A. S. Neill
A. S. Neill
is the founder of Summerhill school in England.
Summerhill is based on the principle of freedom for the
There is a
lot of material about Neill and Summerhill on the net.
Below is one article which credits Neill's work and
AN OLD IDEA OF A.S. NEILLS BACK TO LIFE:
REWARDING BAD BEHAVIOR TO CURE IT
By: Renee Sandler, M.A., L.M.F.T.
Some of you
who know about Summerhill might remember that A.S. Neill,
Summerhills founder, used to reward kids who stole.
He believed that those children were really,
unconsciously, trying to get love through this behavior.
By satisfying the unconscious need, by rewarding it and
thus showing his approval/love, he observed that children
soon lost interest in this behavior.
As an educator and psychotherapist, I have never used
rewards and punishments because I believe that they are
tools that adults use to control and manipulate children,
they do not consider what the child is needing underneath
the behavior, they do not support the development of
problem-solving skills, and because they destroy
Nevertheless, this idea of Neills stuck with me
because it turns the whole notion of rewards and
punishments on its head. By approving of something
that most people would punish, he was interested in
something of way more importance than simply getting
compliance and obedience. He was interested in children
feeling good about themselves. He knew that when children
were happy, they behaved well.
Currently, I am working as a therapist in some inner-city
schools in Los Angeles. Having come from a background of
working in a nice, mostly white, middle-class, free,
alternative school, and a mostly white, middle-class
therapy private practice, this was quite a culture shock!
I had never been in a school that felt like a prison,
with police and security guards everywhere, where
children get barked orders at, are talked down to
constantly, and where adult verbal and emotional abuse of
power is the norm. I get the sense that most, if not all,
of the students that I see, have never been listened to
with respect and empathy, ever. Which is sad, yet it also
makes the work so meaningful.
This was the context within which I started working with
a 12-year old African-American boy. Marcus (not his real
name) was diagnosed with ADHD and also, according to his
teachers and father, is a compulsive liar. He lived with
his mother until 3 years ago, when he was removed from
the home, due to neglect. When his older brother got
killed accidentally in a gang shooting when Marcus was
five, his mother was too grief-stricken to adequately
care for him. She was subsequently diagnosed with
schizophrenia and placed in a psychiatric institution.
Marcus lives mostly with his aunt now, but sees his
father regularly. While living with his mother, Marcus
told me that she lied all the time about
everything. That, to him, was normal.
I had never worked with a compulsive liar (as far as I
know), and was feeling a little unsure as to how to
proceed. I had worked with children and adolescents who
sometimes lied because they were too afraid to be honest
because of the consequences. But never a compulsive liar,
who seemed to lie as a reflex, even when there would no
negative consequence to telling the truth. (One teacher
told me that he told Marcus to take his hood off his head
and Marcus insisted that it was off, when it clearly
wasnt.) I did not want to make him feel bad, not
trusted, or guilty, since he was already receiving enough
of that, and clearly did not need more of it. Still, I
wanted to bring his awareness to this behavior because it
was clearly impacting his relationships with the adults
in his life, and leaving him feeling angry and isolated.
Im not sure why this idea of rewarding Marcus for
his lying came to me, but for some reason, I felt he
would be responsive to it. I had been working with him
twice a week, for approximately a month, when I decided
to approach him with my idea. I was curious as to how he
would react. I told to him that I would like to check in
with him periodically during our sessions to see if he
had told me any lies, and that every time he admitted to
one, I would give him some chocolate or gum. A look of
disbelief came over him, but his eyes grew big. He
clearly seemed intrigued by the idea and agreed to try
it. I suggested using a gesture, perhaps my putting my
hand out (as if for chocolate), instead of asking he had
lied about anything (because of the negative connotation
of the word), and he would put his hand out if he had
become aware of a lie he had told. He liked this idea. I
then proceeded to give it a try. I put my hand out and
said, Anything so far? To which he replied,
I cant tell you because we only just started
this. Its from now on, not from 10 minutes
ago. He smiled and I smiled. I said,
Youre absolutely right. My mistake. Its
from now on.
From that moment on, I sensed that he has become more
present in our sessions. He has taken this plan very
seriously. When I put my hand out, he gets quiet and
reflective for a moment, and thinks back to the last 5,
10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes, he says, No,
nothing. Other times he will say something like,
Oh yeah, I didnt tell you the whole truth
when my aunt said I stole her necklace. I didnt
steal it, but I saw it under her lamp, but I didnt
tell her. Somehow, my giving him chocolate allows
him to feel safe enough with me to share his deeper
feelings of anger toward his aunt, and longing for his
mother, that he could not do before we started this plan.
It is as if he seems to feel that not only am I accepting
of his lies, but on a deeper level, I am accepting of him
as a person. He is eager to show me the good grades he
has gotten, tell me about the music he likes, and have me
watch him play his favorite video game. Sometimes he
visits me at lunch to see if I have any extra chocolate.
He is slowly letting me in to his world and allowing me
to get close to him, in a way that hopefully, will allow
him as he gets older, to start doing with other people
I never would have guessed that this one intervention,
could be so powerful. In todays world, where
children are mostly medicated and/or punished for
behavioral difficulties, it is wonderfully refreshing to
have other, significantly more humane methods of reaching
children. Thanks Neill, for being the innovator that you
were and showing us how love, acceptance and approval
really can and do work.