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.

How 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.

But when I see an 8-year-old issuing commands to his parents, bullying other kids, or making rude remarks, I don’t see equality or friendship. I see a kid at the top of the dominance hierarchy.

This is 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?

Neill 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.

In 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.

Neill’s 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.

Is 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.

In 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 self-discipline.

As Neill Readhead writes(Neill Readhead 2006):

“Now 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.

More information

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 and 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." 

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

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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