Health and Healing
by Mary Leue
Let's start wth childhood. I'm not sure that later interventions make all that much sense, by comparison - according to the saying about "an ounce of prevention," etc. I am drawing extensively here on the regimen by which I was brought up by my parents, because much of it - perhaps most - has stood the test of time and experience. In this rubric, "health" basically consists of four elements, without any of which true health cannot be guaranteed. My own health is sufficient evidence for me that it passes the time test. As for the experience, I was able to carry this regimen into full implementation in the Free School, with what I can only call spectacular results. Children who came to us in varying stages of ill health - physical, nutritional, emotional, mental - left us after their span of years between pre-school through eightth grade equivalency in a state of excellewnt health. I quote from a brochure we wrote about the school in 1973:
The important element we offer children, both by experience and example, is an awareness that "You can do it!" Even the children who leave us after two or three years, let alone those who are with us for the full decade, have a clear sense of confidence, dignity and leadership. Their eyes are alive and open, their shoulders back yet relaxed, their bodies poised and vigorous. In every sense of the word, they belong to themselves - and their subsequent careers bear this out fully.
I expect this is a pretty big claim - and it would be if "health" were a complicated state of being. Well, it's not, It's very simple and easy to out into practice - which is why it remains such a pitifully stupid fact that so many children are obese, addicted to all sorts of biological poisons, and doomed to live their lives in this state of ill health.
The trick here is to jump in right from the start, without doubt or hesitation, and to implement a regimen in a school which brooks no compromises with "free will," either on the part of students or of teachers! I myself was lucky to have been throroughly indoctrinated from the word "go" in the efficacy of such a program - and to have had it both reinforced and augmented in my nurse's training at the Children's Hospital in Boston - even though an outsider might not detact the presence of "choice" in the fullest sense of the term.
OK. Elements: simplicity, consistency, choice, selection, kindness.
Simplicity: Rule-making must be kept to a bare minimum, and even those few must be run through the gauntlet of child doubt, acceptance, even revocation. Their scope must dovetail with the other ingredients, not go beyond or be held in isolation from them. If or when they may be questioned by a child or group of children, such questioning must be taken seriously and honored - the rule not being totally eliminated, but put on a shelf in order that the life of the school may proceed without it, in order that its actual necessity may emerge - or be eliminated - so that it may be either be taken down again, brushed off and reintroduced into the life of the school, or wiped off the slate entirely as unnecessary. It is thus that "time-honored" traditions come into being - instead of rules.
Consistency: Children both need and enjoy consistency or undeviating repetition of circumstance. Not, of course, at the expense of innovation, but alongside it. Anyone who teaches in a free school especially needs to accept this basic fact of child life, because so many adults who have themselves grown up lacking the freedom to be truthful, independent-minded, aware - both of other children and of adults - come into free schools in a state of underlying rebelliousness that may tend to subvert the fundamental inner structure of the life of the school in such a way that "license" takes the place of "freedom" - as A.S. Neill warned. So the principle of consistency both undergirds and provides credibility to all the other principles involved in the concept of health.
Choice: This one is huge, and badly misunderstood. It seems to be widely believed that children, given the right to make choices, will choose so unwisely that their lives will soon come to lack any and all the ingredients needed for survival, order or humanness. This is profoundly not true. It may indeed be true of a few children who come into the school either in full rebellion against a rigidly inhuman family regimen - or, more often, one in which parental leadership has been almost totally abdicated and replaced by the use of idle threats, bribery and unreliability on a habitual basis.
In the very beginning of a new school or one which is instituting new operational principles and before an atmosphere of voluntary consensus has been allowed to mellow into place, it may indeed be the case that children's choices will tend to point in the direction of chaos, and adults in the early weeks may have to adopt leadership roles and, in effect, "con" the kids into accepting their opinions as "more valid" than their own untried, impulse-based proposals. But this phase dies of attrition fairly early on, student leadership roles begin to emerge which allow most of the students to follow one of their own rather than an adult as a model - and a consensus atmosphere grows fairly quickly in which most children come easily to see the genuine advantages of following a consistent path through their school careers.
Choice is the main ingredient in fairly rapid conversion of new students into the consensus atmosphere accepted by the more experienced students who set the tone. Mind you, choice is NOT the same as either rule-lessness or inconsistency. One chooses between alternatives - but the available alternatives are ones that have been previously hammered-out by the student/teacher body in a trial-and-error process that has enabled the ones left in place to fulfill a role of self-guidance for each student as he attempts to thread the maze of "unlimited choices" presented by a seemingly anarchic but actually rigidly-programmed world.
A.S. Neill borrowed his term "self-regulation" from his old friend Wilhelm Reich, for whom it represented a state of balance among all the "systems" on which life depends. As enacted by Neill in his school Summerhill it reigned supreme - and properly so. Both Reich and Neill rested their principles on the belief that human beings are inherently good - and given the opportunity to make choices, to learn by trial and error which ones "work" well in their own terms, and to develop habits of both choosing and advocating choice for others during their childhood years, they emerge as adults well-equipped to live their lives in a state of balance - of health.
The last two ingredients, selection and kindness, are absolutely essential to the process of health described above - but do not stand alone as separate principles. Selection is a part of choosing, representing as it does a late stage in the process by which choice has become internalized - the "menu" from which one might select being one of one's own inner choice. Kindness, of course, is the lubricant in the stream in which all the others flow. The issue of "bullying" inside and outside of the school building is one which has been profoundly misunderstood and appallingly mishandled or neglected in the great majority of schools, both rural and urban, rich and poor.
Kindness is a result, not a principle in itself. It cannot be taught, prescribed, enforced or even advocated with success! And this is really a great shame, because kindness flows so easily, so naturally, when all the other ingredients described above are up and running, well-established by custom - ultimately, by tradition - especially the one of choice. Oh, sure, breaks in the flow of kindness need to be addressed by the entire student body, both immediately and unequivocally. But the lovely part about such attention is that for virtually all violators of the "kindness" dictum, there is an immediate sense of relief in discovering that kindness is a live option, and that abandoning the role of habitual bully - which almost universally covers an ingrained habit of hopeless fearfulness - is like taking off an overcoat in August. The assignment of consequences or "punishments" for incidents of bullying or other forms of unfairness dwindles to virtual extinction except for the (very rare) extreme form of the disorder. When children exhibit the "Lord of the Flies" mentality that fosters the imposition of cruel or unusual consequences for misdeeds or group intimidation of the weak, you can be sure that this is not either "natural" but has been somehow fostered, either subtly or directly by adults or by unquestionable rules imposed from above.
Best of all considerations, such a regimen as I have described here is eminently doable within any school, public or private, religious or secular, rich or poor, and supports a wide spectrum of pedagogical approaches to the learning of subject matter. Try it! What have you got to lose?
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Here's another essay on healing beyond the medical model.