Summerhill and a Truly Egalitarian Childhood

I’m in the midst of reading Matthew Appleton’s book, A Free Range Childhood, about his experience in the 1990s being a “houseparent” at the Summerhill independent boarding school in Leiston, Suffolk in England. It is a fascinating glimpse into a more egalitarian (I would argue more evolved) way of adults, children and youth interacting with each other in a living and educational setting. It is also the world’s most iconic, long-lasting and successful democratic free-school that has inspired other such schools around the world. And finally, the account of life and learning at Summerhill recalls similar experiences I have had in my own life, as a youth and later as a parent, that confirm the efficacy and vitality of this unorthodox approach to childhood and education.

Summerhill was founded in 1921 by A. S. Neill, a pioneering progressive educator who’s mentor was Homer Lane (see my piece “Education Alternatives 102 – Mann, Dewey & Lane”) and was also significantly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and William Reich. The school has survived for nearly ninety years, including weathering many inspections by British educational authorities (particularly in recent years) and subsequent threats to close it down. A key ongoing issue with the educational bureaucracy is Summerhill’s fundamental policy that none of the school’s lessons are mandatory. Students come to classes as they freely choose. The school is currently run by Neill’s daughter Zoe Readhead, who I had the opportunity to meet several years ago at an AERO conference.

Making all “lessons” non-compulsory is emblematic of what I see as a more respectful, egalitarian approach to the relationships between adults and youth, but it is just the tip of the iceberg at this iconic learning community. According to Appleton from the introduction to his book…

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” and “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.”

I resonate with the developmental vitality of an environment where a kid can live much of their life outside of adult supervision and approval. Much of my childhood, outside of my time in school, was spent in such an environment. Though my parents were keenly interested in my interests, they used that knowledge to focus on providing me with an enriched environment, but not in suggesting, directing or otherwise supervising the activities I was involved with. They made sure I had a basement to play in with “imagination toys” (Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, plastic soldiers and dinosaurs, blocks, etc.), a park across the street and surrounding neighborhoods that I could pretty freely roam once I was about eight or nine years old. This included taking my bicycle on my own (and my own initiative) to the library, toy and hobby stores, friend’s houses and little league practices (see my post “Have Bike Will Travel”).

Later as a parent myself, I struggled to try and give my kids something comparable thirty years later in the megalopolis of Los Angeles, a much different place than the smaller and more homogeneous progressive Midwest college town I grew up in.

The expectation that everyone is responsible for themselves and directs their own life is a key principle of liberty in our egalitarian society but something that is rarely applied to children and youth in our culture or most others. And perhaps the signature element of an egalitarian society is that everyone is considered an equal “citizen”. And so as well at Summerhill…

I live here as an equal member of the community, a fellow citizen with the children whom I am houseparent for. Being an adult does not give me authority over anyone, so I am not in the position of telling anyone else what to do. But I do have equal rights, and recourse to enforcing those rights in the same manner as the children.

Giving children and youth complete equal rights with adults is not appropriate in all of society’s venues, but in the controlled environment of a school it seems totally appropriate to me. What better way for kids to learn how to be actively functioning citizens in a democratic country. As they say, “practice makes perfect”.

As an adult I have seen this sort of youth and adult egalitarian environment created at Unitarian-Universalist high school youth camps (see my piece “Camps, Cons & Compasses”). The few adults that are there are in a facilitative role in the background, contributing to but in no way leading or supervising the activities. The adults are basically there to meet legal and insurance requirements for the camp and in case of emergencies like a forest fire or a serious injury. In the case of the U-U high school camp that my daughter co-led, even a serious infraction of the camp’s conduct rules was adjudicated by an all night session that included both youth and adult volunteer camp “staff” sorting out who did what and deciding on the appropriate consequences (two kids were sent home before the end of the week).

And I have witnessed this environment of equality changing the dynamics between youth and adults from the formality of a hierarchy to the more informal and genuine interactions of a “circle of equals”. Appleton speaks to the same at Summerhill…

Living together in such a way has a deep effect on the quality of the relationship between adult and child. Artificial barriers are soon dropped, allowing for more honest, direct communication. Everyone is able to be more themselves and to be relaxed with each other. The adults do not strive to set examples for the children. We go about our business naturally, unhindered by stances of stiff dignity or condescending paternalism… Each of us defines our own boundaries in our own way and becomes involved in community life at our own level. The way that we live live together with the children is functional, defined by personal choices and needs, rather than abstract morality and conformity to unnatural norms.

I don’t think I experienced this sort of interaction, even with my unorthodox parents, as a child. It was not until I was an older youth, my parents divorced, and my mom was struggling, that the formality of the parent-child relationship melted away in favor of a less formal one involving two people just trying to survive from day to day. Being able to see my mom as a person not unlike me, with her own passions and struggles, hopes and fears, somehow made me more at peace with all my inadequacies and difficulties (see my piece “Bills on the Bed”).

Appleton says…

The popular expectation is that children need constant guidance and supervision to feel secure. What I see at Summerhill is that the more children are trusted, the more they trust themselves.

As a parent myself, my instincts were to have this more informal person-to-person trusting relationship with our own kids, particularly when we were in some sort of safe environment like our home or our immediate neighborhood. I could see both kids blossom in this mode, while still able to count on their mom and I to be the official grown-ups in those rare situations where that was necessary.

The genuine relationships I forged with both of them as children were critical when they went through more difficult times in their early teen years, particularly around school. Based on that relationship, I was eventually able to understand that school was debilitating our son Eric and that he would be better off if we pulled him out and let him home school (see my piece “Taking Eric out of School”). And for the year after we pulled him out, it was the depth of the trust between Eric and his mom and I that we were willing to let him just live his life, including pursuing his own natural interests, rather than requiring him to follow a prescribed academic curriculum.

Stepping back, I know all this seems very strange and perhaps inappropriate to a number of parents who feel they are doing their kids a disservice if they (the parents) are not always supervising, not always in charge. These are your children, your charges, not your friends, so you should always treat them as such so as not to confuse them and make them feel unsafe.

I understand that concern, but I also have witnessed the vitality of what I would call the more egalitarian approach to parenting, and what Appleton witnessed during his years at Summerhill as a more egalitarian approach to education and the relationships between youth and adults in an educational setting. I think its one of those evolutionary things, with adult-youth relationships being perhaps the last bastion of a hierarchical approach to human society. Where that hierarchy has, or is at least is on the process of being replaced in most relationships between adults of different races and genders, from the privilege of a ruling aristocracy to the shared respect and responsibility of a circle of equals.

I think a place like Summerhill (as small, humble and unique as it is) is a glimpse of the future. It may take several more generations, but looking at the broad sweep of history and how far we have come in the last century or two, from kids being “seen and not heard” and speaking to adults only when spoken to first, I think this is the trajectory we are on as we become a more egalitarian, what I would call a more highly evolved species.

See my follow-up piece… “Summerhill: Fully Engaging Youth in Their Own Education”

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