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03: Obedience and discipline

Group 03 Readings


A. S Neill founded Summerhill a pioneering self-governing free school in Suffolk, England. Neill, a great advocate of personal freedom for children created a community in which children could be free from adult authority. His approach pointed to emotions, not intellect, as the primary forces shaping a child's growth. The school continues to exist and is now run by his daughter, Zoe Readhead.

Extract 09
From Summerhill – A Radical Approach To Child Rearing by A. S. Neill

An impious question comes up: Why should a child obey? My answer is: He must obey to satisfy the adult’s desire for power. Otherwise, why should a child obey?

“Well,” you say, “he may get his feet wet if he disobeys the command to put on shoes; he may even fall over the cliff if he disobeys his father’s shout.” Yes, of course, the child should obey when it is a matter of life and death. But how often is a child punished for disobeying in matters of life and death? Seldom, if ever! He is generally hugged with a “My precious! Thank God, you’re safe!” It is for small things that a child is usually punished.

Now it is possible to run a home where obedience is not required. If I say to a child, “Get your books and take a lesson in English,” he may refuse if he is not interested in English. His disobedience merely expresses his own desires, which obviously do not intrude on or hurt anyone else. But if I say, “The center part of the garden is planted; no one is to run over it!” all the children accept what I say in much the same way that they accept Derrick’s command, “Nobody is to use my ball unless they ask me first.” For obedience should be a matter of give and take. Occasionally, at Summerhill, there is disobedience of a law passed in the General School Meeting. Then the children may themselves take action. However, in the main, Summerhill runs along without any authority or any obedience. Each individual is free to do what he likes as long as he is not trespassing on the freedom of others. And this is a realizable aim in any community.

Obedience should be social courtesy. Adults should have no right to the obedience of children. It must come from within-- not be imposed from without.

Discipline is a means to an end. The discipline of an army is aimed at making for efficiency in fighting. All such discipline subordinates the individual to the cause.

There is, however, another discipline. In an orchestra, the first violinist obeys the conductor because he is as keen on a good performance as the conductor is. The private who jumps to attention does not, as a rule, care about the efficiency of the army. Every army is ruled mostly by fear, and the soldier knows that if he disobeys he will be punished. School discipline can be of the orchestra type when teachers are good. Too often it is of the army type. The same applies to the home. A happy home is like an orchestra and enjoys the same kind of team spirit. A miserable home is like a barracks that is ruled by hate and discipline.

The main difference between Summerhill and the typical school is that at Summerhill we have faith in the child’s personality. We know that if Tommy wants to be a doctor, he will voluntarily study to pass the entrance examinations. The disciplined school is sure that Tommy will never be a doctor unless he is beaten or pressured or forced to study at prescribed hours.

I grant that in most cases it is easier to eliminate discipline from the school than from the home. In Summerhill, when a child of seven makes himself a social nuisance, the whole community expresses its disapproval. Since social approval is something that everyone desires the child learns to behave well. No discipline is necessary.

In the home, where so many emotional factors and other circumstances enter, things are not so easy. The harassed housewife, cooking the dinner, cannot treat her fractious child with social disapproval. Nor can the tired father when he finds his new seedbed trampled upon. What I wish to emphasize is that in a home where the child has had self-regulation from the start, ordinary demands for discipline do not arise!

At Summerhill we treat children as equals. By and large, we respect the individuality and personality of a child just as we would respect the individuality and personality of an adult, knowing that the child is different from an adult. We adults do not demand that adult Uncle Bill must clear his plate when he dislikes carrots, or that father must wash his hands before he sits down to a meal. By continually correcting children, we make them feel inferior. We injure their natural dignity. It is all a question of relative values. In heaven’s name, what does it really matter if Tommy sits down to a meal with unwashed hands!

Children brought up under the wrong type of discipline live one lifelong lie. They never dare be themselves. They become slaves to established futile customs and manners. They accept their silly Sunday clothes without question. For the mainspring of discipline is fear of censure. Punishment from their playfellows does not involve fear. But when an adult punishes, fear comes automatically. For the adult is big and strong and awe-inspiring. Most important of all, he is a symbol of the feared father or feared mother.


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