The dark side of John Holt

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 11th December, 1998

A poster wrote:

We have based much of our approach to dealing with our sons on this quote, from John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling. I am gathering that this goes against everything Taking Children Seriously stands for… right? That a child should be allowed the freedom to be silly, self-indulgent, etc, if that’s his choice?

Er, well… let me tell you my criticisms of this quote.

First, here is the full quote:

“…In regard to Topher, though, I should add that though we were glad he was happy and enjoying himself [in school], we were also sad as we watched him deteriorate from a person into a kid under peer influence in school. It was much like we saw happening when he was in kindergarten. There are certain kinds of childishness which it seems most people accept as being natural, something children have to go through, something which is, indeed, a shame to deny them. Silliness, self-indulgence, random rebelliousness, secretiveness, cruelty to other children, addiction to toys, possessions, junk, spending money, purchased entertainment, exploitation of adults to pay attention, take them places, amuse them, do things with them – all these things seem to be quite unnecessary, not “normal” at all [note: except in the sense of being common], and just as disgusting in children as they are in adults. And while they develop as a result of peer influence, I believe this is only and specifically because children are thrown together in schools and develop those means…

… In all the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social-life of children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, full of talk about who went to who’s birthday party…

And I remember my sister saying of one of her children, then five, that she never knew her to do anything really mean or silly until she went to school…”

Now I’ll explain why it does indeed go against everything Taking Children Seriously stands for:

…In regard to Topher, though, I should add that though we were glad he was happy and enjoying himself [in school],

Though we were glad he was happy…”? Well were they or weren’t they? And are they going on to say that despite the child’s wishes, they find it necessary to override his preferences, just like any old conventional parent would?

What follows appears to confirm my fears. I cannot help thinking that this is a self-exculpatory pseudo-justification for coercion:

we were also sad as we watched him deteriorate from a person into a kid under peer influence in school. It was much like we saw happening when he was in kindergarten.

They were sad despite his happiness. His happiness at school must be discounted because, they allege, school changed him for the worse by their standards and they know best. In other words, first, they are viewing the child not as a person with his own mind, but as a mindless entity whose actions they attribute not to his own thinking, his own mind, his own personality – as he does – but to the environment of school, which they antecedently had decided will pour bad ideas into the allegedly mindless, uncritical bucket of his mind.

With this mistaken view of the human mind and of how people learn, they can “justify” just about any coercion they feel compelled to inflict upon their child. After all, they are doing it for the child’s own good, to protect the child from the consequences of having bad ideas poured into his “mind.” Because he is a mindless bucket vulnerable to any bad ideas school might pour in, no matter how much he protests and no matter how happy he is in school, removing him from school is “justified” because they know best, just as the vast majority of parents forcibly send their children to school because they know best.

This whole passage is setting up a justification for coercively removing the child from school.

There are certain kinds of childishness which it seems most people accept as being natural, something children have to go through, something which is, indeed, a shame to deny them.

This is yet another justification for the coercion they feel compelled to subject their child to! Note the use of the word “childishness.” What does this little derogatory word make the reader think of? It makes me think of annoying, tiresome, silly, meaningless, useless, “self-indulgent,” unimportant, inconsequential actions — actions which are worthy of our disapproval. People call it “childishness” when others are having fun and they don’t like that. The writer seems to me to be inviting the reader to agree that it is perfectly justified for the parent to put a stop to any such actions. Being so unimportant and, moreover, annoying, what could be the harm of stomping on them (in a “gentle,” loving manner, no doubt)?

Silliness,

What does “silliness” mean? Playing happily. So “silliness” is another demeaning word for something  good. Its use here is chilling when you remember the context – that the child is, according to their own admission,  happy. Perhaps the parents can’t bear the sound of happiness because they themselves are too screwed up psychologically to experience much of it themselves?

self-indulgence,

There is something deeply distasteful to me about this word. It implies that the right thing to do is to act against one’s own will instead of as one wishes. It is a nasty word for something good. People should act in accord with their own wishes.

random rebelliousness,

What exactly is the child rebelling against, if not the parents’ mistaken and immoral attempts to make him act against his own wishes? No Taking Children Seriously child would ever “rebel” because there is nothing to “rebel” against: Taking Children Seriously families seek mutually preferred solutions to problems or resolutions to conflicts. Why would anyone “rebel” against an outcome they wholeheartedly  prefer?!

Note also the use of these two words: “random” – once again the parent is appealing to the idea that the child is not a person with his own reasons for acting as he does, but a mindless entity blown hither and thither by whatever evil ideas he is exposed to; “rebelliousness” – disobedience justifying coercion “to help the child improve as a person” no doubt.

The purpose of this list of words is to justify their coercion of the child. Is that clear yet? Well, let’s continue…

secretiveness

Note the derogatory word for wanting privacy. Note that the use of this word implies that these parents invade others’ privacy.

This word implies that if we give children a little privacy, something bad  might happen, like, we might not know enough to control them as much as we “need” to “for their own good.”

Privacy is vital for the healthy psychological development of any child. If anyone doubts this, please, please post your reasons/questions/criticisms here so that I can explain this further.

Why choose all these derogatory words? That the parents are using these particular words, loaded as they are with coercive and, in my view false, premises, must mean that they accept the premises upon which these words rely. The only possible reason to use these words is to justify coercion. The parents are listing all these ghastly things to convince the reader to agree that the situation merits discounting the child’s own preferences and happiness at school.

cruelty to other children,

It is a shame that the parents don’t also think that their own cruelty to their child is bad too. Perhaps they don’t recognise it as cruelty because they consider riding roughshod over his wishes to be perfectly justified, as they have and are arguing. But is it not cruel to override someone’s wishes on an on-going basis about a major life choice? Most parents think not, of course, but I’ll bet that they would feel differently if it were they who were on the sharp end of such coercion.

Perhaps some convince themselves that overriding their children’s desire to go to school or not go to school is not coercion because they are only doing it because they love the children and want what is best for them. It is still coercion. No matter how lovingly, subtley, quietly, and calmly parents override their children’s wish to go to school or not go to school, it is still coercion, and it is still harmful, and it still hurts.

addiction to toys,

I am sorry to say that yet again, we find this parent using a derogatory term whose sole purpose is to justify the coercion the parents feel compelled to inflict on their child: “addiction.” Addiction is a very bad thing, is it not? The word implies that the person is mentally ill, or in the grip of evil forces, mindless, devoid of reason. When someone is devoid of reason, and we are responsible for that person, it follows that we are right to coerce her for her own good. Addicts are a danger to themselves and to those around them. Addiction justifies coercion for their own good and possibly for those around them.

I find it particularly disheartening that in these parents’ minds, apparently, “toys” is a dirty word. Could it be that these parents detest toys because children love them so much and enjoy playing with them? I am finding it difficult to think of a more positive explanation for this apparent contempt for toys, whose sole purpose is to give children pleasure and faciliatate their thinking.

possessions,

Groan… yet another justification for coercion, this time the nasty old idea that it is wrong to own private property, or that we should share everything equally. How repulsive. How immoral and sad to inflict that destructive idea on one’s children. See pp. 4-5 of Taking Children Seriously 23 on the relationship between the “sharing equally” theory and the coercion of children.

junk,

The child is “addicted” to “junk.” What do parents mean when they brand something their child values, “junk”? They mean possessions that they deem not worthwhile, and thus, possessions that it is fine for them to steal from the child – for his own good, of course. The “junk” the “addict” wants so badly must be taken away for his own good, must it not?

spending money,

…which no doubt the parents have more important, worthwhile uses for. So coercively withholding money that the child thinks they owe him is, they are arguing, justified. (And no doubt the child would only be acting mindlessly, or under the evil influence of his peers, so the coercion is, we are led to believe, doubly justified. And of course money is the root of all evil so parents are “right” to keep it from their children, and to use it as leverage to get their children to do their bidding.

I am drawn to conclude that these parents coercively deny their children toys, money, and other things they want. How is that consistent with Taking Children Seriously? How is that consistent with nurturing their children’s autonomy?

purchased entertainment,

Evil capitalist ideas?! Yes, let’s all eschew purchased entertainment and go back to the Stone Age when life was pure… (pure hell, I’d say) And while we’re at it, let’s treat our children in ways guaranteed to bring them up with the same narrow, twisted, austere view of life, which they will then inflict on their own children, and so on, down through the generations until the end of time. Is that what the writer would prefer? Is it right to foist such a mean-spirited preference on someone else?

exploitation of adults to pay attention,

Does that make you think of poor little mummies and daddies being exploited by their power-hungry, evil coercive little monster children? Are adults so vulnerable? Then maybe we adults need some laws to protect us from exploitation from these dangerous tyrants? How about criminalising child labour? Oh yeah, it already is criminalised. Well how about bringing in a law to make it impossible for a child to leave his family to live elsewhere unless his family allow it? That would show ’em! They might think twice about exploiting those poor little mummies and daddies if they knew that if they tried to leave they would be brought back kicking and screaming by agents of the state. Oh, that already is the law. Well then how about introducing legal discrimination such that parents can beat their children without fear of legal censure whereas in other cases such action would be criminal assault? That’ll show those nasty little exploiters! Oh yes, there already is such legal discrimination. And much more besides.

But the thing the parent is complaining about is… that children want attention from their parents! Is that outrageous? Does that make children exploiters of their parents?

Why do people like this have children, one wonders? I am tempted to think that it must be for the slave labour they can legally extract from them!

take them places, amuse them, do things with them – all these things seem to be quite unnecessary, not “normal” at all [note: except in the sense of being common],

Does anyone else find this an appalling thing to say? Is anyone else worried by the fact that John Holt used this quote as an argument for advocating home education? Is it really wrong for children to expect their parents to amuse them, take them places, and do things with them? Why ever did this person have children if he resents their wishing him to spend time with him?

and just as disgusting in children as they are in adults.

Maybe they need a few cold baths, followed by a good thrashing? That’d teach ’em to behave better!

No, it would not. It couldn’t teach these parents to behave better any more than it could help children learn anything.

I am finding this all rather distasteful. In fact I think that, shortly, I shall do something more pleasant than this unsavoury business of poking around in these “fetid” ideas.

And while they develop as a result of peer influence,

When there is a problem with a child (which there may well not have been in this case anyway, as I have argued), it is always someone else’s fault, never the parents’. Parents taking their children seriously take responsibility for problems they cause, they don’t blame peer influence, or anyone else.

I believe this is only and specifically because children are thrown together in schools and develop those means…

… and therefore it follows that Topher’s father is “justified” in causing his child unlimited distress by forcibly preventing him attending school as he wants to. Does that sound reasonable to you? It does not to me.

…In all the schools I have taught in,

He is speaking with authority on this subject, is he? So who are we Taking Children Seriously types to question his judgement?

visited, or know anything about, the social-life of children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, full of talk about who went to who’s birthday party…

Whereas in the home prison, the parent can control and mould the environment much more easily, whether the child likes it or not – for the child’s own good, naturally. And life at home isn’t mean-spirited, etc? Perhaps Topher’s father should re-read his own horribly mean words. It might give him a shock. But probably not. After all, the difference is,  his mean coercion is justified, important, necessary. Just like the coercion of parents forcing their children to go to school against their will. Is there any difference in the logic of the two arguments? I think not.

And I remember my sister saying of one of her children, then five, that she never knew her to do anything really mean or silly until she went to school…

This statement is so typical of parents seeking to exculpate themselves for the distress they inflict upon their children. If it is not school, it is television-watching, or video-game-playing, or any number of other things. Always, the unanswerable assertion is that the coercion is justified because until the undesired activity started, the child was as sweet as pie, but engaging in whatever it is caused the child to become a monster/“hyperactive”/“aggressive” etc. What can one say to that? “That is not true. First you wanted to see the bad effect to justify overriding the child’s wishes, then you behaved in such a way as to cause it.”? That sounds a little rude, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, that seems to me to be the truth of the matter.

In summary… I was slightly disheartened when I first discovered that John Holt liked this quote. Moreover, given that the ideas expressed in the above quote are absolutely incompatible with respect for children’s autonomy and the idea of autonomous learning, I do not feel confident that John Holt was advocating autonomous learning/non-coercive education. At least, he certainly was not advocating that when he used the above quote as an argument for home education.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1998, ‘The dark side of John Holt’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/the-dark-side-of-john-holt/