January 21, 2020

Ep. 5 | Dr. Gordon Neufeld | True Play Part 1

"Preschoolers hold the secrets to human development. If you can understand the preschooler from inside out, you really can understand everything. Our problems as adults are when we do not grow out of the preschooler period."
~ Dr. Gordon Neufeld

In this episode, Child Psychologist, Author, and Developmental Theorist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, outlines 6 stages of growth and development for building ‘capacity for relationship’ within ourselves and with others. He describes ‘togetherness’ as a human instinct, paramount to even survival instinct, augmenting current scientific discovery on the necessity of enduring attachment, in both children and adults.

Episode Guest

Dr. Gordon Neufeld

Dr. Gordon Neufeld

Dr. 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 Training Institute lay the foundation for much of what we are now discovering about the essential nature of play, in both children and adults.


Transcript | Episode #5 | True Play – Part 1

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 want to start off with just ask you, you’re in your fifth decade of this work. Your work on play and your years of practical and theoretical study, greatly influence how we now make sense of preschoolers and even of ourselves. So at this stage in your life, what is it that fuels you to keep going, to keep pushing 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.

You know, I love being a grandparent. I have now three, one right in that age, four years of age, and two just coming into kindergarten. But it’s given me another whole window right close into their functioning and an appreciation again of putting all the pieces together theoretically.

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 diagnosis right off the top. Oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, you known, 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 – 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 preschool period.

Rachel Cram – Do you have something that you’re just hungering to know more about right now. Like, is there something that drives you to think, “This area. I’m fascinated by it.”

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. And this is coming from all different areas of science; neuroscience, anthropology, evolutionary biology. It’s coming from the arts, the expressive arts, music, dance and so on. If we understand what it really is about, it is equally as applicable to adults as it is to children.

Rachel Cram – That’s so interesting. Can you explain that?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – 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 it’s a multidisciplinary science.

But 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 – Gordon, can you define what you mean by play? I’m sensing your meaning something more than games or toys?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – 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, that 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.

Rachel Cram – So what is the work Gordon? What do you see as the role of the parent in that?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – 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 reincorporate for myself the place of play in my life. It’s becoming the single most important factor in emotional health and well-being.

Rachel Cram – I feel like you’ve always talked about play. Play as a way to come into your own being, as a way you come into your own person. But as I’m listening to you talk I’m thinking this is an even greater contract. Is that, is that fair to say that?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Perhaps I could clarify. Your right in the sense that I’ve always talked about play as emergent play. And emergent play is when you come into your own selfhood. And that kind of emergent play takes place again, when a child is satiated in terms of their needs for connection and togetherness. And that is true.

But it’s not only about venturing forth into one’s own person. This is a play that’s 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.

So, it is a far deeper construct here. In evolutionary history, when emotion first appears in birds, when it first appears 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, when we don’t have that bubble of outcome based activity, that bubble in which things are not for real et cetera, we suffered tremendously. We get emotionally exhausted.

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.

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, where would you start something like that.

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.

Rachel Cram – So then, just to clarify. That attacking energy occurs when we do not get what we want. When we have not come to terms with futility.

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Yes, 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 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 the 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.

Rachel Cram – Now you speak about there being developmental stages, about our capacity for relationship emerging through developmental stages. I’m wondering can you walk us through those stages.

Dr Gordon Neufeld – The capacity for relationship is a capacity that is developed through at least six stages. They’re spontaneous but they’re not inevitable.

Rachel Cram – So by not inevitable you’re meeting our capacity for relationship emerges through conditions that are conducive.

Roy Salmond – Yes. 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 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

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 – OK, so stage one of the six is mainly through our senses. So, like, touch, smell, sight, sound.

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 given 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 grandson, 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 so 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 this ability to go away from Nana while holding her close was the fact that they were alike.

Rachel Cram – That’s so lovely. So the second stage in developing a capacity for a relationship is a sense of being alike. A sameness.

Dr Gordon Neufeld – 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 – Loyalty is such a big word, as is belonging. How did 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 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.

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 if this 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 developed mentally, 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 where a child blurts out his secrets. 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 – Gordon, if these intimacies of feeling known, heard and seen are not developed early on, where do the consequences show up?

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 – At the beginning, Gordon, you talked about preschool years setting the stage for life. And through these six stages of development, that’s even more evident. You package those within the relationship of family. And you’ve been quoted as saying you see family as, ‘the essential unit as society’. Now this is a big question, but what do you see as the key role of family. Is that something that you can sum up in a bit of a discussion?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Let me take a little bit of a different look at it.

Rachel Cram – Yes. Feel free to go in any direction you want.

Dr Gordon Neufeld – When we look at it from what nature is trying to do, 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.

Rachel Cram – And so that’s the basic unit of society.

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Yes, 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 preschoolers 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 – Well speaking as a parent, of course we want that connection. So it’s really helpful to understand how easily that sense of togetherness can be lost.

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Now, 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 and a 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, t,hat 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. And you’ve got to get the child back. And the first thing to do to get a child back is to engage their attachment instincts.

Please stay tuned for our next episode – Part 2 and the conclusion of True Play, with Dr Gordon Neufeld

Episode 2