“When Mr. Neill was correcting the proofs of The Problem Child, he realized suddenly that he had written the wrong book. ‘There isn’t a problem child,’ he said, ‘there is only a problem parent.’ That was some years ago, and then he had no time to tell the problem parent what he thought of him . . . and her. Now the book of the parent has been written. Mr. Neill has been called the only genius in modern education. The Problem Parent is a wise book, full of new ideas of value because they are the results of long experience in child and adult psychology. It is a book that will shock the die-hards into thinking and the go-aheads into action.”
Lucid insights into what causes ‘problem children’ – problem parents! — by that troublesome Scottish anarchist dominie and Summerhill School founder, Alexander Sutherland Neill.
“THERE is never a problem child; there is only a problem parent. That may not be the whole truth, but it is nearly the whole truth. The child usually becomes a problem because its parents do not understand the nature of the child. In other cases the child becomes a problem because the parents do not understand the nature of themselves.
“In my previous books I have often mentioned the man who taught me the best way to understanding the nature of a child . . . Homer Lane. At least twice I have quoted his parable of the mother and child. I repeat it now because in it lies the kernel of child psychology.
“A very small infant discovers something that moves before his eyes—his hand. Then he grasps the fact that he has a certain control over this new discovery. He can move it. His next wish is to find out what this object is like. Up till now he has had only one way of testing the goodness of a thing, by his mouth, so he proceeds to direct his hand to his mouth. It is not easy; he tries again and again, and finally gets tired, but he keeps on. His mother has been watching him, and seeing that his efforts are making him fretful, she helps him out. She puts the hand in his mouth. At once baby kicks and screams, for mother has destroyed his first spiritual activity. His original aim was to get his hand to his mouth, but that aim soon disappeared to be superseded by a much greater interest . . . the getting it there. His mother unwittingly robbed him of his creative success. She unwittingly placed the material before the spiritual.”
“This incident of the hand does not happen with every infant, but the interference with the creative activity happens with every child. The mother in the parable thought that because the baby was trying to put his hand in his mouth he was hungry, and she gave him food. And every day we may see mothers who are giving their fretful children the bottle or the soul-destroying dummy when they are really fretting for creative activities that have been denied them. This often happens because a child’s creative activities are displeasing to adults, for a child usually finds that noise is a necessity in any activity. In any toyshop the majority of toys are primarily silent ones . . . the rubber ball, the rubber doll . . . it will be the rubber drum next. Again most toys appeal to the possessive as opposed to the creative instinct. That is why every healthy child wants to take his or her toys to pieces to see what is inside. One small boy brought a beautiful model yacht to school. In less than a week he had dismantled it roughly and about five guineas worth of parts kicked about the garden. Adults value highly things as things. I do myself. Part of me was angry at the waste of a good electric yacht, but another part sang hurrahs. As an enthusiastic hand worker I grieve to see a child ruin a good plane or a new chisel. Every father likes to keep his books or his tools intact; every mother hates to see mud on her carpets. We must honestly face the fact that the interests of adult and child are often opposed. In any household there must be occasions when an adult roars: “Don’t touch that!” My school is a fine house with pinewood panelling and valuable oak doors, but to a boy of ten these decorations mean nothing aesthetically. His delight is to walk down the passage with a stick making a rat-tat-tat on the panels. I have had to give up worrying about the panels: there should not be panels in a school anyway. When I am rich I shall get the village blacksmith to build a school for the younger children.
“Adults have a lasting value for material things, whereas children have a lasting value in doing. I find that with my car I polish and clean it for the first few months after purchase, but my pupils care for their new cycles for a few weeks only. The average boy will leave his cycle out in the rain all night when he has had it for three weeks. So with tools. I care for my tools all the time, but boys bring boxes of good tools to the school and in a month I pick up their chisels in the garden. They bring a spanner from the workshop to tighten up their back wheel, but they drop the spanner on the ground because they have no further interest in it. Their interest is in the cycling. A child does not take thought for the morrow…”