like I’m going to have to beg you to come back and interview a year from now and after, just to hear where you’re going with this. I am going to change direction a little bit now and head into our topic of attachment and how we grow our capacity for relationships.
One of the thoughts that’s fueled this podcast, is a quote by Mahatma Gandhi where he says, “If we want to reach real peace in the world, we must begin with the children.”
And you speak all the time about beginning with the children. So from that vantage point, of attachment and nurturing a capacity for relationships, how do we ‘begin’ with the children?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – This is a true statement in a number of ways. Unless the conditions are conducive, a child doesn’t develop a sense of separateness. If they don’t develop a sense of separateness, they don’t treat others as separate beings. And that is the basis of all true relationship.
It is also true in the way that childhood is a time of adaptation. A time when we come to terms with ‘futility’ in our life; with the things that we cannot change, with the things we have no control over.
We all have the capacity to adapt but that requires conditions again, that are conducive and parents that help it along. It’s only when children can adapt to the circumstances that are out of their control, to not getting their way, to the futility that they experience, that they can come to be at peace with the world in which not everything goes their way.
The number one sign of a child not adapting is attacking energy, and the interesting thing about futility is, it’s such an important experience that when we feel futility it moves us to tears.
And of course there’s all kinds of tears. Tears cried to onions. Tears cried to upset. All kinds of tears. But the tears cried to futility are the tears of sadness, the tears of disappointment. Those tears are a very different tear. They’re a different tear chemically in us even. The physiology of the tears is different.
And so, the key to adaptation you could say is; a two year old, a three year old, who is able to have his tears about what he can’t change in his world, when he can’t have his way. That adaptation brings a child to be able to live with a world that is not perfect. To live with a partner that is not perfect. All kinds of things. That is so key. But the most important time of adaptation is that time before five years of age. The capacity for relationship is a capacity that is developed through at least six stages. They’re spontaneous but they’re not inevitable.
Developing a capacity for relationship is extremely important because we’re not born with a capacity for relationship, we’re born with a need for contact. And that’s primarily based through the senses.
Rachel Cram – And that is stage one, which begins at birth and you call it Proximity. And does that tie into the reason why you have to hold children close?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. Continuity of contact.
Rachel Cram – Skin to skin contact.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. However, again, it’s all the senses. So you could just as easily sing if you were in the home with a baby. And as long as they hear your voice, they have a continuity of contact. You could just as well use smell when you put your baby to bed at night and surround them with your smells and so on, and the baby has a sense of contact and continuity.
Rachel Cram – So developmentally, in stage one, you’re saying, we can expect babies to need to be close; to touch you, to be touched by you, to see you, to hear you, to smell you. All these senses.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes, but by the second year of life, this should develop into sameness. And so, when a child can’t be close, can’t be with, they have a sense of being ‘same’. The same as you. And so it’s important to work this. You know, we both have the same color eyes, you and I here I notice. Yours are blue. You know, we would work this sameness.
Rachel Cram – How does a parent do that? Can you just give a little example.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – There’s so many. You work it on a physical thing, “Mommy is like that.” “Me too!” You work all the areas of this similarity because in doing so the child feels connected with you even when apart. And that is the biggest challenge for the preschooler because a preschooler is having experiences of being away from home. So you need to work these areas of sameness; wearing the same things, the same clothes. Not as far as their peers because that’s not what you want to focus on. It is more the parent and the child.
One of our youngest grandsons, Ethan, in this stage, my wife Joy would be taking care of him and he would come here and see her with this dress on. It’s, “Oh, you look beautiful Nana! Can I have one like that?”
So they would get together. Make a little dress. Oh, you could just see the absolute connection and his ability to go away from Nana while holding her close was the fact that they were alike.
But it should move, further on, to in the third year of life, a sense of belonging. A sense of being on the same side. Loyalty. And that’s why it’s so important; the ability to come alongside your child, not let anything come in between, because the connection breaks for them when they don’t feel you at their side. Being able to get a sense of them from inside out.
Rachel Cram – This third stage, which you call belonging, or loyalty, you use both those terms, is when children start to say things like, “That’s my Mommy. My brother,” because they’ve just arrived at that stage of knowing, that stage of attachment.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes, absolutely.
Rachel Cram – Now loyalty and belonging aren’t always aligned. How do they work together in this third, three year old stage?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Belonging and loyalty often are two sides of the same coin. I’m loyal to who I belong. I belong to who I am loyal. But if you break it apart, loyalty is about sides. And so if you want to see who a 3 year old is most attached to, just have a mild disagreement with somebody. And of course the three year olds are not one bit rational, not one but logical. So you see the pure attachment. They’ll always take the side of those to whom they’re more attached.
Rachel Cram – So those two stages, the two year old stage and the three year old stage, are those prerequisites before you can move on to your four year old stage of your child ‘wanting to matter,’ as you have defined it?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – In one way. In a healthy way. They can also be compensatory. That is, a child can move to a drive to be esteemed, to matter, to be significant because they’re lacking underlying things. So it’s not a prerequisite in the sense that unless the first phases happen the fourth phase won’t. But it will happen in an unhealthy way. A child will cheat to be approved, to be valued, to be significant. In fact we all cheat a bit. And we will cheat to try to measure up, to gain the approval of someone. And that starts at about 4 years of age.
The more secure a child is, the less tempted they are to cheat. And so the better it is because as soon as you cheat to influence the verdict of whether you matter, whether you’re loved, whether you’re significant to somebody, as soon as you cheat, there is an underlying insecurity and it’s up to you and you’re in charge of the relationship now. So now you begin to be alarmed. You begin to be insecure. And we all suffer from those things. Those are our adult nerosies. And they usually started at about 4 years of age.
Rachel Cram – All right, so just as a recap. At birth, attachment starts with continuity of contact and proximity. At 2 years old, children are focused on ‘becoming like’, ‘being the same as’. Then at three years old, they move more into the developmental stage about the importance of belonging.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. Part of a group. Part of mom, part of dad. Part of a person. Part of a group. Yes. And you work that. And being on the same side. You get to the child’s side. A deal breaker for a child of that age, in his third year, is when you don’t get to their side. That’s such a challenge in discipline; when the behavior comes in the way. When you don’t agree with them. They still have to feel as if that connection is there.
So that’s why, when there’s aggression, you focus on the frustration. “Oh, that frustration got away on you! Those impulses to attack, you know, got out. Those bad words came out of you.” You take it easy on defining them this way because that would break the connection. And so you make it easy to get to their side, to be understanding.
Course that’s true for all of us as adults. If our partners related to us this way, it would be a lot easier. So it’s good. If we can figure out how to relate properly to a 3 year old, you can figure out how to save your marriage.
Rachel Cram – That is so true.
Musical Interlude #2
Rachel Cram – OK! So then we move into the fourth year. A child wants ‘to matter,’ ‘to be dear to those that are close to them,’ as you say in your work. So then where do you go after that, in your fifth year?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well we could write books about this but to put it into a few words, a most beautiful thing happens. The fifth stage is a place of safety when a child gives his heart to whomever he is attached. He may fall in love with. He may want to marry.
Rachel Cram – Yeah. This is when little boy’s will sometimes say, “I want to marry my mom.”
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It’s not gender specific and it’s certainly not exclusive. But the whole point of this is, this is a point of development. Why do we give our hearts to each other? To hold onto each other forever.
What is the brain doing here? It’s developing the capacity to hold on when apart. And this is the capacity for a relationship. It’s also why this needs to happen in family because it’s only in family that a relationship transcends death. Your mom is your mom, dead or alive. Your grandfather is your grandfather, dead or alive.
So the relationship enables us to bridge anything that would come in between. Even death.
And so this is the basis of when we give our hearts to each other in marriage. Even though we know, we’re disillusioned by that time. We should be disillusioned by that time. We still promise to give our heart forever, and hold on to each other forever. Why? Because that is what it is about. Developing the relationship for this. Why? Because as humans we don’t deal with separation well.
What the brain is trying to do is help us develop that capacity to answer the biggest threat in life, which is facing separation. And the answer is relationship. And if that goes well, if that unfolds, and it’s a prerequisite for the final stage, where a child will want to share all that is within his heart.
That usually happens around the sixth year, if everything goes well. And this ideally would be the time when a child is ready to go to school. Because if we went developmentally, when a child gives his heart, he is now able to hold on to that person when apart. That would be also true in a marriage. We call it emotional intimacy. The final one psychological intimacy, where you share all that is within your heart with each other. This should start about age 6 when a child blurts out his secrets and he can’t keep them inside because it would feel as if a secret would come in the way. And so the child wants to be known, heard, seen, from inside/out.
This is psychological intimacy and it should actually be the basis of true friendship in adulthood.
Rachel Cram – You’re saying a child reaches this sixth stage, the capacity for being known, if everything goes well. If these feelings of intimacy, being known, heard and seen, if they’re not developed early on, where do the consequences show up? Where would we see that?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – The failure to develop these is very affected by facing separation. You can’t hold on to Mom and Dad. You can’t hold on to your family when apart from them. And so the emotions of alarm, of frustration, of separation, trigger pursuit and become very very dominant in one’s life. And of course those are underneath almost all of our human problems and mental illness.
Rachel Cram – And all this, all these six stages, happens in the context of family? The family unit?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Let me take a little bit of a different look at it.
Rachel Cram – Yes. Ok
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – When we look at it from what nature is trying to do is, nature is trying to take care of us. Now when emotions came into the picture with mammals and with birds, the whole idea of connecting; the drive for togetherness, we call it attachment now. All of this instinct of attachment is to take care of each other. And that becomes the way nature takes care of us, by attaching us to each other so that we take care of each other.
And so marriage is one of those units, meant to be reciprocal, so that we mutually take care of each other. But the most important unit of all is the parent/child relationship. But it is dependent upon attachment there. If the parent is well attached to the child, their instincts are to take care of the child. If the child is well attached to the parent, the instincts are to be receptive to that care. Family is the basic unit, attachment unit, where caretaking is meant to happen. And if there are problems in attachment, there will be problems in being able to take care of. It’s just the way we’re designed. It’s just the way our brains are. We’re wired for togetherness. Why? Because in togetherness is where the probability of taking care of each other happens.
So, many people think we have survival needs. And this was the whole point of attachment theory. The discovery is that we don’t have survival needs. No mammals have survival needs. If something happens in their universe. If there is a fire, an atrocity, they don’t seek shelter, they don’t seek safety, they don’t seek food, they seek each other. And that’s the way we are.
If a fire breaks out, an atrocity, “Where’s Mommy? Where’s Daddy? Where’s my husband?”
We go to togetherness even though we face danger for it. And so it’s togetherness that is the primary drive. And that is key. Once we understand that, we also understand what spooks us. And that is so important to understand for our preschoolers. The number one enemy is facing separation. And the preschooler is extremely vulnerable to this. When they’re facing more separation than they can bear, they become highly alarmed. They become highly frustrated in an intense pursuit of proximity. And those emotions are huge. And it’s being able to find a way of holding on to them when apart, that preserves that sense of connection.
So that’s the fundamental challenge for the parents. When they send their child to daycare or preschool, ‘How do I hold onto that child when apart? How do I preserve that connection? How can I work the relationship to do so?’
And from a preschooler’s point of view, ‘How do I help that child hold onto Mom and Dad? How do we bridge the separation,” because that will be the single most important factor that is there.
Rachel Cram – Now, earlier you mentioned a child’s mental health as affected by separation and attachment. And so we want to understand how attachment unfolds. Speaking as a parent, of course we want to understand that connection. How easily can our sense of togetherness be lost?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – I can give you an example of just how when we don’t understand. Let’s say, a mother of a preschooler, there at the playground. There’s other people around and the mother decides it’s time to go and is trying to get the preschooler to cooperate. But there’s other people looking on. So she’s feeling a little bit concerned about this. She says, “C’mon. C’mon Marcy, we need to go.”
Marcy says, “No! I don’t want to! I want to stay.”
“Come on Marcy. I gave you a five minute warning. We need to go now.”
“No no. I don’t want to! I want to stay!”
And then she has an ace card to play. And any mom will find out that ace card and will say, “OK Marcy. Mommy’s going now. Bye bye.” and will just disappear behind a tree or something like this and go out of view. And of course what happens is, Marcy faces separation. And it triggers three of the most powerful emotions we have in us.
One is intensified pursuit. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy! Wait, wait, wait, wait! I’m coming!”
It also triggers intense frustration and intense alarm. Now what we only see is the trigger pursuit because a child of that age can only feel one emotion at a time, not two. Only one emotion. And so that worked.
So, if I put a child’s face into separation. Say, “I’m going to send you to your room if you’re going to do that.” and we have many many ways of doing this, put the child’s face in the separation. It triggers an emotion, which triggers pursuit of proximity, which generally speaking makes the parent feel as if, ‘oh this worked!’ Right?
What the parent doesn’t know is that when the child gets home, there’s all of this unexpressed frustration. There’s a little sister or a little pet or something’s gonna get hit. And doesn’t realize it’s connected. What the parent doesn’t know is that at bedtime all of a sudden, the child can’t go to bed in their own bed because the child is alarmed. There’s monsters under the bed. And doesn’t realize that what happened at that event at the playground, the parent actually was using the most powerful scenario, pushing a child’s face into separation, that triggered absolutely powerful emotions.
Now when we’re ignorant of how emotions work. When we’re ignorant of facing separation, we slip into these things all the time.
Rachel Cram – Can you describe how the parent could have dealt with that then, when they wanted their child to leave the playground? What could they have said and done instead?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well the first thing is to go by the rule not to push a child’s face into separation. That’s not a good thing. In that situation you’ve got to get the child back. So the first thing to do to get a child back is to engage their attachment instincts. So you get down on one knee. You engage in what the child is doing. You look where they look until you get their eyes. There’s a, “Oh you’re really enjoying this,” and so on.
You say something that makes them smile, something that made them nod. “You’re really enjoyed your time here.”
Now the child is yours. When the attachment instincts are engaged, they want to do your bidding. Now they’re back. Now you’ve got them back. You can’t get them back by threatening them. You get them back by being able to engage the attachment instincts. Once you do this, all you have to do is bring in play. Play is the most absolutely engaging of all. Play. That’s its middle name is, ‘engages’.
“Who can get to the car first? I’ll race you back.”
All you do is introduce play and you have got that child. And there’s not a child that can resist that. That is where the magic is. It’s really so simple. It’s so simple. What you don’t do is push a child’s face into the separation. Yet that is what we tend to do. That’s what we do because we’re left without our cultural cues in terms of how to handle children in this way. And we’re taught to do what works. The problem is, what works is the worst thing for the child. Decapitation works for headaches. It’s the worst thing we could possibly do. What works is not the answer. What preserves the connection with the child is the answer.
Rachel Cram – Yeah, well I think in situations like that you literally feel at your wit’s end.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – You do! Yes!
Rachel Cram – That description is good. And I think what I hear you saying is you need to then elongate your wit and understand it differently.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Like you asked what should the parent do. I tend to be rather short on those answers although I indulged you and gave you an answer.
Rachel Cram – Thank you. Appreciate that.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – So what does it look like? I’d rather be short on those answers because if you become dependent upon the answers, you’re trying to think of what you should do. Whereas, if you have the insight about what the child needs, you become creative. You become intuitive. You gain your confidence. You become a child whisperer.
Rachel Cram – You think about who you should be.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Oh yeah! Automatically! You find the dance. You’re led by your eyes. But if you’re trying to remember what to do, your dumb down.
Rachel Cram – Well I think what I hear you saying is we need to trust more than our instincts, we need to trust,
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – our eyes.
Rachel Cram – Our eyes. Ok. We have to have the right eyes.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – We have to have the right eyes, because the instinct in this case, the instinct was wrong. The instinct was to do the thing that would get the right behavior in the moment. Our instincts often betray us. It is to face separation. “You know, nobody’s gonna love you. Nobody’s gonna be your friend if you’re going to act like that.”
That is instinct. It’s the worst thing we could say because it says to the child that being good is what you need to do to be valued, to be special in the society. So it’s the worst thing we could say. So our instincts can betray us.
Rachel Cram – Trusting your eyes. Can you say a little more about that then?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well that’s what the whole thing is about. If we can make sense of our child. If we can see what they need. If we have that insight, it will automatically bring us to the right kind of actions. The dance will come automatically. So my goal is to help parents see their children; is to have insight beyond their behavior to what it is that’s really going on. And I think it’s exciting when we understand things! It’s exciting! But you don’t have to ask anymore the question what to do because that becomes self-evident to you.
Musical interlude #3
Thanks for listening to Family360 and our conversation with Child Psycologist and Developmental Theorist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld.
Our next episode is one of our most listened to interviews from season one; it’s our conversation with David Loyst called, It’s Never Too Late To Have A Great Childhood. If you’ve not yet listened to this episode, or if you want to hear it again, we’ve expanded it for your listening pleasure. Join us!
And now back to our conversation with Dr. Neufeld as he’s about to describe how, as adults, so often miss the potential of play.
Rachel Cram – So Gordon, you just made this statement about how we need to see and connect with our child. And you’re describing these very playful responses in how we do that. I’m wondering, is that affected by our ability as adults to be able to play ourselves? Do those two things correlate?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes absolutely. You nailed it. And you use the word playfulness which is exactly the right word.
Rachel Cram – Oh good!
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It is playful. Now if you play-less, if there’s no play in you,
Rachel Cram – Which often as a parent we fall into that state. We become all function,
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes! But what does that indicate? That we have lost the place of play in our own lives. And that is hugely significant. That’s going to parallel with all kinds of other things; emotional exhaustion, with a sense of growing older. If there’s any elixir, if there’s any answer to aging, it’s playfulness.
Rachel Cram – Why do we lose that?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Because we’re in a work obsessed world. It’s all about work. We think that work is about fulfillment. And of course there is no fulfillment in work. It’s about achievement, not fulfillment. When you see a child engaged in play, it’s self-fulfilling. It absolutely is there. It’s present. When we find our own emotional playgrounds. I had to find my own music. I used to play piano for the sheer enjoyment of it and then, and then I lost it because of you know, achievement,
Rachel Cram – Structure.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Accomplishment and structure. And I had to rediscover it as a playground for my emotions. Everybody has their bent. As a dancer, in movement, as an artist, everybody has their bent. That becomes so important in our lives, to find that.
But if we lose our own playfulness, it will be difficult to see how important playfulness is. That’s why sometimes it’s easier for grandparents. You know, it’s just like they’re finished with work, right.
Rachel Cram – And that’s why we should raise children when we’re grandparents.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It would make sense from that point of view.
Rachel Cram – If we were not so very tired at that point.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It would make a lot of sense. I tell you, you’re a much different parent as a grandparent than you are as a parent. I think you have a lot better idea of your partnership with nature. Your job is to provide a sense of togetherness, connection, safety and so on and allow nature to do the rest of the unfolding. But when you start off as a parent you want to do it right. You’re neurotic. You visit all your neuroses on your children. You’re outcome based. You’re all of these kinds of things and it’s really hard to relax about it. It’s really hard to say, “Well, you know, my greatest challenge is to put this child into the hands of nature and allow nature to do their work.
And of course that is to preserve the place of true play.
Rachel Cram – It’s a lot of trust
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – It is. And not everybody has that kind of trust or belief. But it’s so easy to manage a preschooler when you’re playful. It’s so easy.
Rachel Cram – But during those preschool years, especially if you have two or three or four kids all in those preschool years; I’m listening to you as a mom thinking, “How do you find that though; your own playfulness? How do you prioritize that?”
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well, when do your emotions come out to play?
Rachel Cram – I think with your children they do but I’m sensing you saying it needs to be more than that?
Dr. Gordon Nefeld – It’s a solitary activity.
Rachel Cram – And that’s a hard thing to find, the solitary.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes. Have you developed a culture to preserve this in your life? So it happens on a weekly basis. It happens to a certain degree on a daily basis. Is it when you’re painting? Is that when you’re drawing? Is it when you’re dancing? See, so many of us are at work all the time. And now with the inbox and living in the digital world there is no break from it. It’s never done. And so we don’t come to a place of true rest. And many of us are losing our place of rest even in our sleep. It’s that it’s not bringing us to that place of rest. And by the way, emotions don’t rest when we’re asleep because they’re in charge of our dreams. They’re still at work. They’re also in charge of memory encoding. So we find emotions don’t rest while we’re sleeping. They rest in play.
Rachel Cram – This might be a sad thing to say but I think that if we can know as a parent that if we engage in play we’ll be a better parent to our children, that might be enough impetus to make us do it. I think sometimes when we’re in those early years we forget about ourselves. And it’s hard to do something for ourselves.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – And it will certainly be the most significant factor in taking the stress out of your marriage.
Rachel Cram – Can you talk more about that?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well we got attracted to each other through play because play is incredibly attractive. When you see playfulness. But it’s the first thing that we lose, often in marriage, we lose ourselves as playmates and truly being able to play together. In fact, one of the people who discovered this is actually the one responsible for the National Institute of Play in the States. He goes around now giving marriage play shops because again, in the research, couples who play together have a much greater chance of longevity in their marriage than those who lose their play. So it goes into every area of our life. It’s not just about kids. It’s about us. And there’s a good argument that bringing play into something should be the first instrument of discipline for a child who has not yet had mixed feelings.
Rachel Cram – Oh, I wanted to come back to this. In your earlier story about Marcy at the playground, when you described her drive for a pursuit, you said something to the effect that a young child can only feel one emotion at a time.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Well there is a part of our brain that doesn’t show up until 5 to 7 years of age. And so if a child has mixed feelings, a child would be able to say, “Mommy, I’m really frustrated with you but I don’t want to hurt you because I love you.”
Or, “Mommy, I’m really really scared about the school play but I’m really excited too.”
Or, “I’ve got some hits in me for my sister but I really love her.”
Anything in which there is dissonance, where you can feel two things at the same time.
Rachel Cram – And so you’re saying before that kicks in, that ability to,
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Before that, before that kicks in, you see, when a child has double feelings a child can say, “I’d really like to steal the cookie but I’m going to get into trouble.”
Or, “I’m really frustrated at mommy right now but I love her.”
Right. Before it kicks in, you’re just one emotion at a time. That’s all you are and you’re driven by that emotion. And so you can love, “Mommy Mommy, you’re the best mommy. I love you! I love you! I love you!”
And then Mommy says, “No you can’t have that.”
“I hate you, you poo poo face! I want a new Mommy!”
And you know, it could just turn on a dime. Now, if you have a spouse that’s still like that there’s a problem. They haven’t grown out of that. We’re supposed to have our double feelings. But the prefrontal cortex kicks into action between five to seven years of age if conditions are conducive. However, most of the adolescents I worked with and many adults that you see today that are on the news almost every day,
Rachel Cram – So people that are struggling with,
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – They don’t have an operational prefrontal cortex.
Rachel Cram – You’re going political here on me?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – And our studies actually show that there is nothing happening in the prefrontal cortex and the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the bridge between the hemispheres. Because the way it’s supposed to work is only one of your hemispheres comes to solve a problem. And as soon as it does, the bridge to the other one says, “Hey, I’ve got a different take on it,” and comes in to solve a problem with both hemispheres.
If a four year old starts with the right brain, he’s stuck with the right brain. If he starts with a left brain he’s stuck with the left brain. The corpus callosum doesn’t work. It’s based on an either/or system. And so emotions are based on an either/or system. It’s not this/and. And so the whole issue of development is to be able to get to this/and, and all further development is based on this inherent conflict. And again, all you have to look around you is to say, “oh my goodness this is missing.”
Mixed feelings are the key. Is there any evidence of dissonance? Any evidence of dissonance whatsoever. And sadly, sadly there’s a lot of immaturity in our society.
Rachel Cram – Can you clarify for me. What do you mean by dissonance? Is there any dissonance? I just got a little lost in that.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Dissonance as inner conflict. Like when I say, “I’m really excited but I’m kind of scared,” there is inner conflict. The prefrontal cortex is a mixing bowl for feelings. So it takes one feeling at a time. When there’s only one feeling at a time, there’s no depth in emotion. There’s no inner conflict. There’s no dissonance and no emotional discord.
For instance when Piaget focused on cognition, he said there’s no four year old in the world who can say, “Part of me thinks this way and part of me thinks that way. I’m rather ambivalent today. I disagree with myself.”
You know again there’s some adults who can’t either. There’s no four year old in the world. But somewhere between 5 and 7 years of age, that is what is supposed to change. Now, you can’t learn this. This is a developmental capacity. It has to be grown. You can’t learn it. It is absolutely spontaneous. But it’s creating those conditions that are conducive to that. So it happens first in play. So the more a child is engaged in play; why does play happen? Because the togetherness needs of the child are taken care of. And so that becomes a parent’s primary responsibility. If I do my job of holding onto the child, a sense of connection, then they naturally engage in play. And in play, they begin to experiment with this/and rather than either/or.
Rachel Cram – Amazing, and this all comes back to those six stages of attachment, which if you don’t mind I’ll reiterate for the sake of memory.
Dr.Gordon Neufeld – Good.
Rachel Cram – Proximity, sameness, belonging, mattering, love, being known. These six stages make way for mixed feelings and ongoing maturation.
Dr.Gordon Neufeld – Yes. It is a beautiful kind of template, master blueprint if you like, for development to unfold. And so it takes time. When a child is a teenager and all the emotions get big, they need a bigger prefrontal cortex because you still have a relatively small prefrontal cortex when you’re 13 years of age and the emotions are too big. So they go into an either/or state again. And if conditions are conducive they pull out into a this/and. If they don’t, they become vulnerable to all kinds of problems and diagnoses at about 14 and 15 years of age. So this functional prefrontal cortex, mixed feelings, becomes key. But it’s not a skill to be learned. It is a result of true maturation. True emotional development.
Rachel Cram – I heard you give an analogy comparing how sometimes as parents we think we can create a mold for our children to grow into and we can shape them. And you compared that with somebody thinking that they can create a mold for a carrot. You talked about how, when you plant a carrot, it’s going to grow into the mold itself. You just have to nurture the soil and water it. And I thought that was a fantastic analogy. Does that tie in with what you’re saying here?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Yes absolutely. The seed of the carrot looks nothing like the carrot. We’re always trying to get the child to look like an adult, to become an adult. That’s not what children need, they need to be children. But when you simply nurture them and the nurture is a warmth, the invitation to exist in our presence, holding onto them when apart, providing for their attachment needs, their belonging needs, their love, that is the nurturance that a child needs. For us to be their answer, not have the answers. To be the answer; to their need for togetherness, to feel cared for. When that is there, then they become all they were meant to be; developmentally, psychologically, emotionally. They become all that they are meant to be. They grow into their potential.
Potential isn’t something you practice. It’s not something you can teach. You could have three PhDs, go to the best schools in the world and be incredibly immature. Even the best preschool in the world cannot foster maturation. The best university in the world can’t do it. This is home stuff.
True personality is home grown, not school grown. It is what happens at home. And it’s only in home where these basic developmental needs can be met; these attachment needs. That is where a child is meant to feel taken care of. So many parents feel, well if I could get my child to the best schools, all the way from Ivy League universities, to the best preschool, and they think that then, it’s taken care of, their responsibilities are. It’s what’s happening on the home front that has always been the most important. This leads to the realization of human potential.
Musical interlude #4
Rachel Cram – So Gordon, as wrap up this interview, you’ve given us so much to think about for ourselves and for our children. What would you want to leave with parents as we end this conversation? Is there a last thought, or encouragement?
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – I think the most important thing for a parent to realize is, they’re not alone. Nature has a tremendous desire for our child. And if we do our part nature will do its part in the unfolding of human potential.
Let’s tie it together here in terms of the Pyramid of Potential. I had the opportunity to present that in Europe at the United Nations Year of the family. I call it the irreducible needs of a child.
And so a primary responsibility of the parent of a young child is to hold onto that child, to preserve the sense of connection because that’s where their vulnerabilities are. That is where the main threat is in facing separation. If they can find a way of preserving the sense of connection, even when things divide like problem behavior, like being outside of the home, like Daddy/Mommy going to work. If they can find a way of preserving a sense of connection with that child so the child is secure in that sense of togetherness, they have met the very very basic needs of that child. If that child feels cared for in this, then there is some luxury energy in that child.
The luxury energy is about the unfolding of human potential; becoming all that you were meant to be, of being able to have this integrative functioning, this consideration, of being able to be patient when you’re frustrated, being able to be courageous when you’re alarmed. All of these things which require development that can’t really be taught. Like caring. You can teach somebody how to care but you can’t teach them to care. So the luxury in the system is about the realization of potential. And that’s what it should all be about for the young child. If you think of a pyramid, our part really is to start with keeping that child in right relationship with us.
Right relationships are key. They’re us being the answer to their basic attachment needs. Us holding onto them when apart. If they have right relationships they are more likely to have soft hearts and that is so important.
When preschoolers can feel their tender emotions, they can feel the emotions that are in them and that’s the second part if you think of a Pyramid of Potential. So attachment needs first and then now we know that emotions are the next issue, their soft hearts. And if their soft hearts, a child will be able to feel satiated, be able to be at rest. Rest is the key to all growth. Absolutely essential to all health and well-being. And so it goes; right relationships, soft hearts. Next one in the pyramid is rest and then play is at the very top of the pyramid, bringing us into our potential. And so we could call that the Pyramid of Potential.
What are the irreducible needs of a child? Right relationships, soft hearts, being able to experience rest, especially rest in their drive for togetherness and true play. And if that is their, nature will do the rest.
We don’t have to worry about it. Those are the most important things.
Rachel Cram – Dr. Neufeld, thank you so much for all your wisdom and insight. I have so appreciated this interview.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld – Thank you.
International authority on child development Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., joins forces with bestselling author Gabor Maté, M.D., to tackle one of the most disturbing trends of our time: Children today looking to their peers for direction—their values, identity, and codes of behavior.
This “peer orientation” undermines family cohesion, interferes with healthy development, and fosters a hostile and sexualized youth culture. Children end up becoming overly conformist, desensitized, and alienated, and being “cool” matters more to them than anything else.