In this two-part editorial on discipline, Dr. Gordon Neufeld discusses the root causes of problem behaviour and their surprisingly playful solutions.


Play has been on my mind lately. Perhaps it is the influence of three young grandsons. Perhaps it is because I want to stay young, and playfulness definitely helps with that. Perhaps it because the subject of play has been exploding into scientific consciousness lately and I had the wonderful luxury of creating Play & Emotion, a new course that has given me one of the best times of my theoretical life. Whatever the reasons, I think I have become a believer in play.

Father Son PigggybackOne doesn’t usually associate the constructs of play and discipline. There is good reason for this. Discipline is usually associated with the work motif, which is all about outcomes. The fundamental theory of work, as applied to discipline, holds that behaviour is shaped by its consequences. It follows, then, that the primary challenge in discipline would be to control the outcome of a child’s behaviour. So when problem behaviour occurs, believers in the work motif are thinking, “What outcomes should I arrange or impose to give the child the message that this behaviour does not work?” Or, when the child is doing something that particularly pleases us: “What outcomes (e.g. rewards) should we give to send the message that this behaviour works?”

Play, on the other hand, is not about outcomes, but about the activity itself. In this way, play is the opposite of work. To be playful means that we are engaged by the activity, not thinking about the outcomes that could result.

Believers in the work motif assume that children should be treated as little workers so that they will eventually learn to link cause and effect … and gradually come to modify their own behaviour accordingly. When taking this approach, discipline itself becomes hard work, attempting to find just the right kind of outcomes to produce the right kind of behaviour.

There are two fundamental problems with approaching discipline in this way:

First, children specifically (and the immature more generally) don’t function according to the work motif. It doesn’t matter how logical the consequences may be when a child isn’t thinking in terms of outcomes. To not fully appreciate this fact can make one feel crazy at times and render discipline an exercise in futility. For sound developmental reasons we are now just beginning to discover, children are designed to function in the play mode, legitimately blind to the outcome of their behaviour.

The second problem with viewing discipline in the work motif is that work doesn’t actually deliver the kind of behavioural outcomes we are looking for. The basic reason for this is that discipline cannot address the underlying issues that give rise to the problem behaviour. We often think of discipline as being corrective, but that could only be true if the problem behaviour did not have deeper roots. It turns out that there are five root problems that underlie almost all the behaviour that is typically subjected to discipline — and discipline does not provide a solution to even one of them:

The most common reason for problem behaviour is immaturity.
Children are not born with the ability to solve problems, take another’s perspective, judge outcomes, or manage their emotions and impulses. Even when knowing right from wrong, they are often unable to deliver. Even their best intentions will too often go unrealized. Although these developmental deficits lead to considerable problem behaviour, they cannot be corrected through discipline. Only true maturation will provide the outcomes we desire. In the meantime, we should consider what to do with a child until mature enough to act according to their knowledge.

A second major cause of problem behaviour is a lack of right relationship with the adult in charge.
Children must be deeply attached and in a state of trustful dependence in order to have a deep and systemic desire to be good. When this attachment is lacking, children will instinctively resist and oppose when they feel coerced. The term for this is counterwill. This kind of problem behaviour cannot be addressed through discipline; in fact, discipline will make it worse. The appropriate question to ask is how to develop the kind of relationship in which children naturally want to be good. If that underlying desire were there and we made sure to safeguard this sacred trust, there would certainly be less need for discipline.

The third underlying reason for a significant portion of problem behaviour is children’s strong emotional impulses, which seek release.
All discipline does is aggravate the very emotions that are getting a child into trouble in the first place. When we sense that emotion is driving behaviour, we should ask ourselves how we can help the child get this emotion out without getting into trouble. An understanding of this dynamic alone would change our own behaviour considerably.

The fourth reason for problem behaviour is that a child is not being instinctively moved to be cautious, careful, and concerned when they should be.
These attributes are not personality characteristics to be taught, but rather the fruit of a healthy alarm system. For children to stay out of trouble and out of harm’s way, their thinking brains need to feel the feedback of an activated alarm system when trouble looms ahead. Too many of our children have lost their ability to feel cautious, careful, and concerned, and so they become discipline problems by default. The question we should be asking ourselves in cases like this is how to help restore the child’s capacity to feel cautious and careful when this is called for.

The fifth root cause of problem behaviour is the inability to feel futility when it is encountered.
To address problem behaviour at the brain level, children need to FEEL sadness and disappointment when they encounter something they cannot change. Too many of our children have lost their feelings of futility. They do the same things that do not work over and over again and lack the resilience to know that they will survive not getting their way. Discipline itself cannot foster adaptation, nor can consequences or sanctions produce the right result. Only the right feelings will do the trick. If behaviour has become stuck, we should be asking ourselves how to help the child find the lost tears of sadness that would help them walk the maze of life.

If these five root causes of problem behaviour were resolved, there would be very little need to discipline a child. We must remind ourselves that discipline itself cannot correct the root issues that underlie most problem behaviour. In fact, conventional discipline tends to make matters worse. If this were truly understood, we would know that the real challenge in discipline is not to make headway or to teach a child a lesson, but rather to ‘do no harm’ and to find a way of dealing with the symptom behaviour until the underlying issues could be addressed. This insight would fundamentally change the way we interact with our children, and not only when problem behaviour occurs.

That brings me back to play. Surprisingly, play appears to be the answer to the very problems that we usually try to correct through discipline. That is why play is the default mode of the immature. And that is why I believe in play, not work, to deliver the outcomes we so desire in our children.

So how does play do this? I shall address that question in part two of this editorial. For now, I would like to leave you with the thought that maybe we have been taking discipline much too seriously. Perhaps we have been too blinded by our adult work ethic to see what play is really up to. Perhaps we have been fooled by the seemingly innocuous and frivolous nature of play, which has kept us from realizing that it could deliver the outcomes we have been looking for.

Nothing in natural development works directly. We could well afford to lighten up a bit, let children be children, and find a way of imposing order on their universe that doesn’t feel so much like work.


Continued … part two of Dr. Neufeld’s article will post in April.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld will deliver a two-part keynote presentation on the topic of discipline at the Eighth Annual Vancouver Neufeld Conference, to take place on Saturday, April 30, 2016 at the Executive Airport Plaza Hotel & Conference Centre in Richmond, BC. Discipline will also be a theme for a number of sessions throughout the day, and the Making Sense of Discipline DVD will be discounted for attendees during the conference – to $65 – a savings of $25.

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