Free the Children; They Need Room to Grow


"For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
—John F. Kennedy

Free the Children; They Need Room to Grow

By John Holt. This article was written soon after Escape From Childhood was published. It originally appeared in Psychology Today, October, 1974.

I have come to feel that the fact of being a “child,” of being wholly subservient and dependent, of being seen by older people as a mixture of expensive nuisance, slave and superpet, sooner or later does most young people more harm than good.

I propose instead that the rights, privileges, duties, responsibilities of adult citizens be made available to any young person, of whatever age, who wants to make use of them. These would include, among others:

1. The right to equal treatment at the hands of the law—i.e., the right; in any situation, to be treated no worse than an adult would be.
2. The right to vote, and take full part in political affairs.
3. The right to be legally responsible for one’s life and acts.
4. The right to work, for money.
5. The right to privacy.
6. The right to financial independence and responsibility—i.e., the right to own, buy, and sell property, to borrow money, establish credit, sign contracts, etc.
7. The right to direct and manage one’s own education.
8. The right to travel, to live away from home, to choose or make one’s own home.
9. The right to receive from the state whatever minimum income it may guarantee to adult citizens.
10. The right to make and enter into, on a basis of mutual consent, quasi-familial relationships outside one’s immediate family—i.e., the right to seek and choose guardians other than one’s own parents and to be legally dependent on them.
11. The right to do, in general, what any adult may legally do.


Some of these rights, much more than others, are linked to and depend on other kinds of change, in law, custom, or attitudes. Thus, we are likely to give young people of a given age—say, fourteen—the right to drive a car some time before we give them the right to vote, and we are likely to allow them to vote for sometime before we give them the right to marry or to manage their own sex lives. And we are not likely to give young people the right to work at all in a society which, like the U.S. in 1973, tolerates massive unemployment and poverty. A country would have to make a political decision, like Sweden or Denmark, to do away with severe poverty and to maintain a high level of employment before adults would even consider allowing young people to compete for jobs. By the same token, no society is likely to give to young people the right to equal treatment before the law if it denies this right to adult women or to members of racial or other minority groups.

It seems clear that if these changes take place they will do so in a number of steps, taken perhaps over many years. They are also not likely to take place except insofar as other kinds of social change have taken or are taking place. How great would such changes have to be? Some say very great. What I propose could well take place in any reasonably intelligent, honest, kindly, and humane country in which on the whole people do not need and crave power over others, do not worry much about being Number One, do not live under this constant threat of severe poverty, uselessness, and failure, do not exploit and prey upon each other. But it might take place even in countries that do not meet this description. The point is not to worry about what is possible but to do what we can.


Most people who believe in the institution of childhood as we know it see it as a kind of walled garden in which children, being small and weak, are protected from the harshness of the world outside until they become strong and clever enough to cope with it. Some children experience childhood in just that way. I do not want to destroy their garden or kick them out of it. If they like it, by all means let them stay in it. But I believe that most young people, and at earlier and earlier ages, begin to experience childhood not as a garden but as a prison. What I want to do is put a gate, or gates, into the wall of the garden, so that those who find it no longer protective or helpful, but instead confining and humiliating, can move out of it and for a while try living in a larger space.

For many children, childhood, happy and ideal though it may be, simply goes on too long. Among families that I know well, many children who for years have been living happily with their parents have suddenly found them intolerable and have become intolerable to them. The happier was their previous life together, the more painful will this be for the parents, and perhaps for the young person as well. The end of childhood goes on too long, and there is too seldom any sensible and gradual way to move out of it and into a different life, a different relationship with the parents. When the child can find no way to untie the bonds to his parents, the only thing left for him is to break them. The stronger the bonds, the harder and more desperate must be the pull required to break them. This can cause terrible, almost unforgettable bad feelings, injury, and pain.


I do not claim that modern childhood is bad simply because it is new, or that it is in every way a radical departure from previous ways of dealing with children. Children for as far back as we know have always been owned and controlled by adults. What is both new and bad about modern childhood is that children are so cut off from the adult world. Children have always been bossed around by their parents. What is new is being bossed around only by their parents, having almost no contact with adults except their parents.

The older way of dealing with children, of considering them as part of the adult world, was not something carefully planned and thought out. It grew out of the natural conditions of life. For one thing, in any society where there is always more to do than people to do it, children will naturally be expected to help as soon and as much as they can; and when they are still too small to help, there will not be any special people around who have nothing to do but look after them. We constantly ask ourselves, in anxiety and pain, “What is best for the children, what is right for the children, what should we do for the children?” The question is an effect as well as a cause of modern childhood. Until the institution was invented, it would hardly have occurred to anyone to ask the question or, if they had, to suppose that what was good for children was any different from what was good for everyone else.

It is because society has become so complicated, because adults act in such a variety of ways, because people seem to be playing so many different roles, because there are so many different ways of living and working that young people need to have access to more rather than fewer older people as they grow up. In a simple and stable society, any one person is more likely to be typical of most people than in a larger and more complicated one. In a simple society it might be true that to understand what one’s father does at home and work is to understand a lot about what all fathers do. But this is not true in a society as complicated and varied as ours.


The world, and life in the world, have meaning when most people understand the ways in which most human needs are met; it loses meaning when they are no longer able to. In Mexico, even in fairly prosperous and modern towns, most new buildings are built in the same way, a post-and-beam construction of reinforced concrete with the walls filled in with brick and/or windows. Anyone watching people build such a building can fairly soon understand all the parts of the process and can very quickly learn to take part in it and help do it. Any young person who grows up there knows how houses and buildings are built and knows it would be easy to build or learn to build one oneself.

Not so, however, with the great sky­ scrapers of modern (including Mexican) cities. There, even of the people working, only a few know what is going on. The spectators on the sidewalk are watching a mystery. They feel, and perhaps rightly, that it would take most of a lifetime to understand the process before them. And the same is true, for most people, of everything they see and use in their lives.

Some fear that giving or offering children the right to greater independence will threaten or weaken or destroy “the institution of the family.” But the family of which most people speak now—Mom, Pop, and the Kids—is a modern invention. The family even as most people knew it in this country a hundred years ago has been almost entirely destroyed, mostly by the automobile and the restless and rootless society it has helped to create. That family was in turn very different from the European family of three hundred years before, when the whole notion of the home and the family as private had not yet been invented. In any case there is much evidence that the modern nuclear family is not only the source of many people’s most severe problems but also is breaking down in many ways or changing into new forms.


At its very best, the family can be what many people say it is, an island of acceptance and love in the midst of a harsh world. But too often within the family people take out on each other all the pain and frustrations of their lives that they don’t dare take out on anyone else. Instead of a ready-made source of friends, it is too often a ready-made source of victims and enemies, the place where not the kindest but the cruelest words are spoken.

This may disappoint us, but it should not surprise or horrify us. The family was not invented, nor has it evolved, to make children happy or to provide a secure emotional and psychological background to grow up in. Mankind evolved the family to meet a very basic need in small and precarious societies—to make sure that as many children as possible were born and, once born, physically taken care of until they could take care of themselves.

If the family became other things besides, as it often did, it was because people who live close together for a long time have to find some way to make this somewhat palatable and workable and because man is a social and affectionate creature who, with any luck, will become fond of many of the people he is closest to. But the family was not invented to give people someone to love. To the extent that came, it was extra. Basically the family was and is a tiny kingdom, an absolute monarchy. It is the family in this sense that is most heatedly defended. Most of those people who talk angrily about saving the family or bringing back the virtues of the family do not see it as an instrument of growth and freedom but of dominance and slavery, a miniature dictatorship, sometimes justified by “love,” in which the child learns to live under and submit to absolute and unquestionable power. It is a training for slavery.

Others, more kindly, insist that only in the family can children grow up healthy. Elizabeth Janeway, in her book Man’s World, Woman’s Place, puts it thus:

. . . Children do indeed need to be brought up, and brought up in intimate surroundings. They need love, stability, consistent and unequivocal care and lasting relationships with people who are profoundly enough interested in them to look after them with warmth, gaiety, and patience.

This notion that a child cannot grow up healthy unless he is at every moment under the eye of some adult who has nothing to do but watch over him is very modern.


Another modern idea is that children get from the family their models of grown-up life, their ideas of what it is to be a man or a woman. But what need had children of such “models” when the life of the adults went on all around them, in full view, when they lived their own lives in the middle of that adult life, when they joined the adults often in work, play, ceremony, festival, death, mourning? And what kind of model of adult life does the modern child get, who sees his father come home in the evening, sit down, perhaps read the paper, and spend the rest of the evening and much of the weekend watching television, or who sees the mother· doing household chores? Less this, then, all that men and women do? Not only is the modern nuclear family a very bad model of adult and social life, because it is so incomplete and distorted, but it is its isolation from the world that creates the need for models.

Children need many more adult friends, people with whom they may have more easy relationships that they can easily move out of or away from whenever they need to or feel like it. Perhaps they found many of these in extended families, among various grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and so on. Perhaps they found them living in smaller communities, villages, or towns, or neighborhoods in larger cities. But these communities, in which people have a sense of place and mutual concern, are more rare all the time, disappearing from country as well as city. The extended family has been scattered by the automobile and the airplane. There is no way to bring it together so that children may live close to numbers of older people who will in some degree have an interest in them and care about them.

What we need is to recreate the extended family. Or rather, we need to allow, encourage, and help young people create extended families of their own. There is no reason why the adult friends of a child should be friends of his parents. Parents generally want friends like themselves. Children may like more variety so that they may get some things from one person and some things from another.


Modern childhood places on parents an extraordinary emotional and financial burden. And as this burden has become heavier beyond anyone’s wildest imagining, parents have been told ever more insistently that they have a duty to love their children, and the children that they have a duty to love their parents. We lock the old and young into this extraordinarily tense and troublesome relationship, and then tell them that they have to like it, even love it, and that if they don’t they are bad or wrong or sick. There is no legitimate way for parents staggering under this burden, to admit without shame or guilt that they don’t much like these young people who live in their house, worry them half to death, and soak up most of their money, or that they wish they had never decided to have them in the first place, or that they could have had something different. The children on their part are expected to be grateful for what they did not ask for and often do not want.

Furthermore, when formerly a child became more help and less trouble as he grew older, today he becomes less help and more trouble. Everything he needs, uses, and wants costs more as he gets older—clothes, amusement, transportation, and, above all, schooling. And there are more kinds of trouble for him to get into, and what is worse, to get his parents into.

But children, and the institution of childhood, though a great burden and nuisance, do have some important uses. Children may not be able any more to do much of the work of the family or add to its income. But at least for a while, they do give the adults in the family something that most adults need very much—someone to boss, someone to “help,” someone to love.

For a very long time, ever since men formed societies in which some people bossed others, children have fulfilled this very important function. Every adult parent, however lowly or powerless, had at least some one that he could command, threaten, and punish. No man was so poor, even a slave, that he could no have these few slaves of his own. Today, when most “free” men feel like slaves, having their own homegrown slaves is very satisfying. Many could not do without them.


About a year or so ago someone told me a great truth about helpers and help—The Helping Hand Strikes Again! It is important that we try to understand how the idea of help has been so largely corrupted and turned into a destructive exploitation, how the human act of helping is turned more and more into a commodity, an industry, and a monopoly. I am troubled by anyone who wants to make a lifework out of being, usually without being asked, the helper and protector of someone else. The trouble with one person defining himself as a helper of others is that unless he is very careful he is almost certain to define them as people who cannot get along without his help. His way of dealing with those he is helping, what he does and what he says, or refuses to say, about what he does, are almost sure to convince them of this.

The person whose main lifework is helping others needs and must have others who need his help. The helper feeds and thrives on helplessness, creates the helplessness he needs. For the other to reject his help begins as ingratitude or a foolish mistake; it soon becomes a sin and a crime. No one is more truly helpless, more completely a victim, than he who can neither choose nor change nor escape his protectors. There is no way to be sure that compulsory helpers will be kind, competent, and unselfish, or that their help will be really helpful and will not turn into exploitation, domination, and tyranny. The only remedy is to give to everyone the right to decide if, and when, and by whom, and for how long, and in what way, he will choose to be helped. There can be no adequate protection against the abuse of authority, by parents or the state, except to give the victim the right to escape it.

The nightmare state of the future, if it comes, and it is well on its way, will be above all a tyranny of “professional helpers,” with an unlimited right and power to do to us or make us do whatever they (or someone) considers to be for our own good. It should not surprise us that the Russian police state now puts in “mental hospitals” those who strongly and publicly object to its way of doing things and there subjects them to “treatment” until they think or act as they are supposed to. Or that the miniature police states of our schools are more and more using strong drugs such as Ritalin on those children who do not, or will not, fit smoothly into its regime. Or that at least one company now markets a device that enables a teacher to give a painful electric shock to a child several hundred feet away.


We underestimate so much and so continually both the competence and the drive for competence in the young. Young people have to be trained, in part by what we tell them, mostly by how we treat them, to think of themselves as irresponsible, incompetent, ignorant, foolish, no-account. This is an important part of what childhood is all about, what it does, what it is for. In a society in which people did not assume such things of the young they would not assume it of themselves.

If children do not learn the ropes faster in our society, and even now they learn them faster than we think, it is in part because they do not have to, are not expected to, and do not expect themselves to, and in part because they know that they could not do anything with the knowledge if they had it. If we gave up our vested interest in children’s dependency and incompetence—would they not much more quickly become independent and competent? We ought to give it a try. And we can begin, right now, to treat children, even the youngest and smallest, wherever we may find them, with courtesy, gravity, seriousness and respect, as we would want everyone to treat them in the society we trying to make.

The Cuteness Syndrome, Kitchie-Kitchie Koo, and Other Problems by John Holt.

Holt wrote this for MS. Magazine based on Escape from Childhood.

The Cuteness Syndrome will open in new window.