Teaching and Child Rearing:


I've been a teacher for 29 years and I have four grown children, so I think I know a little bit about this subject. But the older I get, the less sure I am about the correct approach to take. What works for one child does not necesarily work for another. There are many people who think that the answer is more discipline, more rules and more regimentation. They see the world going to hell because of laxity and failure to enforce strict rules of conduct. They think that children are uncivilized little savages that need to be whipped into shape with coercion, intimidation, fear and punishment. They are inflexible taskmasters who humiliate, scare and badger children into success. I read stories in the newspaper about certain coaches, specifically in gymnastics, who use these methods to assure that their pupils succeed. The end product is highly successful but unhappy adults who are resentful and cruel.

In the early 1960's I became aware of a school in England called Summerhill, which was founded by A.S. Neill. Neill also wrote a book called "Summerhill: A Radical Approach To Child Rearing" which was published in 1960. Now some people think that the Summerhill philosophy is the ruination of civilization as we know it. They believe that if children are not made to be good and are not made to study and learn that they will just end up like wild animals. They will become lazy and non-productive and a burden on society. Society needs people that fit its needs. It needs people who cooperate and who consume goods. It needs people with standardized tastes who can be easily influenced by the mass media. It needs people whose needs can be anticipated and who will do what is expected of them. It needs people who think they are free, but who can be led without force. All of our standard schools are geared to this goal, to produce people who fit in smoothly to the machine and who can be managed and manipulated


Neill believes that it is better to produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar. He believes that children are inately wise and realistic and if they are left alone, they will develop as far as they are capable. Those who have the ability and desire to become scholars will do so, and those who are only able to sweep streets will sweep streets. He believes that a school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad school. It is only good for a society that wants docile, uncreative citizens who will fit into a society whose standard of success is money.

The Summerhill Philosophy:

The basic philosophy of A.S. Neill is summarized by Erich Fromm in the foward to the book. Neill believes that children are basically good, that they are not born cripples or cowards or soulless automatons, that they have a full potential to love life and be interested in life. He believes that the purpose of education is to work joyfully and find happiness. He believes that education must be both intellectual and emotional and must be geared to the needs and capacities of the child. He does not think that children are born altruists and that it is wrong to expect something of a child that he is not yet ready to give.

Neill also believes that discipline, dogmatically imposed, and punishment create fear, and fear creates hostility. Also, freedom does not mean license to do whatever. There must be mutual respect between the child and the teacher. Neither should be permitted to use force, or to use coercion or pressure against the other. The teacher must be sincere and never lie to the child. The child must become independent and learn to face the world as an individual. He must find his security in his ability to grasp the world intellectually, emotionally and artistically. The choice is between full human development and full market-place success.

Some Neill Quotes:

"The difficult child is the child who is unhappy. He is at war with himself; and in consequence, he is at war with the world."

""No happy man ever disturbed a meeting, or preached a war, or lynched a Negro. No happy woman ever nagged her husband or her children. No happy man ever committed a murder or a theft. No happy employer ever frightened his employees."

"All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness...children can be reared so that much of this unhappiness will never arise."

"Whether a school has or has not a special method for teaching long division is of no significance, for long division is of no importance except to those that want to learn it. And the child who wants to learn long division will learn it no matter how it is taught."

"The function of the child is to live his own life - not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best."

What This All Means:

As always, the best course probably lies in the middle. Authoritarian schools and progressive schools are at opposite ends of the spectrum. There is no question that young people need guidance, support and direction. But this can be done without fear, cruelty and punishment. It is also true that it is unwise to expect from a child what he is not ready to give. Children are immature and behave badly at times. This does not mean thay are bad children, just that they are immature. We must make allowances for that and not expect them to be altruistic or self-disciplined. Firm and fair are still the operational words.

But the most important thing in my opinion is to avoid hypocrisy. Children are just as intelligent as adults, they just lack knowledge and experience. They can see through phoniness easily and are not readily fooled. Insincerity is quickly detected and even quicker a child will know whether you really like him or not. Children respect honesty, fairness and sincerity.

back to home page