Do we Want Happy Children?

DACHINE RAINER who edited Prison Etiquette and the anarchist magazine Retort with Holley Cantine, from Bearsville, New York, is now living in London. Her novel The Uncomfortable Inn was recently published here by Abelard-Schuman and she is at present writing a book for the 20th Century European and American Writers series of Rutgers University Press.

Submitted by Reddebrek on July 15, 2016

BEFORE ONE HAS CHILDREN one has altogether splendid theories about them. Afterwards, if one is to have extraordinary children, it is because one has discarded the theories. Let us take happiness. For most people this comes to mean adjustment, and when parents say they want their children to be happy it means that they want them to "'learn how to get along in the world".

Such parental behaviour ranges from extremes and overt coercion to hidden persuasion. He'll do what's good for him, it stipulates, what will ultimately make him happy — that is, adjusted — and I, not the child, know what's best. This is one kind of irresponsibility by which one may avoid the rigours of treating a child as though he's human. At the other extreme is: "He can do as he likes. He's a bright kid, I don't want to influence him, to confine him in any way." This is another kind of indifference to the child as an individual, a being slowly maturing, intensely dependent on a loving, interpersonal relationship. (Any discussion about happiness concerns the concept of freedom, and it is this that must enter into an adequate exposition of Summerhill,1 A. S. Neill's extraordinary

1. Summerhill. A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, by A. S. Neill (London: Gollancz, 25s.)

testament to human liberty.)

We will begin with the two extremes, juxtaposing against these our idea of happiness.2 The first is,

2. Neill, after forty dedicated years as headmaster of Summerhill, the most remarkable experiment in education, defines a happy child as one whose capacity to grow has not been interfered with.

of course, more prevalent. Parents, whatever their theories or self-justification may be for the authoritarian method of child-raising, use it primarily because that is the way they were brought up … One cannot overestimate tradition in child rearing. Despite superficial differences of fashion, generation after generation recapitulates its own childhood. More than any other factor, this makes the prognosis for the edified behaviour of humans at some future time exceedingly doubtful.

Parents bring to what they privately or publicly come to see as their onerous task a set of mutually exclusive convictions. First, that it is good for the child to be directed. Secondly, that it is good for the parent; particularly, it is convenient since parents are entirely willing to abrogate their own authority to the greater authority of the state; by sending a child to school they rid themselves for at least the greater part of the day of a personality who has generally been formed at home to co-exist in conflict with himself and others.

Finally, the parent is authoritarian because concern is easier than love and the parent can make any edict under the not-at-all successful aegis of concern, while schools are authoritarian because it is the nature of institutions to be so, particularly because there is no other way to confine a large mass of restless, unwilling scholars. The cycle thus established, with parents and school in cahoots — that is, with no authority on the side of the child — is known to every parent with a difficult "problem": the more deprived he is of love and understanding and the assurance that adults are on his side in considering him a human being, the more unlike one he becomes. The authoritarian methodology remains the best for producing adults who will perpetuate our disastrous status quo.

I know from Neill as well as from my own experience that by treating a child at the earliest possible moment, barely out of infancy,3 as though he or she were human, long before her behaviour or

3. Neill's is the soundest exposition on the handling of infants I know; he makes Spock and Gesell seem silly.

psyche warranted such a distinction, that she rises to the bait and becomes so easily and quickly. I find, Harry Stack Sullivan and Neill to the contrary notwithstanding, that the very young child is not totally egocentric but is capable of disinterested behaviour and even of love. This does not happen often, for the child is, before all else, a mimic and must be exposed to genuine manifestations of love — of himself and of others — before he can experience it. And how many children are? For how many in his adult world are truly capable of loving?

This does not mean that a child's discretion is always of the first order or that his or her ability at making decisions is flawless; but now, at the age of nine, my daughter's is frequently as adequate as mine, occasionally superior, and very seldom wanting. Yet I have checked or advised or directed her hardly at all. We concur, with a singular absence of conflict. One must never hesitate to say no! when freedom is turned to license — by which I mean interference with the freedom of others — or when the health of a very young child is endangered. For me, these two situations have almost never arisen, and obedience and defection to my few edicts is unquestioning — but only because these are few. It is amazing how many libertarian parents are afraid to cross their children; it may be that they feel too uncertain of their love, as donor and as recipient, to risk withdrawing approval.

Neither approach is to be confused with that of parents who try to convince their children that they exist in a state of absolute freedom. Fromm, in his brilliant preface to Summerhill, makes the distinction between "overt authority and anonymous authority."4 With anonymous authority comes

4. I know a middle-aged man who, despite continuing evidence to the contrary, is convinced to this day that he was brought up freely. If the parent is clever, the technique is very persuasive and utterly destructive.

the inculcation of deception. The child learns to manoeuvre and manipulate as he is manipulated. Evasion becomes the child's weapon, a weapon he cannot discard as an adult. (In the USA Negro featherbedding, politically expedient, has such a tradition. To some extent, all the lower classes practice such subterfuge, for the adult world into which they grow is invariably a hostile one.) It makes for self-deception as well as for the deception of others and eventually creates a schizoid cleavage between the head and the heart. A child can, for example, be indoctrinated into "good manners"; but this is no more than etiquette. He is formal and insincere. True manners are based on a genuine regard for others. Like Neill, I believe in open differences when necessary. But one should pull rank, stand on the ceremony of years as infrequently as possible. How many of us mature with increasing years?

Of course no one, particularly no child who has been given a great deal of freedom, is ever satisfied that he has enough. Enough is an absolute quantity. Thus, when during the discussion at the dinner table, subsequent to our reading Summerhill, I permitted myself in an unguarded moment a sigh of self-congratulation and said, "I've somehow brought Therese up in Neill's tradition, with a great deal of freedom", there was a weighty pause while several pair of adult eyes turned toward my daughter. "I should say not," she said airily. "Freedom!" Everyone laughed. "But I manage mother fairly well," she conceded.

Fresh in our memories was a pair of pink ballet shoes which she badly wanted and for which there was no money. She accepted this (there is very little she wants of which she is deprived, since, fortunately, she limits her wants) — although she understands the meaning of money, that is, our singular lack of it, no more than I. But it did make me think of Neill's rueful observation: "Really, any man or woman who tries to give children freedom should be a millionaire …" He doesn't altogether mean it, of course; (and certainly this is no reflection of a belief in the accumulation of material goods, Neill is very much, against buying presents as a substitute for love, or as bribes).
Nevertheless, there is some sad truth in the jest. Neill finds it unfortunate that the natural destructiveness of children should be interfered with because one cannot afford to replace the objects. I had always imagined that destructiveness exists as an outlet for hostility and as an indication of futile rage. Perhaps among small boys living in close community, as at Summerhill, there is a kind of healthy violence. It may have something to do with a natural resentment against private property. Generations of small boys in the country break windows of temporarily empty houses and commit small acts of vandalism with no apparent motive. When they're ignored, except for a reprimand, they outgrow it; if they're persecuted by the law, serious consequences ensue.

Although destructiveness is outside my experience, I do find that a lack of money creates problems. On the trivial side, I have not been as gracious as I'd wish about permitting my child to dress as attractively as we'd like, or, when she was younger, to get as dirty as she pleased — because I did all my own laundry and until recently, under very primitive conditions. One thinks twice about ironing a little girl's party dress with a flat-iron heated on a kerosene stove, particularly when one has other than a domestic vocation.

Partially related to economics, is the problem of time. If one has scruples against sharing the custody of one's offspring with the state and does not send a child to school, one must be prepared patiently to give up more of one's time than is convenient. I have been seduced for hours and hours and days and years from my own life, from its own inner needs whether these be the performance of chores, or the pursuit of pleasures — of love, of entertainment … Most serious has been the substantial curtailment of my artistic output.

There is a conflict between the needs of childhood and the needs of an adult. It would be dishonest to pretend that money could play no part in the alleviation of the worst aspects of this. Money can buy space and privacy; it can sometimes secure a few hours of satisfactory assistance. Yet what is most on the side of the adult is his unstinting giving at a very early age, for the contented child reciprocates by playing alone for hours at a time. Children are generous and understanding. A happy child is more sensitive to the needs of others than most adults.

Yet, the victor in all ways remains time. It snatches the child from his childhood all too soon and moves the adult at too brisk a pace through his life, swerving him from his intentions. Whatever his theories may have been, he will discover that to have a good interpersonal relationship with a child, that is, one in which the child's more-than-material needs do not go uncared for and in which the child is not shunted off elsewhere, is a fearfully demanding and time-consuming affair. However, when I think of how much one loses and juxtapose against that the loss of a childhood, I apply myself willingly.

Neill of course has a vocation. Parents seldom do. There is something to be said for the existence of community, where there is the possibility of finding a dedicated person. (I know of only one individual who can compare with Neill in patience, wisdom and humour in dealing with children: Mary D. Smith, who runs a small nursery in Woodstock, N.Y. She is not given to expounding theories but she loves children and is willing to accord them their rights. Interestingly enough, she herself is the product of a remarkable upbringing in which she never had to endure the benefits of formal schooling. Again, tradition. Her results in The Children's School, like those in Summerhill, are perfectly astounding, all the more so since many of the children come from rather deplorable backgrounds.)

Since it is or should be abundantly plain that a lack of freedom is demonstrably bad (Neill is entirely convinced on this, as Homer Lane was decades ago), we will examine the other half of the question: what of an excess of freedom? I dismiss, in passing, the desirability of formal schooling. Too many educators have pointed out the failings of the school system for me to add more. I consider it a gravely irresponsible act to submit a young child to the American public school system.

Parents don't realise how unimportant learning is, particularly learning by coercion. Neill makes the point that young children take to very little, if any. It is imperative, on the other hand, that their play and fantasy life be fully explored. If it is not, it is likely to express itself in perverted forms in later life. There is nothing so serious as deprivation. If a child lacks his childhood, and no child has time for one, and presently lacks the inclination in the factory-like work day of the school system, he will miss its benefits and fail to mature into adulthood. His thwarted play instincts will forever seek outlets. (Anyone who has ever had to cope with the fantasy life of an adult will know that this is the most serious way in which a parent can maim her child).

On the other hand, if one allows the child to set the tempo of his learning, as Neill does (attendance at class is not compulsory) the results are impressive. They find their level, pursue their interests, and their knowledge of any particular subject becomes as complete as they desire. This has been my experience too. My daughter, for example, prefers dancing to spelling. Isn't this natural? Curiously she prefers arithmetic to reading. On the other hand, her comprehension when read to is unusual. I don't care that she can't rattle off the states of the union, which I could do when I was nine, but can no longer — so much learning is simply time-consuming and a waste — for she can give you a pretty good synopsis of Goncharov's masterpiece Oblomov, which is being read aloud at home in the evenings.

But even if one grants that learning is unimportant, parents persist, school fits the child for the real world. Precisely. We don't want to turn our children into "adjusted" people. We don't want to see them accepting social discipline — not this society's discipline, with its grubby conformism and its military state. We want something better. We are interested in the happiness that comes from self-discipline. This can never be imposed. It implies an individual capable of "the minority gesture of dissent". We must give our children an opportunity to find the means of remaining human in an anti-human world.

But, parents insist, they learn to get on with others in school. Nonsense. What they learn in school, as Lewis Mumford made plain decades ago, is punctuality and obedience. Unreasoning obedience. under threat of reprisals. They learn the rules of war, particularly the child-adult war. As for getting along, it is the happy child who will get along rather than the discontented, stupefied one. (Although my daughter has never been corralled with her peers, mothers are known to ask for her as a playmate for their children when they can't get along after hours with their schoolfellows). Built into the concept of learning to adjust is the further notion, a Calvinistic notion, of endurance.

Now for the other aspect of freedom. Can one give them too much? And is this the way in which one spoils a child? Let us take the first question first; they are not necessarily connected: I do not believe in absolute freedom for a child any more than I do for myself or for any adult I live with. Total freedom is simply not a tenable state this side of Utopia. People, generally, have to dress themselves, cook their food, wash up, cut firewood, acquire a little money somehow … They are not free to abstain from eating or to stay up indefinitely. Their bodies curtail the liberties of their psyches from the instant of birth.

Class society makes for some exceptions. Oblomov never had to dress himself in his entire life. He had a servant for all the ordinary acts most of us have to perform for ourselves. (I noticed that my daughter as any child might, found this situation amusing and faintly pathetic, not enviable). And, in fact, the resulting excess of indolence, of mental and physical sloth — of freedom, as a few people might insist — killed him.

We permit the child, in exchange for the joy and companionship his presence brings us, considerable liberty from chores for a number of years. If we require of him only what he offers, we may be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, we may not. We may be surprised only into a need for further patience. It is more than likely that if the child, modelling himself on others, exists in a loving and co-operative environment, he will presently wish to contribute something to it.

Sometimes it is necessary to limit a child's freedom when it conflicts with the freedom of others; sometimes not. It depends on the ability of other adults or children to indulge a situation that is antithetical to one's wishes. There is probably not an American parent with a teen-age child who has not been surfeited with popular culture. I was in a condition of folk song shock before my step-daughter outgrew the worst symptoms of the addiction. However, when I work, I require absolute silence and I get it … generally. When I want to listen to Mozart I do, and the children listen or not as their inclinations dictate.

There is a tendency for children to be overbearing only because their energy exceeds ours and because their capacity for disappointment is still, happily, in a primitive condition. It is permissible to cramp their boisterousness, but not too often. What matters, as Neill puts it, is the total relationship with the child. If that is good, if the child is convinced of your love and attention, you can do almost any- thing without injuring him.

Do you allow him to injure you? Of course. Within limits. It is ridiculous, is it not, to pretend that one does not pay something for what one gets? Providing a happy childhood is no more costly in dedicated attention for a parent than inflicting an unhappy one. And, like Americans say, it pays off.

Do you injure your child by a little extra attention, indulgence, understanding? How can you? Don't adults benefit when they are the recipients of compassion and love? Given the human condition, is it not imperative that our major concern be to wrest as much happiness as we can for a child?

I am often entertained by the question: don't you think adults evade their responsibility by giving a child freedom to make decisions? That question is invariably asked by parents who are willing to absent themselves from a major part of responsibility by shipping the child off to school in the winter, to camp in the summer.

Nevertheless, I answer sometimes: "Do anything you please. I'm busy." You can only say that if your child is likely to be safely and contentedly engaged. (If he is an arsonist, be careful). Have adults no rights to occasional irresponsibilities when generally they undertake a consistently interested attitude to their children?

But I have avoided the full implications of the question. Yes, when one insists that the child make decisions it should be apparent he is unable or unwilling to cope with, that is carrying freedom into another domain altogether, into its opposite: coercion. We are then forcing the child into an unreal maturity, one that perhaps we are not in possession of ourselves. Child-rearing is a matter of proportion, of balance, of playing it by ear. Libertarian parents who avail themselves of total abstention from responsibility — and I have met a few — generally lack foresight; they are unrelated to a concept of time. They are unaware that they have evolved, as indeed many have not, to the position where certain causal phenomena are abundantly plain to them, where they would not be to a child: You may not stay up late because you will be overtired and cross tomorrow; a parent may so remind a very young child of the existence of future time. Not to do so may indicate indifference … or what is worse, a fear that the child will not tolerate any suggestion; this is not infrequently disguised by an adult as a belief in a child's rights to self-determination. One cannot expect to be rigid about it. No one enjoys absolute liberty, nor should they. Aristotle applies here, as elsewhere. What may appear as the granting of freedom might be a defence of benevolent despotism, a defence of adult insecurity.

Partly, children are appendages. They live with us, where we do, on our bounty. These are arbitrary restrictions. They cannot dictate these terms. They must accept them even if they have, as children often do, quite other preferences. A twelve-year-old boy I know is in quite a fury because his parents have settled in the country. He prefers, he says bitterly, "the concrete pavements of New York".

It is when one interferes with a child's liberty for his own good rather than to protect the rights of others, that we must beware. More likely than not, the child knows what is good for him better than we do. We may voice an opinion; we seldom — not never — dare lay down a law.

But in accommodating oneself to the needs and wishes of a child, whenever possible, does one run the risk of over-indulgence, of "spoiling"? "It was the crosses that spoilt me," says Lear. I know from the bitterest personal experience, as child and adult, where the basic material and spiritual needs went unheeded, uncared for, that struggles against an unfeeling and impersonal adversary — and a child never truly understands why he is crossed — fit one only for unhappiness and not for adjustment to future happiness. One tends to create the neurotic situations in which one can remain unhappy if that is what one is accustomed to, and, what is ever worse, one continues struggling even should the causes for unhappiness be alleviated, or removed altogether. A happy child has a chance of becoming a happy adult. One who is theoretically being reconciled to the wretchedness of the world has no chance whatever.

A few speculations! Do we want happy children? (We know we don't want unhappy adults because they make a mess of the world. But what do happy adults make?) I ask this not at all frivolously but because no one seems to understand the origins of the artist and because I think art, produced by unhappy people or not, is the single greatest activity of man. There have been anarchists who claim that in a utopian society the free flowering of the personality will make artists of everyone. I think this is some kind of democratic myth. These years, as we endure a superfluity of "artists", I am inclined to think this a fallacious, easy kind of optimism.

The artist is a unique individual. He has always been so — popular misconceptions about folk art notwithstanding — and it is unlikely that fulfilment in childhood is the qualification for his existence. On the contrary, it almost seems as though the artist needs adversity, a dissociation from his time, a sense that it is out of joint. Auden once remarked that the sole obligation a parent has is to make certain his child grows up to be as neurotic as possible. This may be a romantic notion about how artists are produced but it has not been discredited. With it comes the tangential question: Are happy people complaisant or rebellious? If the former is the case, is there enough in the way of natural obstacles to challenge an individual's talents to the point of artistic productivity?

Neill, like others, has no ready answer to this. Considering his remarkable achievements, it would be only an ingrate who asks the question; and, further, would expect an answer from his method. His happy children do seem to make a mark for themselves as adults, at least in the performing arts. Nevertheless, the question of the artist goes, as always, unanswered.

I have one complaint. However, it is not a major one. It pertains to Neill's rationalism and, relatedly, to his attitude towards sex. Most behaviour occurs in realms far murkier than the methodology of Freud allows. Neill tends to explain away problems among children and adults by a more dedicated adherence to Freudian doctrine than is altogether warranted. This is not an uncommon failing among radicals. Anarchists and liberals have been known to attribute the most bizarre dilemmas to a perversion of sexual energy. I do not wish to imply an underestimation of sex. It is very nice — or very nasty. But sexual freedom is not the universal panacea. Love is another matter.

What Neill has to say about sex and love is extremely sound: "If the term free love has a sinister meaning, it is because it describes sex that is neurotic. Promiscuous sex — the direct result of repression — is always unhappy and shameful. Among a free people, free love would not exist … promiscuity … leads to variety, but seldom to fulfilment and almost never to happiness."

Faulty channelling of children's sexuality does not explain all their problems, nor is mankind disturbed exclusively owing to sexual repression. Our species is more complicated. It has the most subtle and invidious sources for irrational behaviour. For example, I know two girls attached to a father, the older intensely, the younger more naively worshipful. This is not because he is part of their oedipal development — the most obvious interpretation — but for a complex of factors revolving around the character of the father: inflexible, quixotic, unyielding in his image of himself. That is something for a child to cling to, to admire, to be fascinated by. Although this narcissist father precludes a reciprocal relationship — with anyone, when this image is abetted by other significant people in the child's radius — mother, aunts, grandmothers — it is unlikely that any separation can ever occur happily between child and father. At a certain age it will become apparent that the love and longing has been lavished onesidedly and that only as long as the child conforms — adapts herself to the perpetuation of the myth of her father, the pseudo-relationship will come to grief. It is all irrational enough — power, self-aggrandisement, vanity — but are the certain sources of these and all man's other psychological ailments invariably sexual repression?

I believe many radical parents fall into similar situations. (A power drive is a dangerous mechanism whether it is power for committing good or evil; individuals fall before it). One has only to con- sider the colossal egotism of the saint, and to a lesser extent, of the more ordinary radical, to observe that there is a greater defection from parental ideology among their children than is the case among the children of squares. Scratch the child of almost any self-satisfied radical and you'll find a square. It is very hard to love a hero as much as he is accustomed to love himself. When a child rejects such a parent it is unfortunate that she discards his ideology too.

This, ultimately, becomes the real problem. How to keep our children happy — in a tradition we have arbitrarily selected as the only possible one? How much of ourselves, assuming ourselves to be worthy of any emulation whatsoever, how much that we have made of ourselves by the conscious repudiation of what is injurious in ourselves to our fellow humans, can we transmit to our children? And are we willing to pay the price for doing it?


The above was written upon the earlier United States publication of Summerhill, for an American radical magazine which would not, although the author is a contributor thereto, have it. It requires a postscript; resident now in London, circumstances made it necessary to send our daughter to school.

I decided against Summerhill for two reasons. The first is personal: my daughter has an ungovernable passion for ballet and attends the Junior Associates classes of the Royal Ballet twice a week. Consequently she must live in London.

The second reason is general and ideological. Despite the singular accomplishments of Neill's school, I fail to be persuaded in favour of any boarding school. 1 know it is archaic to believe in the family, but I do. Except in extreme situations, a child is best off with his parents. (Sometimes, but rarely, a proxy parent will do; I have known what it is like to love another child as deeply as my own. But I cannot imagine maintaining such intense and individual feelings towards a group of children). There is something about the arrangement of family life, however haphazard or confining, that is more natural — if not invariably more beneficial — for individuals in our society, than is a large assortment of unrelated individuals. I am convinced that a relationship with one devoted parent — although I have sadly learned that such a relationship with two is more than twice preferable — is still to be desired over against the best boarding school. I do believe that
Summerhill must surely be one of the very best.

For these reasons, my daughter began, in a local London County Council school, the day after her tenth birthday. (I consider twelve a far kinder age to subject a child to this experience). Nevertheless, she was uncomplaining and even moderately pleased, but her pleasure decreases as the novelty wears off and ennui sets in. She goes with the understanding that she is free to stay at home whenever she has anything more interesting to do than attend school. Her aptitude for a more formal academic training now, poor as such training is likely to be, is more considerable than it would have been in her earlier years. The thing she mainly suffers from, as we all did in varying degrees, is boredom. This is hardly a possible condition for any of Summerhill's students.