Takeaways and Criticisms of “Rest, Play, Grow” by Dr. Deborah MacNamara

These are my takeaways and criticisms of Dr. Deborah MacNamara’s Rest, Play, and Grow.

Dr. MacNamara is big on attachment parenting: that the right relationship between parent and child will allow a child to flourish and that they do it on their own timetable. She describes the immaturity of children as natural and not something we should rush to fix. She eschews both heavy handed discipline of a child and, unfortunately, most academic learning. Of course, I will first do the takeaways (the positives).


1. Example after example of how to be attached to a child

I have read dozens of parenting books. Even so, sometimes I get stale. Sometimes I don’t know what to do. Sometimes my children overwhelm me. I am very much down with the idea that the proper care and handling of a child, the relationship, is what allows them to calm down and then flourish. So reading Dr. MacNamara’s many, many examples of how to have an attached relationship re-centered me.

2. The idea of “trumping” the need

An idea I really liked was to “trump” the child’s needs. You anticipate more fully what they might need before they need it or +1 your response after they ask for something. So if they are begging for a drink, you might say, “I’ll get you a drink right now. And I’ll make a second one for when you need it later.” You just really envelope them in caretaking.

3. A rejection of behaviorist approaches

I was appreciative of how she took behaviorism to task: the idea that a child is born completely blank and you can turn him or her into anything you want.

4. A belief that children are not necessarily best when around other peers

You hear so often that children need friends to learn to handle social conflict. Actually the author and her mentor reject this, in certain situations anyway. They argue if the child doesn’t have a properly attached relationship to a parent and seeks it out with a peer, it’s a bad situation as peers are immature. As a homeschooler, I applaud this. So many people lecture me on getting children into school but I find schools are filled with terrible relationships and terrible leadership for those relationships. However, that said, I find my 6 year old is a great mentor to my 3 year old. My 3 year old has an attached relationship to me and him. I see him comfort her and she comforts him and she comforts her youngest brother sometimes too. It’s all around healthy in my eyes. If children were taught better conflict skills, you would see that peer relationships are very valuable.

5. Insight into 5 to 7 year olds

Here is one insight,

As this shift [in the ages of 5 to 7] occurs, young children will become increasingly tempered in their expression of thoughts and feelings. They will start to exhibit impulse control in the face of strong emotions. Instead of lashing out, they might say, “I half hate you right now!” and “I want to hit you!” but they do not. They will exhibit patience, despite frustration at having to wait.

My son did this. He declared reasons why he doesn’t hit his sister even if she hits him. I have noticed everything the author noted about 5-7 year olds and perhaps more at my elementary summaries.

6. Insights into 3 – 5 year olds

Dr. MacNamara describes 3 year olds as being reliably rude (“Wipe my butt!” — while strangers are over), unable to keep a secret, consumed with raw emotion, and only able to focus on one thing. I definitely find this with my 3 almost 4 year old. See also my preschool summaries. My daughter absolutely hates loud sounds when she is trying to focus on something, like talking to someone or watching a video. Knowing they can only really focus on one thing at a time helps me in various parenting situations.


Becoming a child’s best bet requires understanding them from the inside out. It requires insight, not skill. It is more about what we see when we look at our child than it is about what we do. It is about being able to hold on to the big developmental picture instead of getting lost in the details of daily living. Simply put, perspective is everything. If we see a young child as being in distress, we may seek to comfort them, but if we see a child as being manipulative, we may back away.


On one hand, I hate to openly criticize someone. On the other, I found some ideas worth challenging (as does Dr. MacNamara herself, who criticizes a lot). I also want people to see that there is live, healthy debate about certain ideas about child raising. Sure I agree with Dr. MacNamara about emotions and relationships but there are a lot of “small” ways that I challenge her (which are not so small to me) and some big ways, such as her rejection of early education

1. The idea that any early education is abusive to the child

I first must point out that the author, like so many, really takes for granted the fact that she grew up in wealth. The type of education that she exalts is that which she learned from her grandfather on his farm. Well, here’s the thing: not every child, not even most, have a farm at their disposal to learn these skills. She describes helping her grandfather out and being excited to uproot vegetables. There is a lot of meta-learning in that as well as actual skills. I have never heard of a total unschooling background work. There is always still an adult, a student, and material to learn with (in this case, her grandfather, her, and a farm.) What she describes is mentorship, the best kind of education. The fact is children still need education. For some people, those who are wealthy, it comes somewhat already built in. They are surrounded by mentors who give wisdom and let the child participate in hands-on activities. These people then marvel at how they didn’t really need school, never checking their premises and assumptions that actually they grew up in privilege.

Further, even the people who grew up in wealth would be benefited by breaking down the essentials of good education and then using them. She describes learning all about plants with some science experiments someone clearly set up for her. (I’d like to point out that MacNamara that the activity is watching beans grow in wet wadded up paper towels. You can find that exact activity in my elementary plant science program.) In and of itself, doing an activity about a plant is good as it teaches how to learn. But done correctly, you can also learn about science, engineering, art, math, language, etc, using very similar things she describes of hands-on experience and mentorship–which, can I repeat, is education.

On to her formal arguments against education, MacNamara quote Dr. T. Brazelton here:

“The human infant is amazingly capable of compliance. He can be shaped to walk at nine months, recite numbers at two, read by three, and he can even learn to cope with the pressures that lie behind these expectations. But children in our culture need someone who will cry out, ‘At what price?’”

I take serious issue with this. My daughter could count at 2 and could read at 3. It was at no price. She was not emotionally abused in the process. I presented fun, engaging, hands-on, age-appropriate, short activities, which she took to joyfully. At all times, if she wasn’t interested, I put it away for another day. Here she is around 2 years, 10 months doing a 3-part Montessori reading lesson:


Education is not the problem, bad education is the problem. People aren’t wrong in their wariness of much of education. See this report about the harmful effects of borrowing and carrying about how teaching children to carry the 1 actually made them worse at mental math between 2nd and 4th grade. But it’s not early academics that we need to throw away but high pressure type education and types that are out of alignment with children’s naturally developing interests–and this needs rejected at all ages.

Unfortunately, the typical response to high pressure and bad education has been to simply delay and avoid education. People call for children to not learn to read until they are 7 or to have more recess. It’s as if they are trying to reduce the dosages of the poison, instead of fixing it. They offer no real solution as to what approach will work even if you wait until 7 or when you are teaching a child. We need pro active solutions not reactive, defensive, anti-solutions. What should we do not what we should not do.

I call on people who say this to offer examples of success stories of how it would work, not simply admonishing what is, indeed, currently, in traditional schools, poor approaches. And, in addition, please take a hard look at programs that are successfully teaching children with no diminishing of joy in the process. Yes it can be done. You can find my answer to teaching a child to read in my reading program: Get Children Reading!

I can agree that children will not want to sit down and do worksheets and other traditional type school activities until they are somewhere between 5 and 7. But this is not my idea of a good education at any age. An ideal education is active, hands-on, conceptually clear, playful, and rooted in mentorship. Done right it increases attachment. I want to drive home this point that lessons = love.

Let’s learn the language of acceptance while we mentor and teach our children. It actually infuriates me that a book touting the latest in “brain science” dismisses early education. This is a step backwards not forward.

I’d also like to add that anyone who is heavy on teaching children at young ages and also on “disciplining” children (directly correcting behavior) should take note of what I am saying here. I completely agree with MacNamara’s approach to let children be immature and “misbehave” (the central point of my book series, Misbehavior is Growth) but you can still teach a young child. Let’s keep both the acceptance of children while also keeping the education of children. Let’s tap into the full potential.

2. Arguments based on prejudice about what creates entitlement

I was flabbergasted to see the following in this book. Equating a child to a character in Willy Wonka gets your point across, but it’s not an argument.

One of the fastest ways to create an “entitled” or “spoiled” child is to circumvent the adaptive process and prevent feelings of upset from occurring about all the things they cannot change. The character Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the epitome of such a child. She orders her parents around continually: “I want it, and I want it now, Daddy!” The parents live in fear of her eruptions and busy themselves constantly meeting her demands.

What would be an argument is an actual example of a real child and the analysis of how X lead to Y. I find the analysis of what creates an entitled child above to be a bit shallow and rooted in prejudice. People have believed this idea that indulging a child leads to an entitled child and accepted this for centuries and don’t challenge it.

I’ve read extensively about personality disorders in adults, and an attribute of many personality disorders being a sense of entitlement, and the therapists always say the cause was a troubled childhood where a child lacked love. The child was insulted, rejected, possibly abused; in short, unaccepted. As adults, they have an inner wound that they are constantly trying to make up for and find the love they were missing in childhood. The problem is trauma. This is it. That’s the problem. The problem is abuse in childhood (physical or emotional). Not a child who was coddled too much, loved too much, spoiled too much, rescued too much, educated too much, or any other typical thought. Trauma: the internal pain caused by physical abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. That’s the problem. There really is no such thing as a child who is indulged too much. Let me give the historical example of The Buddha. He was given every luxury in life and kept in his castle away from the brutal world. Then when he saw the brutal world, he threw himself into learning how to fix it. His highly coddled and sheltered background didn’t make him spoiled or selfish but rather this is an example of a highly caring individual. (I reject much of Buddhism; please don’t think this is a praise of the entire philosophy.)

It’s strange that Dr. MacNamara says this, given her main point is that full love and caretaking allows a child to flourish. I have tried the approach with my children to “let them experience disappointment” and I cannot say that I observed any objectively good outcome from it, particularly with small children. It is much better to come to them in comfort, talk to them, and, yes, even try to find a solution and *negotiate* with the child–a taboo word for many modern psychologists, who, like Dr. MacNamara, prefer hierarchical relationships. This is something I am going to be taking to task in the future and partially in this blog post.

3. Lack of acceptance of the child in the name of [setting boundaries, hierarchical realtionships, validating (future) emotions, and other strained theories]

There are many ways that I found Dr. NacNamara’s approach is actually unaccepting of the child, via some rather strained arguments about what is good for the child. Here is one.

She says to allow children to have grumpy and bad feelings and I agree wholeheartedly. But I strongly disagree with the following approach:

“[S]ix-year-old Zoe came home after school one day and said her teacher had called her sweet for being so helpful in class. Zoe said, “I love Ms. Lusik. I am going to be sweet for her all the time.” Fortunately, her mother understood the need to have a big invitation for all of her feelings and replied, “If you are going to be that sweet at school, then you will need to be extra grumpy at home because no one can be that nice for that long!” The mother wanted Zoe to see that their relationship could take the weight of whatever emotions she might need to express.” — Rest, Play, Grow

Dr. MacNamara praises this approach as the mother encouraged her daughter to realize she may have a negative emotion in the future and that’s OK. My problem with this is the mother was *unaccepting* of the child’s feelings. The child was filled with hope and optimism and the mother just crushed it. By telling her daughter that she could not possibly be sweet all the time, which her daughter just said is what she wanted to do, the mother effectively said, “You’re wrong.” This is a form of unacceptance. (This may be why she rejects early education as she has not totally learned the language of acceptance, so critical to ideally teaching a child.)

I hate when people do this. I hate when they tell you what your future problems or feelings will be. For instance, how many pastors or marriage counselors mock a young couple who says, “We don’t fight. Really. We really get along.” The counselor says, “Oh you young naive thing! Just wait!” Ok, maybe it’s true the odds are likely they’ll fight. There is still no need to crush that optimism. What a counselor or parent needs to do is wait until they are in trouble and just *be there*. What would be better from a counselor, as the example, is to find some little point of conflict for the couple, the tiniest little one, say they can’t agree on meals made at home or going out, and bring awareness to it and show some powerful tools to get through it. This will give practice and food for thought for the bigger problems. Give young, growing people tools, optimism, and friendship, not admonishment and a promise of certain future stumbling.

I find it again flabbergasting given Dr. MacNamara quotes others about the dueling dance of emotions such as, as she says, “the answer to fear is desire, which creates courage.” If you have a fear of something, but your desire for a value is greater, it drives courage. Well in this case, the six-year-old Zoe just showed strong desire: the desire to be sweet. (And I want to emphasize that it was her stated value; she wanted to accomplish this.) That desire is the very fuel that could get her through adversity. Keep it alive! I would have connected with her. I would have said, “Oh what a noble goal! You take pride in being sweet!” Or I might have just smiled and said, “That’s great honey.” If she stumbled later, I’d be there with big open arms. I would tell her it’s OK to make mistkes, but I probably wouldn’t have to as being friendly to mistakes is a high value in our house. Who knows, maybe she will be the first girl ever in the history of the whole world, to be sweet all year long. Leave that possibility open. Maybe she’ll stun you with a new insight about what her problems were and how she overcame them.

4. A belief that parents in the “alpha” role and a resultant dismissal of the child’s needs

Dr. MacNamara has a lot of thought in the “alpha” relationship of the parent. For the most part she means that they are in an alpha caregiver role. The adult doesn’t ask the child if they are hungry, they anticipate it and give food. Less questions, more providing.

I admit first that I have a negative reaction to the word “alpha.” To me it is like “alpha male,” which, again to me, is “a man who is insecure and makes up for it by looking strong or authoritative.”

I can agree that the parent is in a responsible position over the child and even “higher.” I call myself “Comforter-in-Chief” with my children. I am the one responsible for their needs and for calming big emotions. There is kind of an order to it. I am the fountainhead of it and others in my family follow my lead. My older children pick up on it and comfort my younger children. It’s lovely really. But I don’t see myself in the “alpha” position, and I see problems in this, in execution. Dr. MacNamara does the thing where she thinks children “need restrictions” because of this, in which parents override children’s decisions. For instance, in this story about putting on a jacket, the child’s decision is overridden:

Most incidents are better dealt with outside the moments they occur, but sometimes a parent’s hand is forced. At these times, it is necessary to maintain an alpha caring stance and ride out the storm. For example, one mother said her three-and-a-half-year-old son would battle her on everything, but especially on wearing a jacket when it was cold outside. She decided to wait her son out by letting him know they would head to the park when the jacket was on. Dominic screamed and yelled, but Mom stayed calm and told him she knew this would happen. After screaming for some time, Dominic’s brain finally understood that his defiance was futile and his mother wasn’t going to change her mind. Although his mother was successful in getting Dominic to wear his jacket, the more important message was that his mother was in charge and it was safe to depend on her. — Rest, Play, Grow

I want you to compare this to this story from Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Gordon, who directly challenges authoritarian relationships and advocates an approach rooted in negotiation.

Bringing back our familiar coat problem, here is how it was resolved by Method III, as reported by the parent involved: JANE: Bye, I’m off to school. PARENT: Honey, it’s raining outside and you don’t have your coat on. JANE: I don’t need it. PARENT: I think it’s raining quite hard and I’m concerned that you’ll get a cold. JANE: Well, I don’t want to wear my coat. PARENT: You sure sound like you definitely don’t want to wear that coat. JANE: That’s right, I hate it. PARENT: You really hate your coat. JANE: Yeah, it’s really ugly. Nobody at school wears coats like that. PARENT: You don’t want to be the only one wearing something different. JANE: I sure don’t. Everybody wears those cool jackets. PARENT: I see. Well, we really have a conflict here. You don’t want to wear your coat cause it’s ugly, but I sure wouldn’t want to risk catching your cold and then have to miss work. Can you think of a solution that we both could accept? How could we solve this so we’re both happy? JANE: [Pause] Maybe I could borrow Mom’s old coat today. PARENT: That old thing? JANE: Yeah, it’s cool. PARENT: Think she’ll let you wear it today? JANE: I’ll ask her. [Comes back in a few minutes with Mom’s coat on; sleeves are too long, but she rolls them back.] It’s okay by Mom. PARENT: You’re happy with that thing? JANE: Sure, it’s fine. PARENT: Well, I’m convinced it will keep you dry. So if you’re happy with that solution, I am too. JANE: Well, I gotta go. PARENT: So long. Have a good day at school. What happened here? Obviously, Jane and her father resolved their conflict to the mutual satisfaction of both. It was resolved rather quickly, too.

There are differences in the context of these stories. The parent who talked with the child and found a solution was likely dealing with an older child, not a preschooler. I just fundamentally need you to realize there are different approaches. “Letting the child be upset” is not the approach adopted by everyone. It seems so enlightened to some. I just need you to know there is healthy debate about that and the idea that children “need” adults to restrict their behaviors.

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This is my daughter at about 3 years old out in 54 degree weather. She didn’t want a jacket on and I didn’t make her. I got all sorts of comments about it that were judgmental in nature. You see I trust her. I trust she knows her comfort level. When she runs around a lot, she gets hot. I don’t need her to know my “alpha” position or “learn to be dependent on me.”


Here is another way that this “be the alpha” leads to poor application from Rest, Play, Grow:

Leading a child means conveying that you know what they need without consulting them and assuming responsibility for circumstances or decisions about them. For example, one day while shopping, Sarah demanded that her mother buy her a watering can. Nancy told her she would think about it and would let her know once they finished getting groceries. At the end of their trip, Nancy turned to Sarah and said, “I have thought about it and I have decided I would like to buy a watering can for you because you will have fun with it in the garden.” Sarah replied that she no longer wanted the watering can, though her teary eyes and buckling lip said otherwise. The mother took the lead and told Sarah she was going to buy it as she knew Sarah would want to play with it later. The challenge for Sarah was that the vulnerability of depending on her mother was too much at this time, and her alpha instincts pushed away her mother’s attempt at caretaking. The mother’s actions conveyed to Sarah that she was in charge and that it was safe to rely on her.

The mother was unaccepting of the child. The child asked for something. The mother turned her down. Later the mother decided she knows best and provided, after creating this obvious chaos in the child which showed up as incongruence between the child’s words and actions: the “no longer wanted the watering can” but her “teary eyes and buckling lip said otherwise.” Why create this distress? And then sweep in like the benevolant dictator who knows better. No. Just no. This is wrong.

MacNamara also says to not be vulnerable with your children. You always know best. I disagree with this too. Dr. Gordon says to not try to be a superman with your children. Let them know you make mistakes too. Please read Dr. Gordon’s work to balance out thoughts like these ideas that you need to set boundaries or override children’s decisions or can’t be vulnerable.

I do take the lead with my children. You know one of the main ways? By giving them educational lessons. I anticipate they need to know certain things and I aim for one lesson–one new idea–per day.

I also see myself in the responsible position. MacNamara says we need to “(b) ASSUME an ALPHA role by seizing the lead and reading the child’s needs.” How about we do that simply by reading the child’s needs and drop this idea of being an “alpha.” I have indeed found proper parenting comes down to observing the child and anticipating needs. That’s why I called this blog “The Observant Mom.” But I use language like being conscious, aware, patient, calm, and thinking not being “alpha” or “creating dependence,” like MacNamara does. I would never dream of starting a blog called “the alpha mom.”


If you look at some of my criticisms, I think may see a theme that Dr. MacNamara has a high value to let children be as they are, but with less thought to how they might grow. She advocates to let children be immature and misbehave, but she eschews early education. She advocates that children are allowed to have their feelings but she encourages parents to point out potential future failure.

This is sometimes a problem in people’s philosophies. They are on one side or the other of acceptance and growth or rather “reality” and “romance” and in education it’s the difference between progressive (MacNamara) and traditional. They think one is at the expense of the other. People who are on the reality side think that growth is narcissistic and abusive (as Dr. MacNamara thinks early education is and must necessarily be.) People on the romance side think that those on the acceptance side are perhaps hopelessly entrenched in victimhood or “pathetic.” In truth, and this is core to my philosophy, there is no battle whatsoever between acceptance and growth. Full acceptance leads to full growth. This is largely the heart of my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth. And, as I argue above, there are places where MacNamara is still unaccepting of the child and thus prevents growth.

I think this book, and almost all popular thought about parenting out there now (except from certain highly enlightened people) is very reactive in nature. That is this book. Years and years of research shows certain practices are harmful and the answers advocated are somewhat rooted in reacting to those bad practices. If traditional education is bad, then offer no education. If a parent is negligent to a child, then have them be in an “alpha” role. Thought that is reactionary is always not the best thought that could be.

My approach and my research is different. I have been studying primarily my own children, but also working in a community of parents, to document the natural stages that children go through. The stages are when they fall apart for a period of time, becoming whiny, aggressive, and hard to deal with, but then have dramatic new mental growth. Rooted deeply in child development, I have been developing approaches to deal with the behavior and educate the child. I base all of my approaches on how well what I do is received by the child; I actively monitor their responses and emotions. I see each milestone, as I call them, as an opportunity (talk about anticipating needs!). I match educational activities to what they seem to be hungry, in fact begging, to learn. The results have been astounding. My children read at young ages, play with numbers like notes on a piano, can recall science and history facts with a photographic memory and at relevant times, and–and I need you to understand this–have very mature emotional and conflict resolution skills. There is no dichotomy between education and happiness. These fuel each other in a synergistic way. Let’s not turn away from education; let’s get GOOD at it. Yes, it’s a skill. It’s a lot to learn. I work day and night to show examples and give training so people can learn it. Let’s give tender love care to a child’s mind in the same way we do to all the rest of the parts of their body.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years as my first in the series

Misbehavior is Growth


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