Deborah MacNamara Interview:

In this Banyen interview, Dr. Deborah MacNamara discusses the relational developmental modal of Gordon Neufeld.

Deborah MacNamara, PhD is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute and presents, teaches, and writes on all facets of child and adolescent development. She will be launching her new book Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or Anyone Who Acts Like One) at Banyen on Thursday, may 5th, 6:30-8pm.

Banyen: How how would you summarize the core insights of Gordon Neufeld's developmental approach to parenting and education?

Deborah MacNamara: Neufeld’s model of human development centers on how adults provide the relational conditions for a child to realize their full human potential. This potential is not defined by their talents or intelligence, but in their growth as separate, social, and adaptive beings. Maturity is not a foregone conclusion: despite getting older, not all people grow up. Strong adult attachments are critical if a child’s heart is to remain soft, so that they can experience their vulnerable feelings in the context of a caring relationship. The ability to feel and stay connected with such feelings as caring and consideration is essential to the process of maturing. The biggest contribution adults can make to a child’s development is providing the conditions for relational rest, where a child can take for granted that their attachment needs will be taken care of.

The focus of the Neufeld approach is to make sense of children for the adults who are responsible for them. Caring for a child cannot be reduced to instructions or a list of skills but is about insight and intuition. Discipline that uses what a child cares about against them is an insult to the adult/child relationship if one exists, and courts problems, including leading children to find substitutes for their relational needs.

Banyen: In your book Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers you describe young children between the ages 2 to 6 as "some of the most misunderstood people on the planet." In what ways do we misunderstand them?

Deborah MacNamara: It is important to recognize that young children don't perceive and experience the world in the same way we do as adults. For example, they don’t think twice or see the context that surrounds them. They have their own form of logic, which includes filling in the missing pieces when they don’t understand. Young children can be up or down, on or off, but never in between. Their brains are unable to take in more than one thought, feeling, or set of signals at a time.

If development unfolds well, they will start to demonstrate impulse control and consideration by the time they are 5 to 7, bringing to close the preschooler period. Until this shift occurs they require direction and support from mature people around them. Instead of holding their developmental immaturity against them, we need to compensate for what is missing, keep our relationship strong, and lead them towards mature relating.

Banyen: What is the most effective way of relating to the dynamic range of children's emotions?

Deborah MacNamara
: Young children have immature emotional systems that are not under their conscious control. They are impulsive and brazen, lashing out when frustrated or bursting into tears when upset. Their raw emotions can appear in unpredictable ways, taking adults by surprise. The key is not to hold their untempered emotional displays against them. The development of the emotional system is sophisticated and takes time to mature. If a child’s relational needs are met, brain integration will lead to them having a sense of agency and capacity to form intentions as to how they want to respond when they are frustrated, upset, or scared. This development appears by the time they are 5 to 7 years old, or later for more sensitive kids. Until maturity in the prefrontal areas of the brain occur, adults will need to use their relationship with a child to influence their behaviour, keep them and others safe, and point them towards civilized relating. In the face of big emotions adults need to convey that they can handle the child, are there to help them through the storm, and that their relationship is still intact. If we can step back and hold onto the big developmental picture in the middle of our child’s emotional storms, I think we would be less reactive and not take their immature ways so personally. The goal is to survive the incidents with our relationship intact – real growth in a child happens when they are at rest in our care and afforded time and space to play.

Banyen: Many parents and educators struggle with questions of discipline. On one extreme there is the old authoritarian model of discipline and punishment, and on another extreme there is the phenomena of children dominating and not following the lead of their grownups. In your book, you write about the pitfalls of both of these extremes, and propose a whole other approach to leadership. Can you describe the pitfalls of these two extremes and Neufeld's approach to these questions?

Deborah MacNamara: The challenge with discipline approaches and techniques today is we think that this is where the growth occurs, but it is not. Discipline is what we do to compensate for our child’s immature ways and provide order to chaos. What our children really need are adults who assume responsibility for caring and leading them. Children need to give their heart to their adults as we cannot lead them unless they do.

Parents find they can oscillate between the leading part and telling their child what to do, but if done without caring then the child is not motivated to follow. Conversely, if a parent cares but does not lead, a child will move to dominate a parent and become bossy, commanding, and demanding. We must lead our children through caring dominance – where they can trust in us to care for them, as this is the true place of rest for a child. If we are not in the lead with a child we cannot share our values, point them towards appropriate ways of relating, teach them a language of the heart, and help them feel safe in their world. A child should not have to tell us how to care for them, we need to seize the lead in the relationship dance and make them receptive to our caretaking.

Banyen: What is the ideal learning environment for children?

Deborah MacNamara
: The ideal learning environment for a child is one where adults know that the key issue in educating a child is attachment. Children follow, ask questions, obey, and learn from people they have given their heart to. For educators to be empowered in their role, parents need to support and matchmake their child to their teacher. For educators to keep the hearts of their students, they need to hold on to their relationship despite infractions and lack of mature behaviour. While we may need to be firm on behaviour, the goal is to always preserve the relationship and the child’s dignity.  

An ideal learning environment for a young child wouldn’t push them to work before they were developmentally ready. The escalating trend towards early academics for children under the age of 6 is alarming and not in keeping with good developmental science. Young children need to play for the purpose of developing self-expression, brain integration, and emotional well-being. The best environment for a young child is one where they allow preschoolers to be preschoolers. 


To find out more about Dr. Deborah MacNamara visit her website at Deborah will be speaking & signing at Banyen on Thursday, may 5th, 6:30-8pm.

Interview © May 2, 2016 Banyen Books & Sound