Monday, December 04, 2023
  Escape from Childhood  
Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children

escape from childhood

This is a book about young people and their place, or lack of place, in society today. It is about the institution of modern childhood, the attitudes, customs and laws that define and locate children in life and determine to a large degree what their lives are like and how we, their elders, treat them. And it is about the many ways in which childhood seems insufficient and inadequate for those who live within it, and how it should and might be changed. 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 super-pet, does most young people more harm than good.

Holt proposes 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 be legally responsible for one’s life and acts.
  3. The right to work, for money.
  4. The right to travel, to live away from home, to choose or make one’s own home.
  5. The right to do, in general, what any adult may legally do.

The changes that Holt urges will certainly not come about all at once. But such changes are necessary so that we don’t deny to young people the possibility of responsible participation in the life of the world around them.


Early in his book The Changing Nature of Man, the Dutch historical psychologist J. H. van den Berg, tells a story about the philosopher Martin Buber. After a lecture, Buber was continuing the discussion with a few friends in a restaurant.

A middle-aged Jew came in, introduced himself, sat down, and listened to the discussion with great interest, though without speaking. At the end of the discussion he came to Buber to ask him some questions about a young man that his daughter was thinking of marrying. The question most on his mind was: should his future son-in-law become a barrister or a solicitor. Buber replied that, as he did not know the young man in question, he could not tell—and indeed, would not be able to tell even if he did know him. The man thanked Buber and left, clearly disappointed.

Of this incident van den Berg writes:

In this conveisation an ancient certainty—the certainty that wise men are men who know—was shattered by a modern inability. Buber ought to have said, “He should become a solicitor” or “He should become a barrister.”

“How could he know?” cried out Buber’s modern contemporary—as if action were founded on knowledge. Of course Buber could not know. But nobody asked him to know. What he had been asked for was advice—judgement, not knowledge. Is not the truth, truth in the relation between man and man, basically the effect of a fearlessness toward the other person? Is not the truth, above all, a result, a made up thing, a creation of the sage? The person who knows creates the future by speaking.

In our times people seem to define truth more and more as the result of some sort of “scientific” experiment, with things weighted and measured and arranged in neat cokimns of figures. For many purposes this definition is very good; for others, including our most seriotis purposes, it is no good at all. We are not likely to find out from such “experiments” how we should and can live together. As for the future, most of those who talk and write about it do so as if it already existed and as if we were being inexorably carried toward it, like passengers on a train moving toward a place they had not seen and could only wonder about. This is of course not true. The future does not exist. It has not been made. It is made only as we make it. The question we should be asking ourselves is what sort of future do we want. Part of my answer to that question is what I have written about in this book.


Preface … ii

  1. The Problem of Childhood … 1
  2. The Institution of Childhood … 6
  3. Childhood in History … 13
  4. The Family and Its Purposes … 22
  5. On the Loss of Authority of the Old … 28
  6. The Many “Crises” of Life … 32
  7. The Burden of Having Children … 35
  8. One Use of Childhood … 42
  9. On “Help” and “Helpers” … 44
  10. The Competence of Children … 49
  11. The Child as Love Object … 58
  12. On Seeing Children as “Cute” … 61
  13. How Children Exploit Cuteness … 70
  14. Love May not Cure Everything … 76
  15. What Children Need, We All Need … 83
  16. On the Use of the Word “Rights” … 86
  17. The Right to Vote … 89
  18. The Right to Work … 98
  19. The Right to Own Property … 109
  20. The Right to Travel … 112
  21. The Right to Choose One’s Guardian … 118
  22. The Right to a Guaranteed Income … 126
  23. The Right to Legal and Financial Responsibility … 128
  24. The Right to Control One’s Learning … 139
  25. The Right to Use Drugs … 145
  26. The Right to Drive … 155
  27. The Law, the Young, and Sex … 157
  28. Steps to Take … 161

In thinking over many years about children, their relations with adults, and their place in society, I have been much helped by my sisters, Jane Pitcher and Susan Bontecou, and my friends and colleagues Peggy Hughes, Terry Kros, and Margot Priest. Margot has also discussed this book with me at length in every stage of its preparation and has added valuable ideas and insights to it.

It was Paul Goodman, through his book Growing Up Absurd, and later Peter Marin, through his article “The Open Truth and Fiery Vehemence of Youth,” who first gave me the thought that modern childhood might not be a good idea. It was J. H. van den Berg, through his book The Changing Nature of Man, who first suggested that it was quite a new idea. Since then I have learned much from what is becoming a standard text on the history of modern childhood, Philip Aries' Centuries of Childhood. I have also found additional useful information and insights in Elizabeth Janeway's Man's World, Woman's Place, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectics of Sex, and many books and articles about the young by Edgar Friedenberg. To all of these, and to the many others who have discussed these ideas with me, I give my sincerest thanks.

Author & Copyright
About the Author
John Holt

John Caldwell Holt (April 14, 1923 – September 14, 1985) was an American author and educator, a proponent of homeschooling (specifically the unschooling approach), and a pioneer in youth rights theory.

After a six-year stint teaching elementary school in the 1950s, Holt wrote the book How Children Fail (1964), which cataloged the problems he saw with the American school system. He followed it up with How Children Learn (1967). Both books were popular, and started Holt’s career as a consultant to American schools. By the 1970s he decided he would try reforming the school system and began to advocate homeschooling, and later the form of homeschooling known as unschooling. He wrote a total of 11 books on the subject of schooling, as well as starting the newsletter Growing Without Schooling (GWS).

Early life

Holt was born on April 14, 1923, in New York City; he had two younger sisters. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, then attended Yale University, graduating in 1943 with a degree in Industrial Engineering. Directly after graduating he enlisted with the United States Navy, and served in World War II on the submarine USS Barbero. He was discharged in 1946, then joined the United World Federalists, an organization that promoted world peace through the formation of a single world government. He rose up the ranks of the organization, and served as the executive director of the group’s New York State chapter when he left in 1952 due to frustration with the organization’s lack of progress.

Teaching career

Holt’s sister encouraged him to become an elementary school teacher, and in 1953 he began teaching at the newly-formed Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private school in Carbondale, Colorado. In 1957 and 1958 he taught at the Shady Hill School, a private elementary and middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1959 he taught fifth grade at the Lesley Ellis School, also in Cambridge.

While teaching, Holt came to the belief that the students in his classroom, despite often being intelligent and from wealthy backgrounds, were more timid and unsure than the infant and toddler children of his sisters and friends.

From homeschooling to unschooling

Holt became disillusioned with the school system after several years of working within it; he became convinced that reform of the school system was not possible and began to advocate homeschooling. He believed that “children who were provided with a rich and stimulating learning environment would learn what they are ready to learn, when they are ready to learn it”. Holt believed that children did not need to be coerced into learning; they would do so naturally if given the freedom to follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources. This line of thought came to be called unschooling.

Holt’s Growing Without Schooling newsletter, founded in 1977, was America’s first home education newsletter. He also set up John Holt’s Bookstore, which made selected books available by mail order. This brought in additional revenue that helped sustain the newsletter, which carried very little advertising.

Holt’s sole book on homeschooling, Teach Your Own, was published in 1981. It quickly became the "Bible" of the early homeschooling movement. It was revised by his colleague Patrick Farenga and republished in 2003 by Perseus Books.

Holt on education

Holt wrote several books that have greatly influenced the unschooling movement. His writings have influenced many individuals and organizations, including the Evergreen State College, Caleb Gattegno, Americans for a Society Free from Age Restrictions, the National Youth Rights Association, and the Freechild Project.

Holt did not have a teaching degree, which many believe allowed for his work in the private school sector to make way for him to have a more objective opinion on the American school system. Being new to the environment, it is thought that he was able to make more objective distinctions than other educators, as to what the schools said they were doing and what they were actually doing. For the first many years of his teaching career, he maintained the belief that schools overall were not meeting their missions due to using the wrong methods and pedagogical approaches, and that these failures were the cause for rendering young scholars as children who were less willing to learn and more focused on avoiding the embarrassment and ridicule of not learning.

As Holt wrote in his first book, How Children Fail (1964) “...after all, if they (meaning us) know that you can’t do anything, then they won’t blame you or punish you for not being able to do what you have been told to do.” This notion led him to make changes within his own classroom to provide an environment in which his students would feel more comfortable and confident. With the support of his colleague Bill Hull, Holt began putting less emphasis on grades and tests, and began taking steps to decrease the notion of ranking the children. He focused on his students being able to grasp concepts, rather than having them work for the correct answer. Instead of using the typical methods to determine students’ progress, he adopted a more student-centered approach. Patrick Farenga paraphrased Holt’s distinction between good and bad students: “a good student is careful not to forget what he studied until after the test is taken.” Eventually, his new methods for teaching caused him to be terminated from his position, which he claimed was due to the school wanting to maintain “old ‘new’ ideas not new ‘new’ ideas.”

After leaving Colorado, Holt sought other opportunities in education. Although it took him some time to come to a conclusion about his own thoughts on education as well as make sense of his observations, studies, and data, ultimately he felt that schools were “a place where children learn to be stupid.” Once he developed this conclusion, his focus shifted to making suggestions to help teachers and parents capable of teaching their children how to learn, thus prompting his second book, How Children Learn, in 1967. Despite his successful career, he still met rejections, resentment, and false hopes from colleagues and school systems surrounding his ideas and methods. This reality pushed him further and further into the idea of deschooling.

After a few more years of teaching and some visiting professor positions at area universities, Holt wrote his next two books, The Underachieving School (1969) and What Do I Do Monday? (1970). Both books focused on his belief that schools weren’t working and ideas about how they could be better. Holt had determined by this time that the changes he would like to see happen in the school systems were not likely to become a reality. These changes included the relationship between children and the teachers and school community. At this point in the history of education, the free school movement was in full swing, and his next book, Freedom and Beyond (1972), questioned much of what teachers and educators really meant when they suggested children should have more freedom in the classroom. While Holt was an advocate of children having more rights and abilities to make decisions for themselves, he felt that the free school movement was not the answer to the question of how to fix the school system.

Holt then wrote Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974), in which he claimed that children should have independence including the right to work for money, receive fair and equal treatment, the right to vote, and even the right to choose new parents. At the time, his notions of children having so many rights and responsibilities was not very popular, but since then the court systems have seen more and more cases of children attempting to realise many of Holt’s suggestions, such as choosing their legal guardian.

Although many of Holt’s previous works had discussed the needed reform and failure of the traditional school system, his seventh book, Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Better (1976), focused more on his encouragement that parents find legal ways to remove their children from compulsory schools. Specifically, he referred to an Underground Railroad in which schoolchildren could escape the failing school systems of which he had been so critical. The book caused a number of parents to reach out to him regarding their own homeschooling of their children. This correspondence grew so much that he decided to start a newsletter for homeschooling parents. In 1977 Growing Without Schooling was developed and distributed. It is thought that this newsletter is the first published periodical regarding homeschooling in the United States.

Holt’s focus began to switch from critiquing school systems and writing from afar to speaking engagements and educating adults on how they can teach their children while learning themselves. His next book, Never Too Late: My Musical Autobiography (1978), focused on showing adults that they were not too old to learn new things. This was translated into ways in which parents who had no experience in education could learn to teach their children on their own in a homeschooling setting.

In 1981, the first edition of Holt’s most noteworthy book on unschooling, Teach Your Own: The John Holt Manual on Homeschooling, was published. This book, as noted in the first lines of the introduction, is “about ways we can teach children, or rather, allow them to learn, outside of schools—at home, or in whatever other places and situations (and the more the better) we can make available to them. It is in part an argument in favor of doing it, in part a report of the people who are doing it, and in part a manual of action for people who want to do it.” This manual has since been revised by Holt follower and homeschooling parent Patrick Farenga, and is still distributed today.

Even after his death in 1985, Holt’s influence on homeschooling continued through his work. His final book, Learning All the Time: How Small Children Begin to Read, Write, Count and Investigate the World, Without Being Taught, was published posthumously in 1989. It contained a number of his writings for Growing Without Schooling. The GWS’ newsletter has since garnered followings in a number of different countries and has been continuously distributed since its inception as a tool for the promotion and encouragement of homeschooling in light of the lack of school system reform.


Escape from Childhood by John Holt

E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. New York 1974

Acknowledgment is made for permission to quote from the folowing:

“Another Unhappy Year at Willowbrook,” by Robin Reisig. Reprinted by permission of The Village Voice. Copyright by The Village Voice, Inc., 1972.

“Childhood Abuse Held a Leading Killer” by Jane Brody; November 3, 1972 Article by Enid Nemy; and “Drug Raid Victims …” by Andrew Malcolm. Copyright © 1973/1972 by The New York Times Company. Re-printed by permission.

Children in Trouble by James Howard. Reprinted by permission of David McKay Company, Inc.

“Children’s Rights: The Latest Crusade” and “Less School—More Work.” Reprinted by permission from TIME, The Weekly Newsmagazine. Copyright Time Inc.

Man’s World, Woman’s Place by Elizabeth Janeway. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow and Company. Copyright © 1971 by Elizabeth Janeway.

Medicine and Society by Henry Miller. Reprinted by permission of The Clarendon Press. Oxford, England. Copyright © 1973 by Oxford University Press.

Library of Congress Catalogitig in Publication Data
Holt, John Caldwell, 1923-1985
Escape from childhood.
1. Child study. 2. Children—Management.).
3. Youth. 4. Title.
HQ769.H725 301.43'15 73-18060

Copyright © 1974 by John Holt
All rights reserved. Printed in the U.S.A.
First Edition
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

No form of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without the permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast.

Published simultaneously in Canada by Clarke, Irwin & Company Limited, Toronto and Vancouver
ISBN: 0-525-099557
Designed by The Etheredges
Jacket design by Peter Bradford

E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 201 Park Avenue South, New York, N.Y. 10003