Putting a Halt to (Some of) Holt


ESCAPE FROM CHILDHOOD. By John Holt, New York: E. P. Dutton Co., 1974, 286 pp., $7.95.

Children ought to be able to divorce their parents—and vice versa. There ought to be some way out when personality clashes, or, less neutrally, the disharmony between good and bad people, becomes intolerable for the parties involved. After all, blood or genes are no guarantee of meshing.

Having thought of this proposal before, but never hearing it discussed, it was with some anticipation that I set out to read and review John Holt's new book. Given its title, it appears that Holt has jumped on the liberation bandwagon with a new, particularly inarticulate, and seldom listened-to minority. Alas, that appearance is only partly right. It can be a good thing that the issue of rights and freedom is being taken up on another front, but when the case is made badly it is probably worse than silence. Once the women's lib movement becomes one of demands for such "rights" as freebie day care centers, the issue of freedom and rights is undermined. And so it is for the most part with John Holt's recent work.


Early in the book Holt lists the rights he thinks children ought to have. Briefly they are: the right to choose one's own guardian or, alternatively, independence; the right to legal status equal to that enjoyed by adults (including ownership of property, financial responsibility, signing of contracts, and legal responsibility for actions); the right to vote; the right to control one's own education; the right to work for money; and the right to receive from the state a minimum income equal to that received by adults. (As Holt conceives of these rights, children should be able to "pick and choose" from them. Thus, for example, depending on the desired arrangement, a child might declare legal independence and then be held responsible for criminal actions, or, if he does not make that choice, his parents would be responsible.)

Unfortunately this list of proposed rights is the extent of Holt's contribution to clarifying children's rights, and it is a contribution only in that it is somewhat novel, tradition-breaking. This is unfortunate because the issue of children's rights is worth serious consideration. Not only do the legal implications in this area need careful thought, but the case for children's having rights needs to be made. So it is with dismay that one recognizes an ostensible treatment of these issues by a widely read and quoted author to consist, at best, of trivia, and often of serious error. If you go for anecdotes about children's adventures and misadventures and teachers' experiences in the classroom, there is much for you in this book. But if you look for defense of individual freedom on yet another front, this is not the place to find it.

It would be unfair, of course, to object that Holt has not written a scholarly treatise on the subject. His book is admittedly intended for popular consumption. But that does not excuse its oversupply of standard fare. All the "ills of modern society" are analyzed in terms of the platitudes of modern society—"alienation from work," family life an invention of "the bourgeoisie," advertising forcing consumers to buy, physical beauty the god of our culture, if only ours were a humane society…, etc. As if to pre-excuse his own approach, Holt says in the first chapter: "[P]eople are not changed or won over by being made to see that their ideas are foolish, illogical, or inconsistent" (p. 22). Perhaps it is safe to conclude then that Holt will not be convinced by what follows. But for the rest…

Problematic at a basic level is Holt's talk of "the rights children should have." It is nonsense to speak of rights that "should be" had; even if simply a matter of careless thinking or language, such phraseology turns out to be quite dangerous since it gives a boost to those who do believe that rights are merely privileges granted by those in power (usually for a dear price).

With this behind us, let's consider why Holt thinks the rights listed should be "had" by children. He starts from an impressionistic picture which identifies being a child as "being wholly subservient and dependent, being seen by older people as a mixture of expensive nuisance, slave, and superpet" (p. 18). A second point, to which he returns throughout the book, is that because "modern life is so complicated" young people need access to more adult roles than are exhibited by their parents. And finally, Holt complains that it is too difficult to move out of the artificially maintained status of being a child. Wouldn't it help, he suggests, to reduce the distinctions between childhood and adulthood?

Stripped of the trivia and unrealism about childhood, Holt's point might be put this way: Some children are capable, competent, and responsible enough to skip to adulthood, to assume independent status. They are now effectively prevented from doing so in any significant way by laws prohibiting their working for wages, owning property, signing contracts, etc. So the laws should be changed to provide those children who want to exercise such options the opportunity to do so. But none of his dubious points about the state of childhood support this; e.g., I would wager that those children who would so choose, and could demonstrate the needed competence (which might be rightfully required by the legal provisions), would not be children who are "wholly subservient and dependent." Holt's point reduces to one touted in many available advice-to-parents books—allow your children to assume responsibility, to exercise choice when that is feasible. And this is a point about both human psychology and moral education, in the sense in which the latter is meaningful.


But a defense of children's rights cannot be built on the state of modern society, child psychology, and so forth. Rather, if there is a defensible position, it must rest on a theory of human rights. Then what needs discussion, not that it will be easily resolved, is what constitutes being human, what constitutes being (only) potentially human, and whither the twain might meet. What Holt seems to do—and this is difficult to sort out from his tales and common sense opining about childhood—is to emphasize the extent to which children are or can be as competent as adults. There are two problems here. First, part of this point rests on branding most adults as mediocre; then of course it is easy to establish that children are equally (in)competent. A case in point: children should not be denied the right to vote for not being informed about political issues, for surely voting adults do not shine in this realm either. The second problem is Holt's emphasis on similarities at the expense of blurring the evident differences. Yet he cannot manage to carry this through. A good example surfaces in his discussion of the right to work. There he belabors children's lack of foresight, unawareness of the consequences of their actions, and need for and delight in fantasy. But aren't these just the reasons people have for not hiring children? Even if the law permitted it, wouldn't prudent businesses keep away from most kids? Again Holt's points are psychologistic; children like to (do some kinds of) work and when they want to help out they should be encouraged. But his own emphasis on what kinds of work they like and are willing to do obviates his decrying the "tragedy" that young people are not hired extensively in the labor force.

I will not take up each of the rights Holt proposes children should have. I happen to agree that children should be permitted by law to engage in most adult activities, although I do not agree with his arguments for this. In fact, it is often impossible to figure out why he thinks children should have such options. For example when discussing work, he paradoxically demeans it. He is at pains to allege that the work people do (read: "are forced to do") is monotonous, undemanding, boring, stupid, even destructive. Perhaps this is why he emphasizes fantasy work when it comes to children.

Even more distressing than his arguments for certain rights are the means he proposes for opening up children's options, for he ends up cutting away the ground he stands on. When it comes to hiring young people, he is enamored of the living-room economic conclusion that "there are many more people around than jobs," and is equally enamored of its caucus room solution: "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…." (p. 19). Needless to say, he never examines the effect on employment, particularly among the young, of such political decisions as minimum wage laws. And he conveniently ignores the severe problems now surfacing in Sweden and Denmark.


In general Holt's theses about economics and politics are amazingly unconsidered. And this brings me to a proposed "right" which bears particular consideration—that old minimum income song and dance. This is the one "right" Holt believes children should have which adults do not now have, so he spends some time defending it per se. And of course he becomes mired in devastating inconsistencies. His basic reasoning is that, going back to the "fact" that there are more people than jobs, "the right of everyone to choose to be independent can hardly be fully meaningful except in a society that gives everyone some guaranteed minimum income" (p. 221). You see, if someone is dependent on an employer for support, talk of rights or independence is unrealistic because the employer "is going to feel he has the right to tell them what to do" (p. 221). Question: does the employer have such a right? In any case, if rights and independence require that one not be beholden to a supporter, how can they require that one receive a minimum income "from society"? For then one is dependent on other jobholders, greater in number and further removed from one's personal life, but just as dependent. At this point Holt engages in a gross sleight of hand. Admitting that "There is no use telling the state to guarantee what it does not have and cannot provide," e.g., good homes for children, he goes on to assert that since "the state has money" everyone has the right to a guaranteed minimum income! (p. 150). It is scarcely believable, but quite true, that nowhere in his book does Holt ever pause over where that money comes from. This omission makes a shambles of his inclusion of the right to property.

The issue of "not enough jobs" and minimum income also enters into his proposed solution to the acknowledged shortcomings of public education. The solution is alternative educational structures, but not enough have cropped up. According to Holt there are now many people who would like to work in such settings but cannot find jobs there. Solution: if everyone had a minimum income these people would be hired. Again he never considers what people could do for themselves and their children with moneys now taken from them and poured into compulsory ventures.


The whole issue of minimum income undermines one of Holt's best points. He is dismayed about people's increasing tendency to rely on "experts" to solve their problems. "The trouble with modern man is that he has made him self dependent on institutions that he can neither know or control" (p. 63). Although Holt has a good point, his expression of it rails more against the division of labor and the institutions of a market economy than the biggest culprit upon which people have become dependent, namely the State. And here he falls into one of today's commonest avante-garde contradictions: glorification of pre-industrial life, yet grave concern about poverty.

In any case, as Holt correctly observes, most people can manage their lives better than anyone else could, however expert. He thus insists on the right of individuals to choose to be helped. Characteristically, however, he never mentions the concomitant right of individuals to choose to help. Yet his point on the one side is worth quoting at length; referring to a familiar story he says:

[W]hen the traveler was healed and well, the Good Samaritan let him go on his way. He did not tell him he could not travel because it was so dangerous or because obviously he could not take care of himself. He did not make himself a permanent protector of the traveler. He did not make a business or career or vocation out of protecting all travelers. He helped because, before his eyes, he could see someone who at that moment needed help. Otherwise he had other things to do [pp. 78-79].

Later he adds, "The only way we can fully protect someone against his own mistakes and the uncertainties of the world is to make him a slave" (pp. 85-86). Yet this is the precise goal and consequence of all welfare legislation. How can Holt fail to apply such excellent points to his own proposals and conclusions?

In fact, the bulk of Holt's book is enough to make one cringe, either for its triviality or its blatant incongruity. Even most of his insights are only tangential to his main discussion, although they shouldn't be, as urged above. In the end Holt is at his best on the issue of humane attitudes and enlightened ways of dealing with children. On the other hand, this kind of discussion is common fare today in the proliferating pop books on psychology and child care. On his only unique issue—rights—Holt, unfortunately, has little of value to contribute.

Ms. Zupan is a graduate student in applied economics at the University of Rochester. Her articles have been published in REASON, The Freeman, and other journals.