The case of Summerhill School
Are today’s permissive parents are too extreme to fit the original model of permissive parenting?
© 2010 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Some people believe that kids shouldn’t be required to restrain their impulses.
Adults shouldn’t tell them what to do or how to behave.
Children should be free to express themselves and explore the world on their own terms.
far does this freedom go? Some parents sheepishly stand by while their
kids ignore responsibilities, hurl insults, damage property, spoil
public places, or disrupt public gatherings.
These parents say they want to treat their kids like equals. They say they want to relate to their children as friends.
when I see an 8-year-old issuing commands to his parents, bullying
other kids, or making rude remarks, I don’t see
I see a kid at the top of the dominance hierarchy.
my big beef against permissive parents. I don’t care if kids want to
dye their hair blue. I do care if kids are permitted to hurt other
people’s feelings and violate their rights.
So I was
surprised when I learned that the original model of permissive
parenting--the one proposed by Diane Baumrind in the 1960s--wasn’t
really about “anything goes."
The parents described by her
model weren’t necessarily extremists who allow their kids to violate the
rights and feelings of other people.
Instead, they were advocates of a more moderate position—that kids should be allowed to make their own choices as long as they don’t hurt other people.
If you think I’m making this up, check out the example Baumrind used to illustrate the permissive mindset (Baumrind 1966).
The original model for permissive parenting
To illustrate her definition of permissive parenting, Diane Baumrind used several quotes from Alexander Sutherland Neill,
a 20th century Scottish educator who sought to reform the harsh,
authoritarian educational system of his own Victorian own childhood.
What did Neill recommend?
argued that kids should be happy and free. Children shouldn’t be
compelled to attend lessons or follow rules imposed by authority
figures. Neill wrote:
“I believe that to impose anything by
authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to
the opinion—his own opinion—that it should be done" (Neill 1995).
Neill put these ideas into practice at Summerhill, a British boarding school that exists to this day.
his 1964 book about the project, Neill explains how students are
allowed to play rough-and-tumble games on the furniture (which must be
frequently replaced). He also notes that some kids at the dinner table
might twist the prongs of their forks into knots.
views are obviously very permissive. And personally, I don’t jibe with
the broken-down furniture or the forks. But was he recommending
"anything goes?" No.
Summerhill School had--and still
has--lots of rules. But the rules aren’t imposed from on high. They are
decided upon democratically--by the entire school body--with teachers
and kids getting equal voting rights.
And Neill’s basic premise was “freedom, not license." Kids get considerable freedom to do what they like as long as they don’t harm others.
So that was Baumrind’s original model for permissive parenting.
this the same parenting style that has been discredited by so many
studies? I’m not sure. I wonder if the link between permissive parenting
and poor outcomes is really about extreme permissiveness--the kind that
lets kids get away with anti-social behavior.
But how common is "extreme" permissiveness, really?
I don't know. But consider this postscript.
Zoë Neill Readhead, who is Neill’s daughter and the current head of Summerhill, complains that parents have become too permissive for her own school.
the 1940s and ‘50s, Summerhill seemed like a progressive, revolutionary
place. But today's kids are being spoiled by their parents—so much so
that Summerhill faculty feel compelled to teach students the basics of
As Neill Readhead writes(Neill Readhead 2006):
the Summerhill community finds itself in the role of disciplinarian,
teaching kids that they can’t do what they like and that they have to
have regard for other people’s rights and feelings—a bit of a role
reversal that Neill would have found interesting."
Interesting, and perhaps alarming.
A. S. Neill's Summerhill School website
provides an overview of the school's history, philosophy, and mission.
For more information about permissive parenting, see these articles on the
definition of permissive parenting
what research reveals about the effects of permissive parenting.
In addition, for an overview of the four basic parenting styles, see
"Parenting styles: A guide for the science-minded."
References: Permissive parenting and Summerhill School
Baumrind D. 1966. Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887-907.
Neill, AS. 1995. Summerhill School - A New View of Childhood. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
Neill Readhead Z. 2006. Summerhill today. In Vaughan M (ed): Summerhill and A.S. Neill. Open University Press.
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