This week, I want to dive into a question that comes up pretty regularly, not just from people new to unschooling but also from extended family and friends when they see our parenting choices in action: Won’t unschooling spoil a child?
Let’s quickly define the word so we’re clear:
From dictionary.com, it means, “to impair, damage, or harm the character or nature of (someone) by unwise treatment, excessive indulgence, etc.: to spoil a child by pampering him.”
Basically, a “spoiled” child is one that exhibits behaviour problems as a result of overindulgence by their parents. They expect to get their way most, if not all, of the time, no matter the situation or circumstances. They feel entitled to get their way and they have learned how to manipulate others to accomplish that.
In the conventional world of parenting, it’s meant as a strong condemnation.
With unschooling, parents respond quickly to their children’s needs, they pay attention to them, have earnest conversations with them, they say yes more often to their requests and so on, and the response they often get is “but that kind of parenting will spoil a child.”
On the surface, that seems to follow.
So, why doesn’t an unschooling “spoil” a child?
I love this question because it’s so fascinating to dive into!
Yes, 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 motivation and energy behind them are different.
Whereas these kinds of negative behaviours can develop when parents do so much for their children, so often, that they 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 dynamics of all the conversations unschooling parents have with their kids and cultivates a completely different parent-child relationship. Unschooling children are learning very different things from their parents’ actions.
To show how this plays out, let’s go through a few examples of parenting behaviours, the conventional and unschooling motivations behind those actions, and what the children are likely learning along the way.
Parenting Behaviour #1: Giving our children material things
Conventionally, many parents worry that giving their children material things outside of birthdays and holidays will spoil them. They need to learn that things need to be earned.
Some parents who give gifts outside those parameters rationalize it as rewarding their children’s good behaviour—that they’ve earned it. Some use gifts to keep their children occupied and out from underfoot.
Either way, it’s about power and control and over time, the child comes to expect to receive things regularly.
With unschooling, we’re helping our kids follow their interests, and material things can definitely be part of that. By fulfilling those needs, we show our children that their interests are valued by us. They feel seen for who they are and respected. It’s not about power at all.
When we say yes, we’re saying yes to something deeper than just the thing in question.
I love the way Anne Ohman described it in one of our Q&A episodes, number 21: “We are saying “yes” to who THEY are and what they are drawn to and to the infinite possibilities that come from those things, from the very core of their being-ness.”
Here’s a clip from that conversation:
ANNE: Question four from Marie:
My family has been unschooling for two years, and we’ve been saying “yes” more and more, whenever we can. Yes to getting messy, yes to staying up, yes to ice cream! So far, it has just been little things (like food or stuffed animals or going to the park) that the girls (5 and 7) have asked for. I love how close I am with my kids when they know that I am on their side and will help them with their goals.
Today my partner asked me: what is a good way to answer the children if they ever ask us to buy them expensive things? As the girls’ world grows I’m sure one day they will. My partner comes from a well-off family, so something a bit more expensive would be within our means. Our family has always lived a pretty simple lifestyle (my spouse and I like it this way), but it doesn’t seem right to keep any part of reality, including our financial situation, a secret from children who are learning about the world.
Knowing my children, they wouldn’t feel good about an explanation like “I’m trying to teach you the meaning of money” if they ask me for expensive toys. We love the relationship with our girls unschooling has given us, and we want them to know we are there for them! But we want them to grow up grounded about money. What can we say?
ANNE: Hi Marie! I love how your question felt like you were thinking out loud during so much of it and it was really wonderful. Those parts are so good and so spot on. You are right that it is not right to keep things a secret from your kids when you are living real life with each other. Or to say things like I am trying to teach you the meaning of language when it has no meaning to their real life and what is happening right in front of them. They will learn all that they will learn from living your very real lives with your very real financial situation. All of our children, no matter our family’s financial situation, have an abundance of THE most important thing, possibilities. Everything our children desire is full of infinite possibilities for their lives because that desire came from within themselves from a part of who they are. To me, this is what we say “yes” to. We are not so much saying yes to the material items. We are not even really saying “yes” to getting messy, staying up late and eating ice cream.
We are saying “yes” to who THEY are and what they are drawn to and to the infinite possibilities that come from those things, from the very core of their being-ness.
I think if we shift our thinking and understand that, so much opens up in our lives. Within that energy, if any of our children ask for something that was a big ticket item, I believe we should proceeded with it as if it were any other item, not giving it more or less weight to it because of its cost. The thing about the request that you are saying, most likely won’t come out of thin air. One day your child is not going to wake up and ask for a Mustang convertible. You know your children and you are a student of your children. You are living your rich full lives with them in every way.
So all along this path of living your lives you are having enthusiastic and passionate conversations about their interests, their questions, their desires, their intentions all that is happening along the way. So when they have the spark of an idea, the specific spark of an idea or desire that they want, those are more conversations. In my family often includes the question that is a spring board to allowing their desires to manifest. How can we make this happen? What follows that question are more possibilities. If it is possible to make that happen right away because you have the money, well then how wonderful is that, really? My point is that every child should be able to wake up and feel that their desires and needs and interests are within their reach. We the parents are saying yes to their very being-ness. Because we want to reflect the generous universe that also says “yes” to following that which comes from within us. That is the focus of our lives in my family. My parental energy says yes to all that my child is. “Yes” to how awesome it is that he knows himself and knows that he has this desire. In our home, saying “yes” is rarely an answer to can “I do” or “can I have”, because of how we participate in their ideas together all along the way. The conversations we have, I am there every step of the way to help them pave the path of their infinite possibilities no matter what it is.
ANNA: I’ll jump in. We talk very openly with our kids about money and why we make the decisions we do. How we are living our life financially and otherwise. We do talk about being good stewards of the money we have. I also believe of living a life of abundance and generosity. These are things we talk about openly from the time the kids were very, very young. I think what may be behind this question too is, as we have this view in society that this spoiling of children really comes from throwing money at children. Throwing things at them, it is to distract them, to get them out of our way, to do what every. That is so different from our unschooling lives. What I have seen with my kinds who are now 16 and 18, when they come with an idea, like a spark—like Anne said—of something they want, be it something not expensive or expensive, that is coming from this true place inside of them. Whether we had the money or didn’t have the money, that is what I’m excited about. Can we do it right away? Maybe. Or do we need to figure out a way to make that happen? I think that is the difference.
You can not really look at society’s view of children and put it into our unschooling ways because it is so different. What I found with both my kids is they are super frugal, super aware of money, even though we have had the ability to pursue travel and different opportunities and things that have been more expensive. It is because we are following that spark. My husband and I do the same thing. We follow that spark inside of us to find ways to have the things that bring us joy. When you are pursuing things that bring you joy it is such a different feel, more than just this idea that we are showering kids with things. That is not what it is about. It is about that spark and that joy.
Anna mentioned that spoiling children really comes from throwing money at them to distract them, to get them out of the way. That’s the power and control aspect I mentioned earlier.
It’s so different when it’s part of pursing things that bring them—or you—joy. It really is about the “thing,” rather than the power struggle around the question of getting the thing.
Parenting Behaviour #2: Doing what our children want
Conventionally, many people think that children become spoiled when their parents seem to always say yes to what their children want to do. They need to learn they won’t always get their way.
Some parents say yes with little consideration because they want to avoid confrontation. They don’t want to upset their child and have to deal with potential upset. Some parents want their children to like them and feel this is the way to accomplish that.
Over time, the kids learn they only need to ask it will happen. And they will keep asking fully expecting to get their way.
Unschooling parents also focus on saying yes often, but the outcome is very different.
Instead of an immediate yes, if there are concerns, we have a conversation. We listen to our children’s input, we value their desires, and we share our perspective on the situation. Not with the goal of changing their mind but with the goal of looking for a way to make it happen that works for everyone involved.
Maybe the path forward ends up being a full yes, maybe a yes with a couple of tweaks, maybe a yes, in a while, maybe a no, we’ll do this thing instead.
Instead of an automatic yes, unschooling parents ask themselves, “Why not yes?”
When we choose unschooling as our children’s learning environment, we are choosing to be intimately involved in their days. Sometimes that means being directly involved with them in their activities; other times it means being accessible. Either way, it means being available and willing, and genuinely considering our children’s requests.
When we say yes, not only are we helping them explore the world, we are stepping more firmly into the role of being their partner. In that mindset, I am much less likely to let my own assumptions and fears distort my vision, and from there, I begin to really see the world through my child’s eyes.
We see the way they are mixing the paint to get the colour they envision. We see their abundant energy as they run after the ball, time and again. And again. We see their genuine excitement as they invite us into the fort to see the treasures they’ve gathered: their favourite book; their pillow and snack; the power cord they’ve run inside to keep their device charged and at the ready.
These are priceless moments of connection that won’t happen if we are not open to them. And without this depth of connection and understanding, our ability to fully support their learning can be hampered. When we don’t know them intimately, we don’t quite know which suggestions and ideas that come to mind might work better for them.
So, we choose to meet them where they are and help them accomplish their goals. That’s where engagement and flow lives. Where learning and creativity thrives. Where strong relationships blossom. In that moment.
And in that energy, our kids don’t come to expect others to always say yes. They learn to find and embrace the yes for themselves.
Parenting Behaviour #3: Not punishing “negative” behaviours
Conventionally, many people think that children become spoiled when their parents don’t punish what they see as negative behaviours. That we need to teach kids how to behave by rewarding “good” behaviour and punishing “bad” behaviour.
Some parents threaten punishment and then don’t follow through. Some fear punishing their kids because they really want their kids to like them. When these kinds of stories play out over and over, what the child learns is that they can control and manipulate others through their behaviour. If they act upset and loud, their parents acquiesce. If they repeat their demands over and over, their parents will give in.
Over time, they come to expect to get their way, regardless of the situation, and they continue to use these behaviours to make it happen—spoiled child behaviour.
Now, unschooling parents typically don’t punish their children either, but the outcome is very different.
Because, as Anna Brown and I talk about often on the podcast, when we look at behaviours through the lens of unschooling, we recognize that they stem from underlying needs. We have conversations with our kids to help them—and us—better understand the reasons behind the behaviours and brainstorm ways to resolve them.
Same action—no punishments—but what the kids learn is very different: they come to better understand themselves and explore other ways to meet their needs. The behaviours fade over time.
Our parenting style moves away from control through punishments to connection and kindness. That shift definitely isn’t easy, especially if we grew up being parented by control. It’s what we know!
Ellen Rowland shared her experience of moving through this shift in episode 94 (A Muddy Life with Ellen Rowland).
ELLEN: I think that, Pam, when we talk about and read about peaceful parenting it sounds so natural and it makes so much sense to us. We think, ‘No, I don’t want to control my children, or dole out harsh punishments. I want to be patient and kind and loving.’
And logistically, it sounds natural and easy, and I’m sure there are a lot of parents for whom it might be easy, but there are people out there like me, who were not raised in that kind of way, where it’s not at all intuitive, and it’s very difficult to put into practice. So as much as we say, “I don’t want to be like my mother,” or “I’ll never parent like my father,” chances are, from a biological and psychological standpoint, we will probably end up repeating that same behavior.
Wounded children grow up to be wounded adults. So, it’s important that we first find a way to be gentle with ourselves before we can offer that to our children. And we have to heal our own wounds, and that might mean therapy, or meditation, or learning about peaceful parenting through books or blogs or even being part of a support group.
For me, the first step was really being conscious of the fact that I didn’t like myself as a parent, and that was because I didn’t know a different way. I had been parented with a father who was very critical, and who loved me, I’m sure, very much, and but that critical parenting got passed down, and it’s a term called transgenerational parenting, and it means that—they can even be ancestral wounds—they can be passed down from generation to generation unless we consciously decide to break that cycle. Which is what I did.
And in order to do that, the first thing that I decided to do was put everything on hold in my life, except my children. And I got down on the floor with them because I really needed to understand what the world felt like from their perspective, how it’s challenging and it’s so exciting and there’s so much to learn and so much to conquer, and at the same time it’s overwhelming and scary.
So, I got down on the floor with them, and I let myself be reminded what it’s like to be a child. And I played with them, and we built Lego and we sang songs, and I got a new box of crayons and I did coloring with my daughter, and I just really let myself be a kid again, and that was the first stepping point.
And from then on, I just went through a really long process of learning how to overcome the tendencies that we have from being parented in a different way and learning how to reframe that into something that I feel more comfortable with, that’s obviously helped me build a great relationship with my children. But it’s not a fast—there’s no magic bullet—and it’s something that I wake up every day and say, ‘Ok, today I’m going to be more patient and more peaceful’. But it’s been worth the journey.
The parenting style shift from control and punishments to connection and kindness starts with truly connecting with our kids. Really seeing their world through their eyes. Choosing every day to be more patient and more peaceful.
In that space, it’s so much easier to have conversations with our kids, to see them for who they are, rather than our vision of them, and to understand the motivations behind their behaviour.
Parenting Behaviour #4: Responding quickly to our children’s distress
Conventionally, many people think that children become spoiled when their parents actively soothe a child in distress, rather than encouraging them to “buck up.”
Some parents rush to soothe and placate a child in distress with the goal of getting them to be quiet and move on as quickly as possible. The distress becomes all about the parent’s comfort zone. They get the thing or stop the thing that the child is reacting to, regardless of the situation at hand or the other people who may be involved.
Over time, what the child learns is that yelling and/or crying is a consistent way to get what they want. The behaviour continues.
Unschooling parents also quickly respond to their child’s distress, but again, the outcome is very different.
Our motivation is to help our child move through the distressing situation, while considering the child’s needs and the bigger picture context of what’s happening. The over-riding focus is not on stopping things as quickly as possible but on helping the child move through their process. Because, of course, being in distress isn’t fun for them either. They don’t want to stay there—they want to move on too.
When we meet them where they are, when we validate their feelings and they feel seen and heard, they can begin to move through to the other side with us by their side. When we are empathetic, they learn that they have our support, that we will be there for them and will help them explore ways to both recognize potential challenges and do something before they bubble over and to move through distressed times when they happen.
Over time, the behaviours fade as they gain more experience.
Ellen mentioned being more patient and peaceful and I think that can be really helpful here too. When we can bring patience and empathy to our relationships with our kids, they end up in distress less often.
Jan Hunt shared a great story that shows empathy in action, not spoiling (Ten Questions with Jan Hunt):
PAM: I like the emphasis on empathy that you mention because, when you look at that, it is where validation really works; when you can meet them where they are and be with them—that is where your connection gets really strong with your child.
JAN: And feel what they are feeling; then you understand their feelings.
PAM: Yeah. And it’s not like taking it on and acting that way yourself. It is totally understanding and feeling it with them, so that you can join them there.
JAN: So that you know what they are feeling and you can help them. If you do not know what someone is feeling how can you help?
PAM: Because all your suggestions will not really connect with them because they are coming from where you are.
JAN: And your suggestions just come from your unquestioned assumptions.
PAM: The way I talk about it is seeing things through your child’s eyes, not about walking in somebody’s shoes. So often we say, “Well, if I was in that situation I would do this.” But no, you are not the one in that situation.
JAN: And you are not that person.
I can tell you a little story about that. One day, when Jason was a baby, I was having lunch at a restaurant with my brother-in-law who had no children. Jason had picked up a napkin or something and dropped it on the floor, and I would pick it up and give it to him and he would drop it back on the floor. This went on for like ten minutes and my brother-in-law was looking at me like I was insane. I realized that he thought maybe I was spoiling Jason and I just said, “He is learning about gravity,” and he goes, “Oh.”
He had no empathy because he had no children and had not spent much time with children. He thought he was being bad; he thought, ‘Jason’s making more work for his mom and his mom is not punishing him for that.’ At that time, I had enough empathy for Jason to know he was checking things out, he was learning why was this falling down.
PAM: And eventually you get to the point when you have had that experience enough times, and realize that it is ok even if you do not know quite what they are getting out of it. If they are still pursuing it, and doing it, you know they are getting something.
JAN: Yes, exactly. And even these days, he is in his 30s and I am going, “Why are you doing that?” then, “Oh I see.”
PAM: That reminds me of a story; this one stood out because, like you, it was just something I do. My daughter was in the pool and I had the net on the long handle. My mom was visiting, and Lissy kept coming over and I kept lifting up the pole with the net on it to lift her up out of the water and down—she just kept swimming back to it for me to lift up, for a whole ten minutes while chatting with my mom. Eventually my mom is like, “I cannot believe you are still doing that; you have so much patience,” and I was like, “Patience?”
JAN: Yes, I had a friend we were visiting once when Jason was three and I do not even remember what was happening, it was just a normal life for us. Whatever I was doing or saying to him or I was listening to him, what I was doing was sort of out of the ordinary and she said, “Oh you are so patient,” and all I could think was, ‘Isn’t that wonderful, I am teaching him patience.’ I mean, what is the problem with being patient with a child? So, you teach him to be a patient person.
Being patient and empathetic isn’t spoiling a child. It’s showing them wonderful ways to connect and be in relationship with another person.
And I wanted to share one last example of how, through the lens of unschooling, parents’ motivations behind their words and actions are very different and hence what the child learns from the experience is very different.
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” 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 different ways to move through those situations and get their needs met.
Instead of closing down and throwing demands and expectations at our kids, we can choose to open up and have conversations with their children.
Unschooling, done well, will not spoil a child.
And lastly, with all that we’ve talked about, I want to share a quote I came across recently from the book, You Belong: A Call for Connection by Sebene Selassie:
“Belonging is our capacity to feel joy, freedom, and love in any moment. As the late Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck said: Joy is exactly what’s happening, minus our opinion of it. She made a distinction between joy and happiness—Happiness has an opposite: unhappiness. Joy is not about happy or unhappy, liking or disliking. Joy is accepting each moment for what it is without contention. We belong to any moment simply by meeting it with joy. This is freedom. Love is the ultimate expression of joy and freedom. Joy, freedom, and love could be considered synonyms for each other, and for belonging.”Sebene Selassie, You Belong: A Call for Connection
This feeling of belonging, of being seen and celebrated for who you are, is what we’re cultivating with unschooling.
This beautiful, deep acceptance—this joy of what is happening in the moment, minus our opinion of it—does not spoil a child. Or an adult, for that matter!
It’s not something to avoid, it’s something to embrace.
As she shared, “We belong to any moment simply by meeting it with joy.”