There’s nothing like sex to get people huffing and puffing… with indignation. Imagine this situation: you find a nine year old boy and girl undressed. She has her hand on his penis and he has his finger in her vagina. What is your response?
Do you recognise it as play? Do you recognise it as growing up? As something that children can do happily? Do you think “a little talking to” is appropriate? What on earth would you say?
Morals Are Good For Messing People Up
Maybe I’m an amoral monster, but I can see no problem with those children exploring each other’s bodies. My perception might change if one of them was significantly older, or one of them was in distress, but in general I think that play is a rather good way of finding out about sexual differences whilst morals are useless. Morals are only good for messing people up. So I would censor the voice of my inner moralist, and let them get on with it.
Summerhill School’s unique philosophy affects its attitude to sex. The freedom of the children at the school from adult dominance and authority extends to their sexual lives. This sounds radical but is nothing of the kind. What could you possibly achieve by any different approach? Do you really think a little Puritan repression is in order?
Having said this I would like to point out to any scandal-mongering journalist who happens by that these opinions are entirely my own. Sad that I have to say that.
My experience in other schools suggests to me that Summerhill children are neither more promiscuous nor more sexually advanced than other children elsewhere. They do, however, have the Meeting where issues of freedom and licence are addressed, where their voices are heard, and where their votes count. This seems to me a better protection than adult control. The school’s very openness means that what in another context might be a hushed up secret at Summerhill is dealt with in the open.
Moralists might say that childhood is a legally defined stage in a person’s life. Adults have to protect children’s innocence. In this view adults have the authority and the power to exert moral control over children’s sexual life. That would include shocked reactions to childhood romances, exploration of each other’s bodies and masturbation. Since Neill was opposed to any kind of moralism as “anti-life” he clearly would not go down this track. He thought that putting a moral taint on masturbation, for example, was harmful to children.
Sex Play, Gender Play
Children learn about gender roles throughout their infancy and childhood and play about with what it might mean to be a boy or a girl in games and fantasy before they have any interest in sex. In the period that Freud called latency, when children have no apparent sexual interest, they are already playing around with gender. The roles that they absorb from their culture and home life affect the kind of play they engage in. At Summerhill this play is free. By free I mean that it is not controlled or directed by adults.
This can make the school seem old-fashioned as boys and girls play different games rehearsing and experimenting with their gender identities: warrior games and tea parties, for example. Some people are shocked that the school does not guide children towards more “enlightened” views about gender roles. I remember one visitor who was outraged at the number of boys who went to the woodwork to make themselves pistols, swords and spears to carry out war games, for example. But Summerhill insists that adults do not have a role in children’s play. Children can discover things for themselves.
Play is a child’s way of thinking things through. Channeled play, Disneyfied play, is a pale imitation of the serious business of children’s play when they are left alone. All the roles and models they receive from their parents, their culture, the media, the significant people in their lives and the fantasy figures in films, books and comics make their way into play. It seems perfectly normal and appropriate for children to play about with gender roles and sexual difference in their play… to me.
Not Schools, Hormones
Hormones play the dominant role in sexual awakening, not cultures, schools or school principals. This means that there is a point at which curiosity about the other sex turns into sexual desire. Not all children are the same. Some children are more precocious than others. Girls seem to have a different arc of development to boys. Different personalities express their sexuality in different ways: some are exhuberant; some are shy; neither one is better than the other. The basic animal facts of growing up as a human do not seem to be affected by school cultures, thankfully. The question for me is: what should the role of parents and teachers be in children’s growing up? What kind of protections should parents and schools provide to ensure that children are not abused, deceived or mistreated?
Since I am not a moralist it seems to me that these questions are only incidentally about sex. The real problem is the abuse of power, stepping over a line, pushing too hard to get what you want, lack of respect and objectification of the other. And all of these problems are much better addressed in a school where there is a democratic meeting at which everyone has an equal voice than in a school where the structures of authority seem to reinforce messages of power and control. Learning about freedom and licence should ensure a healthy, balanced growth to sexual maturity.
Summerhill suffers from problems that afflict the rest of the world. What do you do about the availability of pornography, for example? Once you have seen it you can’t unsee it, can you? Handheld devices, mobile phones and iPads mean that there is very little to stop young children seeing things that even an adult would blanche at. I don’t have the answer to that problem.
The school has also had its fair share of inadequate teachers and houseparents. I don’t have the answer to that problem either, other than to make sure they are not given pastoral care of children.
I mention these two points to close because I do not want to give the impression that Summerhill is some kind of Shangrila. If you have opinions about the subject, why not leave a comment on Facebook?