A FREE-RANGE CHILDHOOD
by Matthew Appleton
$18.95 plus postage

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INTRODUCTION

 

The popular image of Summerhill has always been a controversial one. In the media it is often depicted as the "school for scandal," the " do-as-you-like school," the "school with no

rules." The idea of children regulating their own lives from adult interference is foreign to most people and is easily dismissed as a "trendy" or "cranky" irrelevance, especially when the language of the media is the only language by which the majority of People get to hear of Summerhill. The many journalists and film crews who visit the school have their own agenda. Usually it centers around the three S's - sex, swearing, and smoking - underscored by anxieties about academic progress in an environment where children do not have to go to class. But serious attempts to come to terms with the deeper processes of Summerhill life, or what they might have to tell us about child nature, are few and far between.
 
The same is true in academic circles. Following the success of A. S. Neill's Sammerhill book in the 1960's, a book entitled Summerhill: For and Against was published in America. It is a compilation of essays by various educationalists, psychologists, social critics, and others, each giving his or her own opinion on Summerhill. The first writer declares, "I would as soon enroll a child of mine in a brothel as in Summerhill." The second, a clergyman, describes Summerhill as "a holy place." So the lines of philosophical battle which persist throughout the book, are drawn. Each of these essays reflects the academic and theoretical ideas of the author, his or her own prejudices and longings, the particular area of "expertise" in which the author is grounded. Reading them from the perspective of someone who has lived at Summerhill, where I worked as a houseparent for nine years, I am struck by how little they have to do with real Summerhill life, whether they are for or agamist the idea of it.
 
Such books are 'intellectually entertaining, but they inevitably miss the point. They are not drawn from experience, but from opinion and opinion alone. It is true that many of the authors have experience with children, but not with children in a Summerhill setting. Would we expect a zookeeper to be able to hold forth on the natural behavior of animals in the wild without studying it first? The conclusion we might reach in the case of a tiger, for example, is that in its natural state it spends its day pacing listlessly up and down and is unable to fend for itself. Expertise in one field does not justify judgment in another. We must first gain experience of and familiarity with the new field before we can comment with authority on its content. As such, the world of the "free range" or self-regulated child lies outside of the auspices of any academic institution or tradition, be it psychological, sociological, or educational. Until such time as these disciplines embrace this world seriously and practically it remains the province of those who have; namely the handful of parents, educators, physicians, and others who have had hands-on experience, and the children themselves.
 
Because of the misconceptions that abound, and also because of my own relationship to the subject, I have made this book primarily a descriptive and anecdotal one, dealing with everyday life at Summerhill, rather than concerning myself with abstract theory. (There is, in fact, no great theory that shapes Summerhill; it shapes itself around the practical and emotional needs of the children and adults who live there at any one time. The only premise, as such, is a trust that children will learn in their own time and do not need to be "pushed" and "molded" by anxious adults to become "decent citizens.") Although I draw conclusions from this experience and make comparisons with other approaches to children, I intend these to be taken as observations that in turn challenge our more widely held ideas about child nature. But this is not an instruction manual on how to bring up children. Such an approach cannot be methodically learned or applied mechanically. It is an approach to life that has to be felt and trusted in. Besides which, every situation has its own milieu that has to be accounted for.
 
The most detailed accounts of Summerhill have been those in the books of A.S. Neill. These span from the nineteen twenties when he founded the school through to the early seventies when he died. To date, besides Neill, this is is the only lengthy first-hand account of Summerhill life to appear. It has not been written because I believe Neill to be old-fashioned, or out of date, but on the contrary, because his insights into childhood and adolescence hold as true today as they did then. Indeed, they belong more to the future than the past.
 
So what is the particular relevance of this book? To some degree, in my own way, I will inevitably reiterate some of what Neill wrote. This is unavoidable because we are dealing with the same subject matter. Nevertheless, I am not simply regurgitating Neill's philosophy, or spouting "the party line," I am writing from my own experiences and bringing in my own questions and observations. I began to feel the need to write such a book after talking with visitors to the school, and from giving lectures. It was clear from the questions people asked that there was still a lot that people didn't understand about Summerhill, and wanted to know. It was around these questions and the misunderstandings that arose in people's minds that this book began to grow. It also grew out of a certain frustration I felt after showing visiting journalists and filmmakers around the school. The ensuing articles and films that appeared were usually cliché-ridden disappointments that somehow seemed to miss the essence of Summerhill. So, I concluded, I should try to capture that essence myself, instead of waiting for someone else to do it.
 
A further factor is that society has changed enormously since Neill's day. His books were written in an age when chi1dren were to be "seen and not heard," corporal punishment was the norm, and both school and home were largely governed by strict authoritarian values. What relevance does Summerhill have in today's world, if any? Has the school had to change to adapt to the times? What problems do children bring with them today? These are questions that people ask, and that I have attempted to answer throughout this book.
 
This is an exciting period in the history of Summerhill. Now, over twenty five years since Neill's death, his baby has come of age, and stands on its own two feet without him. In Summerhill. For and Against. Bruno Bettelheim writes of Neill, "He does not realize that Summerhill works not because it is just the right setting in which to raise children, but because it is nothing but an extension of his personality." Many people believed that when Neill died Surnmerhill would die with him. Some hoped it would. But Summerhill thrives today, without Neill at the helm. This is not to discuss Neill, it is to point out that Summerhill was not just a product of his personality, but also of his deep understanding of children and their needs.
 
My description of Summerhill life is not a detached one, but one filled out by strong convictions and personal involvement. However, I have tried to be as honest and objective as possible. Throughout the years that I lived at Summerhill I had to continually revise my understanding as new events showed me otherwise. One of the joys of Summerhill is that the kids are so open, and share so readily what they are thinking and feeling. I have learned a lot from them, from listening and standing back, waiting to see what develops. As an adult this is a freedom that Summerhill makes possible; to live with kids without having to impose upon them.
 
Free-range Children
The term "free-range children" is one that was kicking around the school during my time there and appeared in one or two newspaper articles at the time. I have used it in the title of this book, as I find it very descriptive of the easygoing freedom that the kids enjoy here. The kids truly are free range, in that they can play around the school grounds as much as they like, without being under adult supervision. But also they are free in the range of thoughts and feelings they are able to express, without being caged in by adult concepts of "niceness" or "politeness." This also provides us, as adults, with a unique opportunity to observe how children are, without the restraints of adult organization and moralizing. Not only can we learn something about child nature, but also about our own nature, which is, after all, rooted in our experiences as children. As one Summerhill parent said at a Summerhill conference, 'You don't learn about the nature of chickens by studying battery hens."
 
To draw conclusions about child-nature from Summerhill, it is essential to understand the wider dynamics of children's capacity for self-regulation and how these are interfered with by prevailing social mores and attitudes. Neill began talking about self-regulation in the late 1940's. The term "self-regulation," as applied to children, originates from the work of Wilhelm Reich, who was a close friend of Neill's. Where it is true that the children regulate their own lives socially at Summerhill, the degree to which they are able to regulate their emotional lives varies from individual to individual. Both Neill, with his experience of kids at Summerhill, and Reich, as a physician, recognized the harm that was done to babies and infants when their needs were handled badly, and the effects that this might have throughout life.
 
Our sense of self is shaped by experience and our earliest experiences shape the core of the self, around which future perceptions will be patterned. Touch is the primal language of life. It is the medium through which the newborn experiences the world most immediately. How we are touched in those first few hours, days, weeks, and months tells us who we are; whether we are people who are loved and wanted, or incomprehensible strangers to life. Our relationships with the world begin to form. Is it a place in which our needs are met, or does it impose its own rules, mechanically and without warmth? When we cried out for contact with another, were we held and soothed, or were we left to cry, unheard, unheeded, until we exhausted ourselves and gave up? These experiences shape us. When we reached for the breast, was the nipple warm, moist, and vibrant as it interacted with the sensitive membranes of our mouths? Or was it hard, cold, and contracted? Or did we just taste the cold rubber of a baby bottle? Did it feel as if something was lacking? When we looked into our mothers' eyes, what did we see? Was it warmth and love, or was it ambiguity, or even hate? How shall we know ourselves?
 
The young child does not rationalize. Everything is happening in the moment, and if the moment is unbearable the child withdraws from it, closing its eyes to it, holding its breath against it, and contracting its muscles against it Equally, if the child's needs are met, it expands out to the world, looking it in the eye, breathing it deep into the center of its being, languishing in it and in the pleasure of its own bodily sensations. Maybe the child is satisfied in some respects and not in others. If it protests, how are its protests met? With indifference? Anger? Understanding? What does this tell us about what we can expect from life? The child does not think this out, but its own responses become the patterns of its expectations: don't feel too deeply - it hurts; don't bother trying - it's not worth it; you have to fight for what you want out of life; life provides, it's good.
 
Throughout infancy and early childhood these patterns may be reinforced, or undermined, by new experiences. How are we made to feel about our bodies? Should we be proud of who we are, or ashamed? What reactions did we get when wee paraded naked around the house, or when we discovered pleasure in our genitals? Were we forced into regular toilet habits before our bowels were ready for it? Did we have to push down hard on command, or produce something to please Mummy, or did it come of its own accord, in its own natural time? Did we feel that we had to fight against our bodies, that they betrayed us, that they no longer belonged to us, but were there to please others? Did we hold on out of spite? Did we soil ourselves for revenge? Or was it no big deal, just something that occurred naturally, a source of satisfaction and pleasure?
 
Self-regulation can only develop when there is a capacity on the part of the parents to be able to follow the natural development of the child and meet its needs without inflicting unnecessary adult constructs such as letting the baby "cry it out," timetable feeding, over-zealous toilet training, or negative reactions to masturbation and nudity. By its very nature, self-regulation is not a "method" that can be applied, but depends on a deep emotional contact betvveen the parents, especially the mother, and the child. Because the child does not have words, the parents need to be able to follow its expressions and interpret them. Later they will need to step back and allow their child more independence.
 
The way in which older children, or indeed adults, are able to regulate their own needs depends to a great degree on how their needs were met when they were younger. This is something I have seen clearly in the children at Summerhill, and which is touched upon throughout this book. The degree to which someone is able to regulate his or her life, free of anxiety and frustration, is variable but not absolute - at least in our society, and even at Summerhill. My experience is that Summerhill kids are, on the whole, more able to regulate their own lives, both socially and emotionally, than most kids who are subjected to ten years or so of compulsory education. But to understand this more fully as it operates in the life of the individual, I feel it important not to lose sight of the early influences on a child's life and of self-regulation as a more unified process from birth through adolescence.
 
This book does not represent Summerhill in any formal capacity. That is to say, what I have written cannot be taken as "the party line" or "official policy" of Summerhill School. What it does represent is my experience of Summerhill, which was drawn from nine years of living and working as a houseparent. In basics there is no contradiction between what I have written and how the school portrays itself more generally, but this does not mean that all the conclusions that I reach, or emphasis that I put on particular areas of community life, are shared by everyone else in the community or by Zoe Readhead, as the principal. The experience of Summerhill is much broader and diverse than just one person's viewpoint. However, I do not want to give the impression that this book is mere opinion. It has been arrived at by years of patient observation and hard work, digging to get at what is beneath the surface, both within Summerhill and within myself, as I have reacted to iL
 
It has now been two years since I left Summerhill. This book was written while I was at the school, and re-reading it now I have felt little need to make alterations. Although here and there my views may have changed a little, I prefer to leave the text as it is, so that it speaks with the authentic voice of the moment. From the perspective I have now of viewing Summerhill. from the outside in, instead of from the inside out, I am quite happy to stand by what I have written and feel more than ever that society at large needs to move more in the direction of the Summerhill approach, rather than the other way around. Since I wrote this book there have been some structural changes in the buildings and in the way that the staff is organized and, as is the nature of self-government, the school rules are in a state of constant flux. Essentially, though, they are fairly much the same and only differ in minor details. I have heard many ex-Summerhillians, sometimes returning after thirty or forty years, say how little the atmosphere has changed since their time at the school, and it is this essence tt I am trying to capture in the book.
 
On a more personal level there are small, but poignant, details within the book that are no longer true, but I prefer to leave intact. I describe Ena Neill's (A.S. Neill's wife) giving out pocket money. Shortly after I left Summerhill Ena died. As anyone who met Ena knows, she was a very strong personality and during most of the time I was at Summerhill she was a powerful presence in the community. As she became older and more frail she found it more difficult to get out and about, but, for as long as she could, she struggled over to the meetings, so that she could keep her finger on the pulse of school life. Most of the colleagues and kids that people this book have left. I still know a lot of the older kids at Summerhill, but, other than Zoe, there is only one member of the staff still there with whom I worked. This illustrates the high turnover of staff that I have written about in the text. I have visited several times in the two years since I left, and it feels odd to return to a place that was home for so long and to find it inhabited with strange faces. Yet the ease and acceptance with which both new kids and staff begin to interact with me, and the familiar sense of entering into an environment where things flow a little easier, reassures me that the essence of Summerhill, as I have tried to capture it 'in this book, continues to animate those who live there now.
 
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