This post is part of a series delving into “Mainstream Mantras,” peeling back the layers to discover where they go awry.
“to impair, damage, or harm the character or nature of (someone) by unwise treatment, excessive indulgence, etc.: to spoil a child by pampering him.” ~ dictionary.com
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 unschooling parents is that when people first hear about the kind of parenting that goes hand-in-hand with unschooling—responding quickly to their children’s needs, paying attention to them, conversing with them, saying yes more often etc—their first thought is often “but that kind of parenting will spoil a child.”
Is that true? Will unschooling spoil a child?
What does a “spoiled” child look like?
Being “spoiled” is a derogatory label that describes a generalized judgment. Typical descriptions of the constellation of behaviours that lead people to label a child “spoiled” include: is rude, throws tantrums when they don’t get their way, refuses to share, acts bossy, ignores parents/adults questions and instructions, refuses to go to bed.
Basically, these children have come to expect to get their way most, if not all, of the time. They feel entitled to get their way. And to ensure they get their way, they have learned how to manipulate others through these kinds of negative behaviours.
Why doesn’t an unschooling child “spoil”?
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 them are different.
These negative 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||Conventional Motivation||Unschooling Motivation|
|– give their children material things||– rewards to motivate/control their children’s behaviour
(children learn to expect to receive things regularly)
|– to help their children get the things they are interested in
(children learn their interests are valued)
|– do things their children want||– to avoid confrontation; want their children to like them
(children learn to expect to get their way)
|– to listen to their children’s input; are open to changing their minds
(children learn their thoughts and feelings are valued)
|– don’t punish negative behaviours||– too busy to follow through; want their children to like them
(children learn their tools of manipulation work)
|– to talk with their children to understand the reasons behind the behaviours
(children learn to understand themselves and explore other ways to meet their needs)
|– respond to their children’s distress||– to get them to be quiet and move on
(children learn yelling/crying is a good tool to quickly get what they want)
|– to help their children move through the distressing situation
(children learn they have their parents’ support and help)
Because the parent’s motivations behind these actions are so different, the conversations that ensue between the parent and child are also very different, and hence what the child learns from the experience is very different.
A different approach to developing 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 stuff is 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; they’ll sit back as the child measures out ingredients—answering questions, maybe chatting about what the different ingredients do; they’ll watch, again 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; and as the cookies bake, parent and child may have fun playing with bubbles in the sink as they wash the dishes 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, “you’re too young to touch the stove.” They’ll also likely gather all the supplies and ingredients, “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”; “don’t stir too fast, you’ll make a mess”; “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 by constantly doing things for their children, over their children’s wishes, their children come to learn that they aren’t capable, 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?
What to do?
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 very 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” (meaning 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 “spoiled” negative 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.
If you’d like to read more about unschooling and parenting, you can check out the blog posts I wrote for the monthly topic Parenting to Support Unschooling. There you’ll find posts about power struggles, considering everyone’s needs, developing character, and communication instead of discipline.