If unschooling means letting your children take the lead, giving them tons of attention, saying yes more often (even though it’s more work!), and other similar parenting strategies, why doesn’t it lead to spoiled kids? Veteran unschooler Pam Laricchia explains that it’s all about intention.

By Pam Laricchia | Living Joyfully

A spoiled child is one that exhibits behaviour problems as a result of overindulgence by his or her parents. And in the mainstream world of parenting, it’s a strong condemnation. The challenge for many families is that when people first hear about the kind of parenting that goes hand-in-hand with unschooling (like responding quickly to their children’s needs, paying attention to them, conversing with them, saying yes more often) their first thought is often: that kind of parenting will spoil a child.

But is that true? Will unschooling spoil a child? And what does a spoiled child look like?

Spoiled is a derogatory label — a generalized judgment. It brings to mind a child who is rude, throws tantrums when they don’t get their way, refuses to share, acts bossy, ignores parents/adults questions and instructions, and/or refuses to go to bed, for example.

Basically, it describes a child that expects to get their way most, if not all, of the time. Who feels entitled to get their way. And to ensure it happens, they have learned how to manipulate others through these kinds of negative behaviours.

So why doesn’t an unschooling child “spoil”?

It's All About The Intention

Sometimes the actions of unschooling parents may appear to be very similar to the conventional dynamic of children being spoiled by their parents, but the motivations behind those actions are different, and intentional.

Negative, entitled behaviours develop when parents do so much for their children, so often, that the children learn to expect these things to be done for them. Unschooling parents do a lot to support their children, but do so with an eye to helping their children do things for themselves.

This changes the perspective of all the conversations unschooling parents have with their children and creates a completely different parent-child relationship. Unschooling children are learning very different things from their parents’ actions.

Here are some examples of parenting actions, the conventional and unschooling motivations behind those actions, and what the children likely learn as a result:

PARENTING BEHAVIOUR: Giving children material things.
Conventional motivation: These things are rewards to motivate/control their children’s behaviour (so children learn to expect to receive things regularly).
Unschooling motivation: This helps their children get the things/skills they are interested in (so children learn their interests are valued).

PARENTING BEHAVIOUR: Doing things their children want.
Conventional motivation: Parents do this to avoid confrontation; they want their children to like them (so children learn to expect to get their way).
Unschooling motivation: Parents want to listen to their children’s input; they are open to changing their minds (so children learn their thoughts and feelings are valued).

PARENTING BEHAVIOUR: Refusing to punish negative behaviour.
Conventional motivation: Parents are too busy to follow through; they want their children to like them (so children learn that tools of manipulation work).
Unschooling motivation: Parents talk with their children to understand the reasons behind the behaviours (so children learn to understand themselves and explore other ways to meet their needs).

PARENTING BEHAVIOUR: Responding to their children’s distress.
Conventional motivation: The goal of the response is to get them to be quiet and move on
(so children learn that yelling/crying is a good tool to quickly get what they want).
Unschooling motivation: The goal of the response is to help their children move through the distressing situation (so children learn they have the support and help of their parents).

Because the motivations behind these actions are so different, the conversations that ensue between the parent and child are also very different. Hence, what the child learns from the experience is very different too.

A Different Approach to Responsibility

Unschooling parents also dedicate their time to helping their children take as much responsibility as they want. What does that look like in real life? Let’s imagine a five year-old who wants to make cookies.

In an unschooling home, chances are the parent will act in support of their child. They’ll read through the recipe with them. They’ll pay attention to whether the child is interested in gathering all the tools and ingredients, patiently pointing out where all the things are located if that’s the case, and if not, quickly gathering the supplies on the counter. They’ll show the child which buttons to press or dials to turn on the stove to set the temperature and turn it on.

Then they’ll sit back as the child measures out ingredients — answering questions, maybe chatting about what the different ingredients do. They’ll watch, patiently, as the child stirs the ingredients together, giggling with them as the loose flour makes a cloud, and taking over the mixing for a bit if the child gets tired and wants some help.

When putting the dough on the cookie sheets, if their child wants to try making a really big cookie alongside the more regular-sized ones, they’ll likely say “what a fun idea!” and help them figure out the best way to bake it. As the cookies bake, parent and child may have fun playing with bubbles in the sink as they wash the dishes they used. In other words, the unschooling parent follows their child’s lead throughout the process to see how much or how little they’d like their parent to be hands-on in the process. The goal isn’t the cookies — it’s the child’s exploration and learning. Not only of the task at hand, but of thinking things through in general, of actions and outcomes.

In a conventional home, chances are things will go quite differently. The parent will probably direct the child’s actions more, with the goal being to teach the child how to correctly make cookies. There’s a recipe to follow so there’s no room for exploration — getting it right is the key goal. The parent will probably turn on the oven, saying “you’re too young to touch the stove.”

They’ll also likely gather all the supplies and ingredients, as “we don’t have all day.” And they’ll be constantly and closely monitoring the process, judging it, directing it, even taking over at times. “Here’s how you make sure the measuring spoon is full,” they might say, or “don’t stir too fast, you’ll make a mess.” Maybe even: “make sure the cookies are all the same size.”

In both families, those dynamics play out over the years in many diverse situations, with unschooling parents focused on helping their child learn how to evaluate situations and make choices and take as much responsibility as they are interested in, and with conventional parents more focused on doing things quickly and “right” and getting their children to do what they’re told in pursuit of those goals.

But when parents constantly do things for their children, over their children’s wishes, their children come to learn that they aren’t capable, and that others should be doing things for them. That they are entitled to have things done for them. Not to mention, how many people would choose to step up and do things knowing their performance will be judged critically?

When we place adult sized-expectations (of both speed and skill) on our children's actions, we miss discovering how much children really want to participate in life, to do things they see the adults around them doing, to the best of their ability.

Given a family environment where parents consistently step in and do things because they can do them faster (they have busy lives) and/or “better” (to their own adult standards), where parents use material objects as rewards (and take them away as punishment) to try to control their children’s behaviour, and do whatever they can to avoid confrontation and distress, it’s unsurprising that the children’s wish to actively participate in life is extinguished and these kinds of negative, spoiled, behaviours develop.

The conventional answer to this issue is to counsel parents to stand their ground — to not allow themselves to be manipulated by their children. And the power struggles go round and round.

But if that’s not the relationship you want to develop with your children, instead of putting up a wall of defense against their pleas, spend even more time with them. Get to know them better, to understand them better. As you unwrap the mystery of each of your children, their challenging behaviour in various situations will no longer seem inexplicable or manipulative — it will begin to make sense and you’ll be able to help them explore other ways to move through those situations.

Instead of closing down and throwing demands and expectations at their children, unschooling parents choose to open up and have conversations with their children.

Unschooling, done well, will not spoil a child.

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Pam Laricchia

Living Joyfully

Pam Laricchia is an author and long-time unschooling mom from Ontario, Canada. Her three now-adult children left school back in 2002 and she’s been enthusiastically exploring unschooling ever since. Her own unschooling journey has cycled between discomfort, exploration, and discovery, and she’s written four books and many magazine articles about the fascinating things she’s learned about unschooling and parenting along the way. She also hosts the weekly podcast, Exploring Unschooling, with more than 100 episodes in its archive, and loves working directly with unschooling parents through the online Childhood Redefined Unschooling Summit.

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