S03|04 - Parenting Against the Grain with Dr Deborah MacNamara, Part 1Sep 20, 2021
Deborah is a dynamic teacher and experienced counsellor with over 20 years experience in educational and mental health settings. The underlying purpose of her work is to put adults in the driver’s seat by making sense of kids from the inside out. She is passionate in taking developmental science and making it applicable to everyday life in the home and classroom. From everyday questions to complex problems, strategies for making headway with a child or teen is grounded in a rich developmental framework.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara provides counselling and educational services to parents and professionals based on the relational-developmental approach of Dr. Gordon Neufeld. She is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute and presents on all of the Neufeld material. She is the author of the best selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), and her new children’s picture book, The Sorry Plane.
What we discuss in this episode:
- Dr MacNamara’s background and how she got into this work
- Her book, Rest, Play, Grow and how it affected my personal parenting journey
- How parenting “against the grain” is intuitive and necessary for healthy parent-child relationships
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An introduction to Dr. Deborah MacNamara
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Hello, I am thrilled to bring you this conversation. You are going to so enjoy it just as much as I did, I'm sure.
I am super excited to have Dr. Deborah MacNamara on my podcast because her book, Rest, Play, Grow, really changed my relationship with one of my children in a significant way; and you'll hear about it in this episode as we talk about it.
And also, she's just one of my favorite authors; her book is great. She has another book called The Sorry Plane that she wrote for little kids that is also really lovely – so, make sure you check that out. I divided this conversation into two parts because there's just so much goodness in there.
And so, in this part, we're going to discuss her background and how she got into this work. We're going to discuss parenting and – how her book – what her book is about, and really how it affected my parenting journey as well.
And then, how parenting, kind of, against the grain is actually really intuitive and, kind of, deep down there inside of all of us, and how it's so necessary for healthy parent-child relationships. So, let's dig in.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara provides counseling and educational services to parents and professionals based on the relational developmental approach of Dr. Gordon Neufeld. She is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and presents on all of the Neufeld material.
She is the author of the bestselling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), and her new children's picture book The Sorry Plane. Deborah is a dynamic teacher and experienced counselor with over 20 years’ experience in educational and mental health settings.
She is passionate in taking developmental science and making it applicable to everyday life in the home and classroom. The underlying purpose of all services is to put adults in the driver's seat by making sense of kids from the inside-out.
From everyday questions to complex problems, strategies for making headway with a child or teen is grounded in a rich developmental framework.
Welcome to my podcast. Thank you so much for being on here.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be here.
How her book Rest, Play, Grow affected my personal parenting journey
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Okay. I'm super excited, and I have to tell you a little bit about why I'm so excited; I had hired someone who was certified through the Neufeld Institute when I was living in Quebec years ago – I don't even know what year, 2017, maybe 2018.
Anyways, and she gave me your book and was like, 'You just need to read this, and you'll be fine.' And I only saw her one time and she gave me your book, and I was like, 'This is so good.'
Like, it was so helpful in just switching my own expectations of my kids, and I totally was able to transform my relationship with my son, who I was really struggling with. Since then, he's been diagnosed with autism and ADHD, but at that time, I just thought, 'This kid is so hard, and I'm having such a hard time.'
And anyways, so I love your book. I actually have it here and it's like, I've so written in because I've read it so much and I give it out to everyone I work with. I'm like, 'Just read this, you'll feel better.' So, I am super excited to have you talking about this whole topic today; I think it'll be great.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Well, thank you for that. I'm delighted the book found you, you know. 'One of my colleagues in Quebec' that could have been a couple of people – Bajovio, Martin, or Eva – but we work as a community; so, I'm glad that they introduced you to the book, and that it made sense.
I felt the time I had benefited from working with Dr. Gordon, who felt directly, and so he was kind of my go-to person; and I thought, 'Oh, I just gained so much insight into my young kids.' And I thought, 'We really need to understand these little people better than we do' – so that was the book.
So, thank you for your high praise; I appreciate it.
Dr. MacNamara’s background, and how she got into this work
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yes, so definitely. My parents actually got me interested in Neufeld. Years ago, I was a young mom with just toddlers, and they basically said, "We parented you wrong, but here's the right way, so read this book."
And they started taking me to his courses, so I've been to some in-person events with him. And anyways, and it was-- Yeah, it just opened up a whole new world of parenting, and it was awesome.
But for those of those listeners that are out there that don't know who you are or what you do, I would love for you to tell me a little bit about, or tell us all a little bit about your background and what kind of got you interested in child development and attachment.
And on your website, it says, "Developmental science translated into practical love." So, I wanted to start out with that because I think it's so great. So, tell us a little bit about that and about you.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Well, okay, so that – "Developmental science translated into practical love" – was a gift actually from Dr. Gabor Maté, who wrote an endorsement for Rest, Play, Grow.
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yes.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: He just said, I remember he sent me the email saying, "What do you think of this?" And I just thought, 'Oh my gosh, he's just so gifted with his words – you've nailed it in like a sentence.'
And so, I thought, 'Well, if it's good enough for Dr. Maté, I think I'm just going to own that.' So, that's where that came from. And I think that's really the essence of the work that I do is to translate science into everyday knowledge, and that was what I wanted as a parent.
But before that, I was working with-- I would say I was working as a counselor, I was working as a teacher in a post-secondary environment, working with those with mental health issues – I've worked with 'youth at risk', and I've always been an attachment-based developmentalist, but I never had any words for it.
When I had my child, I met Dr. Gordon, who fell through looking for parenting information and resources, and realized it was the pieces of the puzzle that I was missing.
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yes.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: And then, came to study with him; and then felt really strongly and passionately that – you know, if we're going to – if I'm going to deliver a world that's better for my children that we really need to bring science to consciousness because we don't live in, we live in a very 'behavioral learning focused', cognitive-driven world that talks about relationship but doesn't really understand the nature of it.
And so, human beings have always been fascinating to me. I think that you could go to outer space or you could go underneath the ocean-- I was saying this to my daughter the other day, like, 'Out of all the mysteries you could uncover or discover or explore, the human mind and the human being and the emotions have always been my passion,' because she was talking about, I'd like to be astronomy or should I go do this?
And I'm like, 'Well, the human being is the biggest puzzle in front of you.' And so that's what inspired me to enter into the profession, but just feel really blessed and feel very strong that when one is given gifts, one must also give the gifts back.
More about her book, Rest, Play, Grow, and how it influences parenting
Crystal The Parenting Coach: I love that. Yes, it's so true. And I think I was talking to another parent – coaching friend of mine, one time – and she said, "I just can't imagine what the world would've been like if this--" you know, kind of her mentor, her guru, hadn't written their book.
And I thought that way about your book and about Dr. Neufeld’s book. And I thought, 'If they had just decided to keep that to themselves and not share it with the world, where would I personally be – and all the people that I've worked with and all the people that have been impacted by this work?'
So, I'm grateful that you decided to do that, because I know you were a busy mom and, you know, had a lot of other things on the go while you were writing that book. So yeah.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Thank you.
Crystal The Parenting Coach: So, I would love for you just to tell us a little bit more about the book for people that haven't read it before.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Sure. Well, it's called Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One). And the book is meant to provide a developmental lens on the young child.
So, what I mean by 'young child' is, you know, once you move out of a baby stage – so it could be a toddler, preschooler, kindergartner. But basically, before the age where impulse control centers of the brain are formed, the executive centers of the brain haven't really fully come online yet.
And so, how to describe this very unique personality that we see in the early years – who lack impulse control, who are very prone to resist temper tantrums, they're not logical, they don't live in the world that--, they baffle adults often because they're so unlike us.
So, how could we interpret through science, through plain language, what it is that's going on for them developmentally so that we wouldn't take it so personally when, you know, one minute they tell you to, you know, they're happy with you; and next minute, they're taking a swing at you?
What is this all about? How do we, and what is-- Most importantly, what is our job? What is our role? What is our responsibility to creating the conditions to help our children grow?
And certainly, as a parent of young children, my eldest is now 17 and the next one is 15. But back when I was a new parent, I was really confused about all the things that I needed to do as a parent so that my child could grow up well.
And in finding Dr. Gordon's work and taking, and putting words to developmental science, like, what is it that helps a child grow – it helps you understand what your role is.
We don't go it alone; nature is there to help us, children have a blueprint for development. If we can support that development, then nature can do her job. The child also takes responsibility for themselves as they get older, and we have a role to play.
And so, that's what really the book is all about is; what is our role as an adult? What is it as a caretaker that we must do to help provide the conditions for any child – whether there's a particular impediments or challenges that they face, any child – what is our-- how do we need to show up to play midwife to that developmental potential that resides inside of them?
And so, you know, the greatest-- I think out of all the comments I've received on the book, there was one that touched my heart the most, and it was a presentation where a lot of the parents had read the book and I said, "Do you have any questions or thoughts and stuff?"
And a lot of them have read it. So, I said, "Well, you know, I'm kind of glad you showed up tonight because it sounds like you've already read the book, you know, but you came anyway."
And I said, you know, "And if you don't have any questions, just comments." And one dad said, "Your book, while it's called Rest, Play, Grow – about what we need to do for our children to bring them to rest so they can play and they can grow – your book, brought me a lot of rest as a parent that I know how to show up for my kid. And in amidst all of the confusing, contradictory, really inappropriate stuff that sometimes it's out there and too much information, it just found a way to help me settle into what my kid needs from me."
And so, if that is what a parent gets from it, then I am, you know, I'm over the moon because that was really my goal is to say, "Hey listen, just you are the answer, but what does that mean?" You know, in some ways, to look at that.
So, that's what the book is about. It's about a lot of stuff. It's about, you know, discipline and resistance and temper tantrums, emotional development, and how kids grow and play; it's all about play.
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yes. I love that-- I love that comment that you just said because one of the parts that I love – I was just reviewing it again today – it says, Master Gardeners.
I love how you use the gardener analogy and the midwife analogy. "Master gardeners use science and intuition to know what is needed for good growth." And I think that that is that perfect combination like you so seamlessly, take all of the science – but sometimes, lay people like me don't totally understand – and make it a lot more digestible.
But then, add that intuition piece of like, You already are the child's answer. Like, you are there, you just have to know that you are, because I think a lot of times as parents, we struggle to have-- we feel like we have no idea what we're doing and that we're just, you know, flailing around.
And so, I love-- I love that that was the comment that you got because I definitely feel like that encompasses your book.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Well, I hope so. And I feel badly for parents. I feel – and I include myself in this – that we're parenting at a time when culture kind of fails us, to support us as parents.
I mean, what we really need when our children are born, you know, is the sense of being able to introduce our child to the people who help us raise them – for having those people look at us as if we're competent, that we know they’re not second-guessing us, or acknowledging and reaffirming that we're going to feel a little shaky to begin with.
"Don't worry, the child's largely unconscious for the first six months, you're going to be just fine." You know, "Give it a break." You know, "You've got this, you know?" But, what do we do? We have so much information as if to convey that information is what makes us parents – it isn’t.
Information, having to be taught how to attach to your child, it's actually really quite upsetting at the efforts that people are now going to, to teach parents how to attach to a child. It should be the most natural thing in the world.
The more you would you-- The more you have to teach it, the more it takes it into the head and out of the heart – the more you can say to a parent, "You are the answer, you have this inside of you. You have instincts and emotions. When you were playing with your dolls and your trains and fixing the bugs and, you know, doing all that kind of stuff when you were a child, those were your care-taking instincts that were coming out, they're inside of you. This is just now no longer play. This is real life."
So, I think that I feel badly and I am-- I think, six years later if I had to go back and write Rest, Play, Grow again, I would've really talked a lot more around the cultural piece and how we're missing this support for parents.
And I'm not talking about support to give us respite. I'm talking about support that if your child's having a temper tantrum, that someone's not freaking out on you – support that someone isn't judging you because you send a particular food to school – support because a parent says, "Okay, you know, you're on your own, let me help out and let's just-- you know, come over for dinner once a week or whatever it is.
Like somehow, to look and say, "If children are our best asset, how do we support the parents to be the answer?" Culture does not do that for us anymore. There aren't going to be enough services to support parents. We need people to step up and look at parents as if they're competent and confident, but that doesn’t happen.
How parenting “against the grain” is intuitive and necessary for healthy parent-child relationships
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yeah. I love what you said about taking them out of their head and back to their heart because that is that the answer is already there. And I think also that support is definitely missing within society.
I think oftentimes, we second-guess ourselves because of what other people say or what they're doing or, you know, people that feel like, 'Well, you're not hard enough on your kids.' I feel like I get that often, and maybe that's just my own thoughts and not what people are really actually meaning.
But when we kind of switch to this approach, to parenting, it can sometimes be seen as too soft when we're focusing on our relationship, you know, versus like, 'Okay, you're grounded because you did this,' right?
People expect it to be so much more hard line than it is. And so, I do-- When I'm talking to parents, all the time this happens, where the mom's like, 'Well, I don't know people-- What are people going to think?' Right?
It's almost like they know the answer inside, but they're squashing the answer down because they think there has to be another answer because everybody else thinks it's wrong.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s personal experience of 'parenting against the grain'
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: Yeah. No. And that's where we just don't have the confidence in what we bring to the table. You can't find this outside of you. Being the answer, being responsible for taking the lead with a child; can feel very alienating, it can feel very lonely, you will second-guess yourself.
You know, even with the knowledge that I have and even with the gift of, you know, the relationship with Gordon Neufeld, I still remember sitting in the school gymnasium with my daughter in kindergarten because I refused to push reading.
I thought, 'It's going to happen six, that age. You know, she will get there when she gets there. I don't want to force stuff that's not there.' You know, we played with-- We played with letters and sounds, and I read to her since she was in utero.
So, it wasn't like there was a shortage of-- Actually, I digress, but one of the librarians I used to work with said, "The kids who read the best and the longest actually have one thing in common, and that is their parents have a lot of books in house."
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yeah.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: And I thought, 'Oh, yeah, because it's just about values,' right? And seeing what your parents do; your parents are probably readers, are probably reading to you. So, what is that about? That's about just watching and being, sort of, bathing in it.
So anyway, I remember-- That's what I focused on, but I remember being in the gymnasium and they had an assembly and they each had to, like, have a line. She couldn't remember-- She couldn't read the line at the assembly; she had to memorize it.
So, we memorized it, memorized, memorized it – going down the lineup, and kids are reading paragraphs off these slips of paper; and it gets to my daughter and she's stumbling over trying to remember the word, she doesn't have a clue how to read.
And all these kids, you know, a lot of them had gone to tutoring, a lot of them had trained up – some of them I think naturally had gotten there too. But my kid couldn't; she was like dead last.
And I remember sitting there going, 'Oh my gosh, she looks so incompetent. She looks so--" I don't know what the word would be, you know? But I thought, 'Have I done her a disservice here? I've focused on play, I’ve focused on relationship, I’ve focused on not pushing.'
And I thought, 'Deb, You’re a developmentalist.' And I'm like, 'I know. If I tried, I'm just saying we better be right.'
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yeah. You're like, 'After all of the research I've done.'
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: I know, 'I better be right.' And I remember my daughter saying to me in Grade 1, she says, "I just want--" She finally-- In Grade 1, her brain figured it out, and she was, she says, "Mom--"
I think it was Grade 4, she said, "I was the last one to read out of all the entire grade," you know, 40, 50 kids. "I was the last one to read." But she says, "It's funny, mom, I'm the only one who likes to read right now. Everyone comes to me to ask for book recommendations and always asking me what I'm reading."
She says, "I'm seem to be the only one who likes to read." And I thought, yes. And, she's avid reader, you know? Her reading comprehension is through the roof, but she got there under her own steam.
So, why am I telling the story? I doubted myself, and I wrote a book about development; pressure is quite strong. We don't have a culture that is moving all in the same direction.
So, it’s going to put more onus on each of us to be really clear with what it is that you desire for your child. What are your values? What are your beliefs? What is it that you know that you can say with some certainty is going to be important here for you? And you're going to have to be okay to maybe look a little different.
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yeah. It's funny that story that you said is exactly like my children to the tee. I always just said, 'It's fine, they can just do it on their own.' And I remember thinking that same thing, like, am I actually right about this?
Like, 'I feel like this is the right way to do it,' but when they're up there-- And they were old, like, I think one of my kids was almost 10 by the time he could read fluently. And my son now, so I have four – one is a teenager and they go all the way down to preschool age, but the one now who's eight is still struggling, is still figuring it out - but I never push it.
And today he sounded out guacamole while we were going through a drive-through, and I thought, 'That's a really difficult word.' But he loves books, and my kids read all day. Someone just asked my 12-year-old the other day, "What do you like to do for fun?" And he's like, "Read books."
That's like, that is their favorite thing because we have books everywhere; we read out loud all of the time. And that was just my own intuition. Like I just felt like, you know, 'If we don't push this, they might actually love reading; and we don't want people that just know how to read, we want people that love to read.' Right?
Why parents should not push a child towards developmental goals; let it happen naturally
Dr. Deborah MacNamara: They're reading, because the other thing too, is that when you're pushing memorization of words, what would get suffered or what fails to develop as strongly – and Grade 1 teachers, Grade 2 teachers will tell you this – is Reading Comprehension because memorize the word is not understanding it in context.
It's not having the overall, sort of, picture that emerges to know where that word fits in. It's a memorized word like you'd memorize a random phone number, it doesn't fit anywhere.
And so, have context, and that's why, you know, something like reading, when you look around the world, they spent millions and gazillions of dollars trying to push early reading in the US, in Britain.
And it has led to actually worse outcomes in terms of children not liking and being defensive around being pushed. And so, it has failed miserably, and they've had to cease and desist from such programs mm-hmm.
But around the age of six, the brain does take a leap forward if development is unfolding well and you get the age of reason, the age of cognition where the child can, you know, have two things in mind at the same time under that age. They're a one-track mind.
I mean, if it's up, it's up – and that if it's down, it's down; but never will up and down meet, you're just one or the other. But that's what the 'age of reason' and that beautiful 5 to 7 shift that happens that takes us out of a preschooler age and moves us into the age of reason.
And the reason why the book is called Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), is that that brain development isn't a foregone conclusion. We don't-- It's not just going to click into place because you turn six years of age or 5 to 7; and for sensitive kids, it will be delayed 7 to 9, potentially.
It needs the right conditions. Like just because a plant or a seed has the potential in it to develop, doesn't mean it's going to realize that potential unless given the right conditions – the water, the sun, the earth, whatever.
So, this is also true, brain development, and that's why you get adults who can be 70 years old behaving like a preschooler. Why? Because the brain development isn't either there and/or their emotions have – particularly, the emotion of caring for reasons of defense and vulnerability, which we don't have to get into but can be numbed out.
And so, that experience of feeling caring and frustration at the same time or thinking of someone else's feelings and theirs at the same time, would hamper those strong reactions that no longer make you a preschooler because you can hold two things in your head, mixed feelings.
At the same time, some adults for reasons of defense lose their caring; it's not gone forever, it's just really numbed out. Like we've seen with COVID, actually, a lot more numbing out of feelings.
And so, what happens is you get more frustration and temper tantrums and saying things like, "Why did I say that? Where was the filter?" Because the brain is under stress and the caring has been muted.
So, there's lots of reasons why you can get preschooler-like behavior, but people can get stuck; and maturity is not a foregone conclusion. And that, we don't talk about in talking about how we actually become mature.
Like there is a psychological process here, and it actually is very sophisticated in terms of needing support.
Crystal The Parenting Coach: Yeah, I loved that, how the end of your book you say, Or Anyone Who Acts Like One, like the end of the title. Because as I was reading it, I was like, I could just see so many different problems within society and people that struggle with this.
Like, 'I can't have this--' Like, 'I can't have one opinion, and you have a different opinion,' right? 'We have to have the same opinion. I have to surround myself with people that have the same opinion to validate my own opinion.'
You know, this is definitely an issue everywhere. But what I was thinking of was when you were talking was, at the time that I received your book. I think my son at that time, he's 12 now and I think he was 9 and he was definitely more in the 'highly sensitive child' area, I guess.
Anyway, so I'm reading this book and I remember the lady coming over to talk to me and I said, "You know, I did all the things like he's nine now. I knew that he was sensitive so I gave him a few extra years. Why hasn't he figured this out?" Right?
Like, almost like I added A+B, C's not happening. And I was like, 'You need to fix him.' And she said, 'Well, you know--' I don't remember what she said. Whatever she said really helped me to shift my expectation around it being like so concrete.
I was like, I know all this developmental stuff and, you know, I did all those things, and what was really missing was that environment, right? The child's not going to nourish, your plant's not going to nourish if you're like, if you have it the dark all the time.
And so, I was reacting to him so negatively every time that he would, you know, have a strong emotion – and then, I'm wondering why he can't rest when he's like constantly in a state of alarm.
And so, it really helped shift my expectation to be like, 'Okay, that's fine, waybe this won't never happen, maybe this will take years – maybe he'll be 17, and we won't have figured this out,' which on the one side sounds a little bit hopeless, but it really helped me just release that expectation I had of exactly what age he should shift into this next level of maturity.
And what's funny is when I could release that expectation, then I dealt with him so much better and then his behavior did change and he did grow into maturity and his meltdowns are like 90% better.
Like, he is just the most well-behaved, little sensitive child that you would ever know; and he's just a completely different person. And I know that it happened from that shift, and me not being so strict and like, 'Well, it has to happen at this day and time because this is what it says in this chapter of the book or whatever.'
Thank you for listening to this awesome conversation. I am going to cut it off here, and make sure you join us next week for Part 2 of Parenting Against the Grain with Dr. Deborah MacNamara.
I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Make sure that you give it Five Stars on Apple, and check out my monthly membership for moms in the show notes.