A Playful Approach to Discipline—An Editorial by Dr. Gordon Neufeld

In a two-part editorial on discipline, A Playful Approach to Discipline, Dr. Gordon Neufeld discusses the root causes of problem behaviour and their surprisingly playful solutions.

He starts by addressing the commonly-held belief that discipline falls under the construct of work, and therefore, by definition, about actions leading to outcomes. 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….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.”

He outlines the five major roots of problem behaviour:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.

Dr. Neufeld comes back to the value of play, saying: “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.”

In the second part of his editorial, Dr. Neufeld gives a more detailed explanation of how play can be applied to each of the five areas above.  He stresses that one of the key values of play is that it creates a sense of safety in which children can experiment and feel without direct consequences, allowing children to test experience and try out new approaches.

Part I

Part II