Children are an awkward subject for politics. Essays “toward the liberation of the child,” the subtitle of the well-rounded collection of essays on Children’s Rights,* always take contradictory tacks. Children should have “rights as full human beings,” no different from those of adults: they should be able to vote, make contracts, and presumably commit felonies, just as adults do. On the contrary, runs another argument, they should have very special rights and immunities because they are children; their rights should fit their “stage of growth.” Some say that the oppressive society of adults has so damaged the children that we must now provide them with remedial attention; on the contrary, say others, the best thing we adults can do is to get off their backs.

Even under good conditions, this confusion is deeply rooted in the nature of things. Human beings do pass through distinctive and well-marked stages of life—childhood and adolescence, middle age, old age—and yet we all, at every age, interact, must use and enjoy one another, and are likely to abuse and injure one another. This situation is not something to cope with polemically or to understand in terms of “freedom,” “democracy,” “rights,” and “power,” like bringing lawyers into a family quarrel. It has to be solved by wise traditions in organic communities with considerable stability, with equity instead of law, and with love and compassion more than either. But in modern times there are no such traditions, communities, or stability, and there are injustice, unnecessary suffering, and, worst of all, plain waste of young life. So there has to be polemical politics.

There are problems of modern times that are really new, puzzling, and interesting. For example, what is an adequate substitute for the nuclear family? In a high technology, what is productive activity for adolescents and old people? Yet we have to think about such things when we are stupefied and politicized by the absurd conditions of modern times. (As an anarchist, I do not believe that power politics is the way to wisdom.) It is useful, however, to recognize that most people are honorably confused and badly blundering rather than to say that they are made of plastic or suffering from an emotional plague, that teachers are sadists, or that parents who love their children and are anxious for their futures are really treating them as property.

It has become common in liberation literature to say that childhood is an invention of the past few hundred years in Western Europe, a means of rationalizing, controlling, and exploiting children. In more “normal” societies, it is claimed, children are just people, with the usual rights, immunities, and privileges, who take part in the community work according to their capacities. (“Adolescence” is an even more recent invention, a definition extended because of the trend toward earlier sexual maturation and longer exclusion from employment.) There is some truth in this thesis, but some liberators at once draw the polemical conclusion that children are identical to adults, must set up their own governments, and must have power to protect their interests.

A recent publication of the radical caucus of the American Summerhill Society quotes Huey Newton of the Black Panthers: “An unarmed people are slaves,” and goes on to say, “We are asking for a ‘human standard’ to arm kids with, within which we as adults can deal with our own problems and uptightness while kids are free to determine their own lives.” That is, adults give power to the kids by disarming themselves.

This is not a very authentic proposition. As an adult I am not at all willing to inhibit myself from doing my thing, I hope with temperance, justice, and compassion. The natural power that children have over me is not something I give them but stems from how they are and how I am. Nan Berger, in Children’s Rights, complains that legislation in England does not recognize the rights of children as persons but merely protects them from “ill treatment, neglect, abandonment, and exposure.” Although legislation (possibly) might deter battery and abandonment of children, I wonder whether it is indeed a possible way to recognize the dignity and initiative of persons.

Historically, treating children like little adults meant bringing a six-year-old to court for petty theft and hanging him, and having nine-year-olds pick straw in the factory, not because their labor was useful, but “to teach them good work habits.” Presumably these children knew all about property rights and could contract their labor. Since the liberators of children do not mean this, they must think that in some respects children are special cases and must be protected from doing themselves harm.

But even excellent progressive educators have fallen into the same equal rights rhetoric. When Maria Montessori provided little chairs and tables in her classroom, she deprived the child of childhood, which more properly uses chairs and tables to crawl under and drape for tents. When A.S. Neill’s kids are encouraged to “govern” themselves, one man one vote, in their court and parliament, he is taking the social contract and political democracy much too seriously; he is imposing adult ideas. This is not the form in which kids spontaneously choose up sides in a game, settle their disputes, and change the rules. Kids are far too shrewd to be democratic. They have more respect for strength, skill, and experience at the same time as they protect one another from being stepped on, humiliated, or left out. (They can also be as callous as the devil.)


In his detailed criticism of the English schools in Children’s Rights, Michael Duane violates the rich and cloudy facts of human psychology in another way. He says there must be no religious instruction, that persons must be allowed to choose, when they reach the age of reason. This is a venerable and respectable sectarian position—Petrobrusian, adult baptism—but it is sectarian; it is not the obvious relation of faith and reason, which is credere ut intellegere: you commit yourself and then you understand. Would Duane make the same argument about his own faith in democracy and the need to protect children from that faith? Again, he opposes having assemblies, unless the children come together for their own deliberate purposes. But, though most assemblies are certainly lousy, does he really think that this analysis is adequate to what ritual means to children?

Nevertheless, it is touching that the English can still talk about such profound issues at all. In our American schools we are constitutionally protected from religion. Assemblies, in our huge establishments, do not pretend to have any meaning of collective loyalty—or any meaning at all. We don’t need to debate corporal punishment, because we can drug “hyperactives” or send them to special schools for the “emotionally disturbed.”

There is an opposite interpretation of the concept of childhood. It is a fairly recent idea, but it can be regarded as a discovery of gradually refining civilization rather than a device of malevolent exploitation, just as Greek tragedy, romantic love, and Nature also sprang from definite historical socio-economic conditions but thereafter became permanent parts of how man has fashioned himself. This view makes children into a special class, not to control or mold them but to conserve them as natural resource or natural wonder. The key terms are not children’s “rights” or “democracy” but their spontaneity, fantasy, animality, creativity, innocence. The British and North Americans especially have developed this notion in a vast juvenile literature that is sometimes cloying and whimsical, but often beautiful. It was, of course, a chief theme of Wordsworth: the child trails clouds of glory and his experience abounds in intimations of immortality, until the shades of the prison house begin to close about the growing boy, and girl.

Needless to say, the idea of childhood can be stifling, sentimental, and used to keep children out of practical life, so that they are ignorant and retarded. It has been used as a basis for emotional exploitation of children, to serve the fantasies of regressed adults—perhaps even especially by way-out educators who run “free” schools. And there is always plain hypocrisy—with sentimentality goes cruelty—just as our quite genuine advance in humanitarianism goes nicely with napalm. Nevertheless, childhood is a special stage. Neoteny is an important factor in human biology. Psychoanalytically, we assign the highest importance to maintaining as a distinct process the living through of child life, so that we may draw on child powers without inhibition.

And, in the climate of modern times, overurbanized, overtechnologized, too tightly organized, the chief present purpose of primary schooling—the only valid purpose, in my opinion—is to delay the socialization of children, to give their wildness a chance to express itself; for, at home, in the street, and in front of the TV set, children are swamped by social signals. As I have put it elsewhere, when the Irish monks invented academic schooling in the sixth century, there was some point to licking a few likely wild shepherds into social shape in order to take on the culture of Rome; now, when everything is too cultured, it is necessary to protect the wildness of the shepherds. I think that it is by implicitly performing this function that Summerhill is relevant in our generation. Neill’s explicit purpose of making emotionally balanced individuals and cooperative citizens is far less important.

Values like neoteny, animality, fantasy, and wildness are incommensurable with political criteria like rights and justice. They are biological, psychological, aesthetic. I am not impressed with the argument that John Dewey relied on so heavily and that is repeated in Children’s Rights: that liberating and reforming the education of children will make for a better society tomorrow; schools have never been that effective against the influence of either the going society or the youth peer group. But we must foster childhood, because it is good for ourselves, good for human culture, and perhaps good for the species.


A gloomier version of our situation is that what we owe to children is therapy. A good school is best regarded as a halfway house for recuperation, rescuing the children from the insane homes and cities in which they have already been socialized and deranged. Summerhill, as described, usually sounds like a therapeutic community: the wounded child can brood by himself in a secure and loving setting that imposes on him no pressure or compulsion, while nature heals.

When he was principal of a Harlem school, Elliot Shapiro tried out a curriculum consisting mostly of expressing hostility—the children gave talks, wrote compositions, and acted out why and how they hated their parents, their siblings, the police, the neighborhood, the school, the school’s principal. The procedure raised their IQs, for stupidity is a character defense of turned-in hostility. There were also fewer windows broken from outside. Obviously, this technique is Frantz Fanon’s prescription for colonized peoples; they must turn to hate and violence against the imperialist, in order to recover their own identities.

In my opinion, the only justification for high schools is as therapeutic halfway houses for the deranged. Normal adolescents can find themselves and grow further only by coping with the jobs, sex, and chances of the real world—it is useless to feed them curricular imitations. I would simply abolish the high schools, replace them with apprenticeships and other substitutes, and protect the young from gross exploitation by putting the school money directly in their pockets. The very few who have authentic scholarly interests will gravitate to their own libraries, teachers, and academies, as they always did in the past, when they could afford it. In organic communities, adolescents cluster together in their own youth houses, for their fun and games and loud music, without bothering sober folk. I see no reason whatsoever for adults to set up or direct such nests or to be there at all unless invited.

Yet it is certainly the case at present that very many adolescents are so befuddled and discouraged that they cannot be thrown into society to cope, either to adjust or to be constructively revolutionary. They need free schools in order to get their heads together. The danger of such schools is that they take themselves too seriously, as counterculture rather than as hospitals. But the youth subculture is an obstacle to growing up. The young are right to cling to it, for it is theirs; but there is no excuse for adults to pander to it. In the best cases, free high schools are convenient administrative gimmicks to get around the compulsory education law—and officials do well to encourage them and save on the expense of truant officers. For the young, they provide a safe home base to return to when they are anxious or in need of medical or legal aid.

Philosophically, the right relationship among children, adolescents, and adults—groups that are so unlike and yet like and that make up one community—is a pluralism: in some areas they should leave one another severely alone; in other areas they need, use, and enjoy one another, can make demands, and have obligations. The really interesting facts of life have to do with the opportunities, dangers, and limits of how grownups and children can get something from one another. Yet it is rare that this prima facie and commonsense point of view is taken by our present liberators and school reformers. In Children’s Rights, only the psychiatrist Paul Adams gives a hint that parents and other adults might get some use, satisfaction, and even pleasure from children and adolescents instead of merely being obligated to them—and the obligation being mostly negative. The usual tone is that we are such bastards that we don’t deserve any better.

When A. S. Neill says that his pupils don’t know his religion, drug attitudes, or politics, I am simply baffled. He can’t be taking his pupils very seriously, or he can’t be taking his religion very seriously. If the young don’t hear opinions about such things from a knowledgeable and trusted adult, from whom should they hear them? I too don’t believe in “teaching” children unless they reach out and ask; it is folly to moralize or to try to coerce them into “learning” something.

But why should children be protected from my reality? My religion, art, animality, and politics are my reality. I once had an argument in print with John Holt about Neill’s proposition that at Summerhill rock and roll is equivalent to Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. But it is not equivalent. More happens in two bars of the great music than in two minutes of the rock band, and this can be shown objectively—as John well knows, for he is a cellist and a fanatical discophile. There is potentially more musical experience in better music, and my behavior will say this. Naturally kids can listen to what they like without lectures from me—unless, as sometimes happens, a kid bugs me with his nonsense about his music; and then I may take him by the scruff of the neck and make him listen to my music, plus an analysis of it.

It’s a tough problem. I don’t know any academic means of passing on the humanities; the schools do more harm than good, for they turn the young off. If the humanities do seem to survive, poorly, it is by contagion; some of us take them with surprising earnestness, some young people catch on.

Writers in Children’s Rights mention Homer Lane, the inspired educator who did a good service by giving unruly delinquents a chance for responsibility and self-regulation. They point out, too, that his school was closed because of his alleged sexual misbehavior with some of the girls; but they make no further comment on this. I have found the same embarrassment and reticence when speaking to free school people in this country. They are rightly insistent on sexual freedom among the young, but they will not mention sexual relations between the young and adults, which are usually initiated by the young. Do such things not exist? Ought they not to? I understand that most of those who will read Children’s Rights are probably even more squeamish, but let’s face it: there are dangers, and there is also the possibility of more joy in the world. One of the chief attractions that the young have for adults is their youth, and the attraction is often sexual. Generous kids have models and heroes and crushes on them, and these too are often sexual. Yet there is not a trace of any of this in the recent literature. But the effect of silence and standoffishness is not neutral but repressive.

Many, perhaps most, craftsmen, professionals, scholars, and savants need young apprentices, to see the tasks afresh through young eyes, to pass on the art as it was earlier passed on to them. But, in the relation of master and apprentice, the key is certainly not the freedom and rights of the young, nor the therapy of the young, but the often harsh discipline of the craft and the objective nature of things. It is these that give identity and dignity and, finally, freedom. Yet from the talk of most free school people, one would not guess that there are crafts, professions, and a nature of things; rather, one would think that the world consists only of interpersonal relations and put-downs by irrational authority.

I don’t know what to make of the claim that “student power” should determine the content and method of courses. Why would I agree to teach what is not important and not relevant in my eyes? And how would I know what to teach in such a case? Of course, the students are free to stay away from my classes—I give them their As anyway.

So there are areas of mutual need, demand, and giving. On the other hand, in many areas of experience it is best if children, adolescents, and adults have little to do with one another at all. There are entirely too many schoolteachers around who are eager to teach everything, including freedom and democracy and interpersonal relations. One of the beautiful experiments of the Peckham Health Center showed that when small children were permitted to freely use the apparatus of a fully equipped gymnasium 1) if there were older children present, there were many accidents, probably because of showing off and emulation; 2) if there was an adult teacher present, there were fewer accidents, but some children did not participate and some did not learn the apparatus; and 3) if the small children were left to themselves, all learned and there were no accidents.

It is interesting that, in her introductory essay to Children’s Rights, on the history of the free school movement, Leila Berg’s conclusions agree with those of Holt, Dennison, Huberman, and myself; all of us have come to hanker after deschooling society altogether, except perhaps for socially deprived or psychologically disturbed children. America has gone further down the school road than England, and we have had it.

A sign of the confusion of modern times is that we all pay too much attention to children, either depriving them of rights and freedom or trying to give them rights and freedom. This includes books of mine and this book on children’s rights. I would suggest, as a program for the coming decade, that the best thing we adults could do for children and adolescents would be to renovate our own institutions and give the young a livable world to grow up in.

This Issue

September 23, 1971