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Problem children: Views of A.S. Neil of Summerhill

Robert Skidelsky

From 1923 onwards Neill’s experience, as he records, was mainly with ‘difficult’children. He had to deal with incendiaries, thieves, liars, bed–wetters and other kinds of neurotics and delinquents. He came to the conclusion that childhood neurosis was entirely due to the attempt to implant morality. ‘I believe that it is moral instruction that makes the child bad. I find that when I smash the moral instruction a bad boy has received he automatically becomes a good boy.  ‘Moral instruction in its positive sense – moral exhortation – consisted in giving the child ideals – he must be good, work hard, keep clean, etc., etc. These ideals generally ran contrary to some childish interest or habit. Consequently, exhortation was reinforced by prohibition, designed to make a child fearful or guilty of these interests or habits by the use of such expressions as ‘tut-tut’, or such words as ‘dirty’ and ‘naughty’, backed up with threats of punishment – in this life or the next – or by emotional bribery (‘Mummy will not love you if you do this’). Its characteristic and most harmful application was in the sphere of sex, though it could be employed to inhibit any behaviour of which the adult disapproved. The result of moral instruction was to create a conflict between instinct and ideal (or in Neill’s words ‘between inherited right and acquired wrong’) ; more particularly, to focus a child’s interest on a forbidden activity, thus accentuating the psychic conflict between his heightened interest and the guilt engendered by its indulgence. The tension produced by this conflict might express itself in specific neurotic or anti-social behaviour, or simply as a general state of nervousness, anxiety, unhappiness.

Elsewhere Neill speaks of childhood neurosis as the consequence of a lack of love or affection. Some of his case-histories – such as the boy who smashed furniture because he thought his sister was getting too much of his mother’s love – would seem to be examples of lack of affection rather than of moral instruction. However, since he defines love in such a way as to exclude moral instruction, the question of which is the prime cause of neurosis becomes irrelevant. For Neill love essentially signifies ‘approval’: one cannot love a child unless one approves of his instincts, which means that one refrains from giving him a ‘conscience’ about them by moral instruction. Moral instruction he sees as the adult’s self-hate or self-disapproval projected on to the child. The moralizing adult does, in a sense, love the child, but that love has got so mixed up with his own problems that its expression is twisted and thwarted. When dealing with children whose lives have been starved of approval, it was essential to be wholly ‘on their side’; to avoid any temptation to interfere with their pursuits or direct them to more ‘desirable’ ends; the assumption being that such attempts would certainly lead to an identification with previous ‘disapproving’ or ‘moralizing’ adults, thus removing the possibility of a cure.

This was strikingly brought home to him in Hellerau, when he failed to cure a teenage girl’s ‘authority complex’. As she left the school after six months’ vandalism, he said to her, ‘Well, I didn’t help you much, did I?’  ‘Do you know why?’ she said with a dry smile. ‘The first day I came to your school, I was making a box and you said I was using too many nails. From that moment onwards, I knew that you were just like every schoolmaster in the world – a boss. From that moment, you could not possibly help me’.  ‘You are right, ‘said Neill. ‘Good-bye.’

Neill’s ‘cure’ as expounded in the Problem books was to give full encouragement to the particular neurotic symptom through which the child currently sought release; to give him full opportunities for ‘creative’ sublimations; to undertake, where necessary, direct analysis in order to uncover the roots of the neurosis (he called them ‘private lessons’); and more generally, to provide a loving, approving and permissive atmosphere, which would enable the child to ‘unwind’, relax, be himself.

‘The whole idea of my school’ wrote Neill in The Problem Child, ‘is release; is the living out of an interest.’ Where the neurotic symptom was expressed in anti-social behaviour this meant encouraging it, however destructive it might be, just as Homer Lane had encouraged his delinquents to smash crockery and furniture. ‘If I were painting a door,’ Neill wrote, ‘and Robert came along and threw mud on my fresh paint I should swear at him heartily, because he is one of us and what I say to him does not matter. But suppose Robert had just come from a hateful school and his mud-slinging was an attempt to get his own back against authority. I should join in his mud-slinging because his salvation is more important than a door.’

The most striking illustration of this approach is seen in Neill’s reaction to stealing. Compulsive stealing he always regarded as a symbolic stealing of love, the staking out of a claim for love, based on, and justified by, the expectation that the real thing would be denied. Indeed the expectation is that the act of theft will meet with parental disapproval (hate) which in turn provided the motive for the subsequent act. The problem was to break the vicious cycle of need and adverse expectation. Neill reasoned that if approval (love) were substituted for disapproval (hate) as the adult reaction to the act of theft, the motive for stealing would disappear. Hence he developed the psychological trick of rewarding the act of theft, the reward symbolizing approval. It shattered the child’s picture of reality which justified his stealing, and thus opened the way to a cure.

This feature: Skidelsky, R. (1969).  English Progressive Schools, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, pp.163 – 165