I read all the wrong books before my first kid was born four years ago. Next to my bed sat books on baby sleep, poop, and milestones. What I should have been reading was all the fun series I had never got to, like Outlander; in part, this is because I haven’t had that much time to read for pleasure since. It’s also because until I held this living, breathing, helpless, baby in my arms, everything was just so theoretical, so idealized, so… not about MY baby or OUR connection.
Developmental psychologist and educator Dr. Gordon Neufeld says that “today’s parent is looking for direction, instead of being the answer to their child’s need for belonging, for love, for significance, for esteem.” He urges parents to keep in mind that “95 % of the parenting literature today assumes that parenting is a skill you can learn… [but] it is not.” This is a fact that I’ve long suspected, but never articulated. Neufeld continues, “we’ve been educated out of our instincts. We don’t have all the rituals of attachment and connection. So we’ve come undone. We’ve lost our way.”
This rings true for me. I often feel quite lost, and in the moments when the real stress and exhaustion hit, I often find myself leaning back on those phrases we all know and cringe at: “Hurry up, we’re going to be late!” “Why would you do such a thing??” “Just STOP it, OK??” These are at best met with a blank stare from my preschooler, and at worst, I get kicked in the shin.
Neufeld sees much of the parenting “industry” as feeding off of our insecurities, and wants to be “the different parenting expert… [the one] that’s going to restore parents to their natural intuition.” While I’m sure every parenting expert wants to be the “different” one, Neufeld’s approach has honestly helped me to find and follow my parenting instincts.
Please don’t think I have a handle on my kids all the time; but I do keep some Neufeld quotes in my mind to keep me sane and in touch with what I know is right for me and my kids. Here are three of my favourites; I hope they help you, too.
from Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
This one is so important to me that I have it on a fridge magnet. Neufeld’s ideas start with attachment as the “pursuit and preservation of proximity”; when we’re attuned to our children, they will want to be around us, and will want to be good for us. Many of us instinctively know that we need to create special moments of attachment with our child, but it’s easy to forget — especially when it counts most. Neufeld notes that “collection” involves eye contact, a smile, and an offer of affection.
In real life: An eye, a smile, and a nod can be as simple as it sounds, but if we’re at an impasse such as a power struggle while trying to leave the house, we might need to level up — to engage the attachment instinct mid-meltdown, I look my kiddo in the eye, elicit a giggle with a game or silly gesture, give him a hair tussle (use whatever works for your kiddo), and proceed to “direct” the rest of the morning. It’s often in the most chaotic moments that we most need this ability. For more on the importance of collecting, see here.
Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
Although the heart of the Neufeld model is attachment, he also insists that the parent-child relationship is hierarchical. In his course The Vital Connection, Neufeld describes the alpha role parents need to step into; he’s aware of how culturally laden this term is, and makes sure to note that this isn’t the old-school “father knows best” kind of alpha. This role is not about having all the answers but about “being the child’s answer,” not “power over,” but rather “power to take care of,” and it is being the home base that the child willingly runs to because she will be unconditionally loved. If children feel that our love for them is conditional on being a certain way, it loses its transformative power, and the attachment bonds suffer.
In real life: It’s so tempting to use our time as a bargaining chip when our kids act out. We have all uttered (or at least thought of uttering) things like, “Well, we were going to have a special afternoon together, but now we can’t because you just hit your sister.” Neufeld would see this as making our kids work for our love. Without meaning to, we are saying that our love is dependent on good behaviour — which sometimes isn’t even developmentally possible. It’s not that consequences are wrong, necessarily, but a more attachment-safe outcome would be that before we have our special afternoon, we sit together, calm down, and collect.
How do we teach our kids to develop maturity? Sorry/ not sorry: trick question. Our job as parents is not to “teach” a child to develop — it is to support them in their natural progression towards maturity, by taking care of them, and creating a place where they can “rest” and be themselves. But all the feelings! We so badly want to teach our children to manage their feelings on their own that we’ve lost the essence of what will actually grow them up — feeling their emotions and being supported through them by the adults they’re attached to. Neufeld often points out that humans are social creatures: one of our root emotions is to be near the people to whom we’re attached.
In real life: Timeouts are based on the idea that our kids can spend time on their own, cool down, and think about their emotions and actions on their own. Neufeld points out, however, that what kids need to help them through these times and develop emotional maturity is not self-regulation, but co-regulation. Although timeouts may “work” in the short term, they may create more problems than they solve. A more attachment-safe and emotionally educational strategy would be a time-in, in which the child is kept close while their feelings are validated.
There are many parenting experts who are more well-known than Neufeld, and this is perhaps because there’s no snake-oil or magic formula here — but there’s definitely something enchanting in his ideas. When we are attuned with our child, and in “right relationship,” Neufeld says, “a dance actually evolves, and it feels like [we’re] connecting to something so deep, so rooted. We really do have very natural parenting instincts.”
We’re all looking for the magic answers to parenting’s greatest questions— but all we really need to know is that we are the answer our children are looking for.