February 4, 2020

Ep. 6 | Dr. Gordon Neufeld | True Play Part 2

"Potential isn’t something you practice. It’s not something you can teach. Even the best Preschool in the world cannot foster maturation. The best University in the world can’t do it. This is home stuff. It’s only in home where these basic developmental needs can be met. This leads to the realization of human potential."
~ Dr. Gordon Neufeld

In this episode, Child Psychologist, Author and Developmental Theorist, Dr Neufeld describes play as the “elixir” to healthy growth and development in all relationships including marriage. He explains The Pyramid of Potential; describing potential as a reality, fostered through attachment, emotional expression, rest and play. Dr Neufeld calls this, ‘the irreducible needs of a child’.

Episode Guest

Dr. Gordon Neufeld

For over four decades, Dr Gordon Neufeld’s dedication to helping make sense of their preschoolers, has created the groundwork for much of what we now know about the emerging growth and understanding of childhood. His work describes how our early years set the stage for our ongoing maturation and health.


Transcript | Episode #6 | True Play – Part 2

Roy Salmond – We are going to replay the last 3 or 4 minutes of Part 1 and then we are going to jump right into the rest of the interview…  

Dr Gordon Neufeld – The number one enemy facing preschoolers is separation.  And the preschool 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 onto 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. 

I can give you an example of just how when we don’t understand this; 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 your 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 A’s card and will say, “OK Marcy, mommy’s going now, bye bye.” and we’ll 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!”  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 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; that there’s a little sister or little pet, or something’s going to 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 a child is alarmed, there’s monsters under the bed.  And doesn’t realize that what happened at that event at the playground; the parent’s action 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 parents 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 rules 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 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, 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 how 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 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 when 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. That 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.

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,

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 the 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.  Your outcome based. Your 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 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’s 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 to rest. And many of us are losing our place of rest even in our sleep. Is 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 ourself 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.  Which is so interesting. It’s fascinating. And now you’re mentioning mixed feelings. So what do you mean by mixed feelings. And is there an age where that kind of comes into,

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Oh yes. Well there is a part of our brain that doesn’t show up until 5 to 7 years of age.  Part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. And there’s another part of our brain called the corpus callosum, which is the bridge between the hemispheres.  That really isn’t there. And so in the preschooler there’s parts of the brain that are missing. Well, they’re not really missing, they’re there but there’s no blood flow in it. So they’re inoperative. So for all intents and purposes they’re missing.  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 on 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, your 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! 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 either/or system. It’s not at 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 and 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, 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 – And so Gordon, this is how development in preschoolers unfolds?  We need this capacity for dissonance in order to have a capacity for relationship?

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 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 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. The 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.

Rachel Cram – OK, so Gordon as we wrap up this interview, if you were to leave parents with one crucial piece of information and I know you have so many, but if you were to leave with one, about how they can hold on to their children and have that important connection, what would that be?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Well let’s give it a try and see.  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.

Rachel Cram – What’s our part?  What do we need to bring to that relationship?

Gordon Neufeld – Well 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 as, in a sense, the most important realization we could have.  I call it the irreducible needs of a child.

Rachel Cram – So, the Pyramid of Potential is a representation of those needs.  

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Yes, 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 are some luxury energy in that child.  

Rachel Cram – Luxury energy.  What do you mean by that?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Well survival energy is all about belonging, about loyalty, about sameness. Who likes us who doesn’t like us. Facebook is based on all survival energy.  All social media is based upon togetherness only. If you took togetherness out of it, there would be nothing there. It’s a desperate attempt at being liked, at being loved, of having that status. We take that out of it and there is nothing left. It’s not about becoming your own person. 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. Caring must come spontaneously when the conditions are there. 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.  

Rachel Cram – And that’s the bottom layer of the Pyramid of Potential?

Dr Gordon Neufeld – Yes.  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 of 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 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.

You 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.

Episode 3