In the first part of this editorial on playful approaches to discipline, I talked about how we have become stuck in our misplaced belief that if we could control the outcomes of our children’s problem behaviour, discipline issues would be resolved. That is, we think if we could only get practical answers to our questions of what-to-do-when, we would get the kind of behaviour we are looking for.

This is exactly the type of thinking that needs to be confronted. We certainly do not need more useless answers around how to discipline. As stated in the first part of the editorial, controlling the outcomes of children’s behaviour will not work for two basic reasons: first, their immature brains are not wired to function in terms of outcomes; and second, the underlying issues that give rise to most problem behaviour cannot be addressed through discipline. I outlined five of the most common roots of problem behaviour and explained why discipline is not the answer to any of them. Now I turn to play – the exact opposite of work – as the surprising solution to these issues.


Play and Immaturity

tooth brushing gameThe first root of problem behaviour (as discussed in the first part of this editorial) is immaturity. Only time and conducive conditions can grow children up. In the meantime, play is their default mode. It protects them from the real world of consequences until their brains are mature enough to enter into the work mode. If we could only rest from our own work of trying to teach a child a lesson and enter into the playful spirit of the immature child, we would find it much easier to deal with children.

If we didn’t take things so seriously, we might even have a bit of fun ourselves. Engaging in play is a great way to wait for Nature to grow our children up. When we encounter troubling behaviour, we need to ask ourselves what kind of behaviour we would like to see instead. Then we can look at ways to inject some fun into an activity to make it engaging while also leading to the desired behaviour. When a child is not yet capable of mixed feelings, this trick works like magic in just about all areas: eating, chores, toilet training, going to bed, dressing oneself, and even learning.


Play and Counterwill

Lack of right relationship with the adult in charge is the second major root cause of problem behaviour, since it leads to counterwill – that natural instinct to oppose the will of another unless the attachment instincts are fully engaged. Surprisingly, play is the answer to counterwill, too. The instant an activity becomes a game, counterwill melts away. The reason for this is in the very nature of play itself: one is always free to play and therefore not to play, and thus the will of the child is naturally protected. Since protecting the will of the child is the fundamental purpose of counterwill, play is the perfect answer to defusing resistance and oppositionality.


Play and Uncivilized Emotional Expression

Children’s strong emotional impulses are the third underlying reason for problem behaviour, since they lead to uncivilized emotional expression. Play gives us an answer here, too. In fact, there is good reason to believe that play evolved in mammals to provide a solution to the way primitive emotion can alienate others. Play was meant to take care of our attachment relationships by giving our survival-based emotions a way of being expressed without real-life repercussions. When a child’s behaviour is rooted in the attacking energy that comes from frustration or the panic that comes from alarm or the obsession with pursuit, we should be asking ourselves how we could help this emotional energy come out in play instead.

Simply put, only play can truly shoehorn instinctive creatures into civilized society without damaging either. Those who believe in work would wrongly credit this shoehorning to discipline. However, people who have been disciplined the most often turn out to be the most troubled and troubling.


Play and the Alarm System

The fourth underlying reason for problem behaviour that I described in the first half of this piece is a loss of the feelings of alarm that lead a child to be naturally cautious, careful, and concerned. These pivotal feelings become inhibited when a child has become too alarmed. So it makes sense that the alarm system is most functional in play, where the child feels most safe. In addition, recent scientific inquiry has revealed play as being an external womb for the young child’s fledgling alarm system, allowing it to develop and giving the thinking brain practice in figuring out what’s wrong. As stated previously, children without functioning alarm systems become discipline problems by default. Thus, while play is certainly not an instant answer to alarm dysfunction and the discipline problems that result, it is undoubtedly the best hospital we have for a dysfunctional alarm system and the best antidote to problem behaviour that stems from carelessness and recklessness.


Play and Lost Tears

The inability to feel futility when it is encountered, or the loss of tears, is the fifth and final reason I described for problem behaviour. Play is our best bet for helping find lost tears of sadness because tears are always easier one-step-removed from reality. They come more easily when they are about something that doesn’t count so much. I find it fascinating that the ancient Greeks invented ‘the play’ to help give expression to tears of futility, especially when facing the tragedies or big futilities of life. I can certainly relate to that.

The basic assumption underlying the outcome-approach to discipline is that experience alone can teach. This is not true. The heart must be vulnerably touched if change is to happen. In other words, it is not enough to know the consequences of our actions. We must actually feel the futility of a course of action or the futility of changing our circumstances, for needed pruning to take place. When encountering behaviour that doesn’t work, we should be asking ourselves whether the child has lost access to the sadness that would make the difference. If so, this sadness needs to be restored before the problem behaviour can resolve.

And so surprisingly (at least to those who believe in work), play appears to be the answer to the behaviour problems we have been mistakenly trying to correct through discipline. But as long as we are stuck inside our outcome-based thinking and blinded by our misplaced belief in work, we will fail to harness Nature’s own potent answer to the number one parenting concern today. We need a fundamental shift in thinking if we are to change our ways – a slap to our paradigm, if you will. Before this can happen, perhaps we first need to feel the sadness of our own futile attempts to change our child’s errant ways.


I would like to add a couple of concluding thoughts before I put down my pen. In the discipline arena, we tend to think that if only someone would answer our questions of what-to-do-when we could find our way through a child’s problem behaviour. Ironically, it is the answers to those very questions that perpetuate the practice of what could be called ‘misdiscipline’ (to parallel the construct of misbehaviour).

These questions of what-to-do-when do not need to be answered, so much as to be doubted and replaced. The questions that would really change our dance are What do I see when my child erupts in this troubling behaviour? and What can I learn from this incident that would change my interaction with this child? Or, as I have already noted, What is the behaviour that I would like to see instead, and how can I infuse some play into the activity to make it naturally engaging? The answers to those questions can help evolve us into the kinds of parents and teachers our children truly need.

Some people are child-whisperers because they know intuitively the secret of play and have the confidence to operate from that deep natural instinct. My wife is a prime example of this. No one had to tell her what I am telling you because she seems to have always known it.

I’m not like that. I need a map and a reason, especially when I get into confusing territory. My so-called professional training divorced me from my natural intuition and initially kept me from seeing both the role and power of play in children’s development. That, and my blind belief in the power of work, almost sucked the playfulness right out of me before developmental science brought me back to my senses. Now I am trying to make amends, as well as to give play the proper credit it deserves and the room it needs to do its work. Now I know my wife’s secret. I am writing this editorial to share it with others like me, so we can confront the thinking that has trapped us inside the work motif and its crippling outcome-based thinking.

Unfortunately, although play may be the answer we have been looking for, it is in dire straits in today’s society. This is partly because there is so little cognitive understanding, partly because the cultural support for play has been lost, and partly because true play is fast being replaced by counterfeit play. What is so insidious about much of today’s so-called play (for example, video games, screenplay, recess play, and even play-based curriculums) is that it is actually outcome-based at its core. And so it’s actually work masquerading as play, like the wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing.

But that is another story, for another time and place.

© 2024 The Neufeld Institute