I definitely get why he's popular in unschooling circles, and I don't think his thesis is all about the parents. You have to understand who his audience is, though: it's mainstream parents.
When he talks about creating a situation where kids want to please their parents, he's talking about normal healthy empathic relationships: about kids taking their parents' needs and desires into account with their behaviour and how this eliminates the "necessity" of control. He's talking primarily to an audience that assumes control is an essential and basic tool in the parenting toolbox, and he's telling them to work on their relationships with their children, and if they do, they'll discover that control is unnecessary. When they ask "but then won't I end up with rude self-centred children who don't lift a hand around the house?" his response is to reassure them that with a strong parent-child relationship there's no reason the child would choose to behave rudely and horridly towards the parent. That's why he's saying that the kids will want to please their parents. He's really saying "Don't worry: they won't be horrid. They'll understand that you are a human being with feelings of your own, and so they won't set out to make your life awful."
To draw a fairly over-the-top parallel. Imagine a husband who is accustomed to abusing his wife physically and emotionally. He does so because control is the only way he knows to get her co-operation. He says "She'd never have sex with me if I didn't bully her into it!" His counsellor (i.e. Neufeld) tells him "Uh, buddy, heal your relationship with her, treat her with respect, re-establish some emotional intimacy and the sex will look after itself." That's really what Neufeld is saying to parents. Put your relationships first and you'll find you won't need control in order to live a comfortable, mutually supportive family life.
Having spent more than 15 years as a non-punitive, uncontrolling parent, I actually agree about the value of leadership -- and I see that sometimes I don't exercise enough of it. I think of leadership as being a natural result of the knowledge and wisdom that tend come with age and experience. I think of leadership as being quite different from authority. Although I have fiercely autonomous kids, especially the eldest two, and my tendency has been to turn all choice over to them, I have had to recognize that sometimes even they need my leadership. Sometimes we want the perspective of someone with more experience. Sometimes we need to hear their confidence in a particular choice as being a good one. Sometimes we need to see that there is someone we respect out there ahead of us, breaking trail, showing us the way.
Imagine that you go to a surgeon because you need a lump removed from some internal organ, and the surgeon says "Well, what do you want to do? Do you really want this out? Do you want a midline incision? Or a lateral incision? Or maybe a needle biopsy first, and then depending on that, we could move to either open surgery or a closed laparoscopic procedure. Do you think we should do it first thing in the morning and then keep you in hospital for just one night afterwards? Or later in the day, and let you sleep off the anaesthetic the first night and keep you one more day for a full recovery? Actually, maybe you don't want to stay overnight at all. You might want to go home right away. I guess you could do that too." etc. etc. You'd probably have absolutely no confidence in the surgeon, and you'd be worried as heck about your own health prospects as a result.
Sometimes, especially when kids are struggling with their own self-concept, or with some developmental transition, and they're a little 'stuck,' they need parental leadership in somewhat the same way that they might need the confident leadership of a good surgeon. Sometimes when a parent says "It's totally up to you; what do you want to do?" the child hears "Even my mom doesn't know how to help me!" or "My mom doesn't care enough to help me decide." Sometimes my unschooled kids have, in desperation, said "I just want you to make me do it!" or "can't you just decide?" Sometimes too much choice is overwhelming for kids and they just shut down and can't choose anything. Or they get stuck in a pattern that isn't making them happy but with their dwindling confidence and sense of self-worth they can't take the leap to find a way out. It's not that they're opposed to any particular path, just that they want something or someone to push them out of their aimlessness and indecision. We in 21st century western society have a so many opportunities, so many choices -- it's really quite unprecedented in human history and its no wonder our kids sometimes struggle. To me leadership is not about handing your child a roadmap to prevent them straying from a path you choose: that's authority. Leadership is finding your child at a crossroads confused and unhappy and saying "I know this area, and this path here goes somewhere pretty cool. You'll love it. Come on, follow me!"
Mountain mama to two great kids and two great grown-ups
Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate post, Miranda. I agree about the value of occasional leadership in situations where kids are expressing a need for it. However, I do not agree that Neufeld is encouraging that. He is prescribing authority.
The emphasis in Neufeld's work is overwhelmingly on the cooperation of the children. He begins his presentations with the stated goal of "making parenting easier". It's not to make kids happier, or more fulfilled, or clearer in their thinking. If your kid is "bossy"-- you need to be more "Alpha." Kid anxious? Be more "Alpha." Kid demonstrating "counterwill?" Be more "Alpha." You should be kind and compassionate while doing so, but you should clearly be in charge at all times. It is about the parents, specifically because the power flows from the top down: the parents have all the power, and they are strongly encouraged to keep it. It is okay for the parents to have all the power, because they are kind and compassionate.
It might be called a compassionate dictatorship.
In a partnership, nobody has all the power. It's passed back and forth. Attention is paid to the needs of each person. The job of the parent, in addition to providing leadership when needed, advocacy at all times, information, comfort, and companionship, is to work at recognizing and giving voice to the needs of each person in the family, to whatever extent the kids haven't yet learned to recognize what they need and speak up for themselves.
According to Neufeld, a properly attached child looks a certain way and develops on a predictable schedule. You can watch him talk about it in a video at kidsinthehouse.com. By "school age," the child will be very eager to please you, resulting in cooperation. If your child doesn't fit this picture, you've done something wrong, and you must repair the attachment-- then the child will be back to wanting to please you.
I have one child who is something of a pleaser and anther child who is not. Is one more attached than the other? I really don't think so. There is natural variation in needs. Sometimes the needs of a person-- (belonging, contribution) look like "pleasing." Another child might have different, stronger needs (independence, competence) that might make them appear not to be as attached. Past somewhere around "school-age," I think attachment theory is nothing but that--theory. In practice, connected adults and children become much more connected past that age by working towards mutual respect and examining actual needs.
Neufeld is recognized for his work on aggression and violence among children and youth. Like most clinical psychologists, he is operating from a point of view heavily weighted with pathology. Applying his syntheses of attachment theory has been very successful for him, but I'm not sure how much time he has actually spent observing children in day to day life. His approach may be healing for children who have been traumatized or abused, where attachment has been profoundly disturbed.
I suppose there are many unschoolers who are somewhat "mainstream" parents, and are content to wear the Authoritative mantle. The trickle-down model of power in that relationship is pretty incompatible with radical unschooling as I understand it, though. I'm really not sure how these ideas jibe with John Holt's ideas, for instance, on the needs and rights of children. Now that I think about it, I don't think any of the people I know who are into Neufeld would identify themselves as radical unschoolers.
So, never mind.
I confess the only stuff of his I've read thoroughly is "Hold On to Your Kids" which he co-authored with Gabor Mate. I think it goes by another title in the US, ("Why Parents Matter More than Peers" or something?). I don't recall any of the Alpha stuff in there at all, and definitely the focus was on the relationship with the parent and the good of the child. Maybe that spin was coming more from Mate... ??
Mountain mama to two great kids and two great grown-ups
His alpha stuff is newer, part of a course he's rolled out this last spring, if I recall. I wonder if it's because of the push-back from kids in families that have supposedly been applying his theories to a 't' but are still experience struggles?
We went to his parenting conference in May because we do like "Hold Onto Your Kids," but we actually walked out of his keynote address because we decided that his 'formula' for successful parenting blames the parents for not doing 'exactly' what he says from the child's birth and that there is almost a 'cult-like' atmosphere amongst his followers. I call BS.
HOWEVER ... I do see the benefit of parental leadership in the way that Miranda so articulately describes it, and that is what we aspire to in our parental role and that is what attracted us to Neufeld in the first place.
We're not radical unschoolers in that sense.
I read Hold Onto Your Kids years ago and loved it. I have also bought some of his DVDs and attending one or two parenting conferences.
I didn't come away with the same message as the OP. I also agree with Miranda that he is trying to introduce attachment parenting to parents who may be coming from a very mainstream perspective. I remember being in an auditorium for a talk of his. So many of my AP, BF-ing, unschooling peeps were there. Then this one woman stands up during question time and asks "If I can't use time-outs, how can I control her behaviour?". And I realized that many in the audience were just so far behind where others of us were, and Neufeld needs to be able to address those types without scaring them away.
In all this stuff, the bottom line I come away with from him is that The Relationship with your child is what matters, is what is the key, and any issues you may feel you have with your children can usually be traced to that.
He is also very unschooling-friendly. His keynote talk at the last conference I attended (a few years ago now) was about the critical importance of play and unstructured time for learning naturally. He is very pro-homeschooling. He has to be careful not to alienate the daycare crowd, so he does try to address their situation, but definitely supports the non-peer-segregated, lots of free time, lots of family time structure of homeschooling.
I am glad he is out there spreading the word about non-punitive, attachment (relationship) based parenting. Some preachers of this message are wonderful but alienate the mainstream. I think Neufeld has managed not to do so while still holding true to his message.
Homeschooling, Homesteading Mama to DD ('02) and DS ('04)