A playful approach to discipline

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Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist and an internationally renowned authority in the field of child development. This article on the root causes of problem behaviour and their surprisingly playful solutions was first published by the Neufeld Institute (neufeldinstitute.org) in April 2016 as a two-part editorial. The author has modified it for ParentsCanada.


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’s 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.

One 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. Firstly, 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): 

1. 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.

2. 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 instinctually 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 was there and we made sure to safeguard this sacred trust, there would certainly be less need for discipline.

3. 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.

4. Not being instinctively moved to be cautious, careful and concerned

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.

5. 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 over and over again that do not work 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 get to that, but first I would like to suggest that 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.

Instead, 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 already stated, 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. On the other hand, play – the exact opposite of work – is emerging in scientific study as the surprising answer to these issues.

Play and immaturity

Given the first root of problem behaviour 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 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.

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