Does Unschooling Spoil the Child? A Candid Conversation

This discussion appeared recently on the Christian Unschooling Facebook Group:

Does Unschooling Create Spoiled BratsSARAH D: So, I’m reading a lot regarding unschooling at the moment, most of it seems to be geared towards giving our children all their wants/needs – first thing is this scriptural? Wants not needs – I mean, should we get our children all their wants? Will they not turn into spoilt brats? Secondly, what if you just can’t facilitate them? Financially, space-wise, time etc?

MISSY: There is an element of realism that comes into play here – and that is how we learn about things – we’re all on a budget, we can’t get our kids everything that they want. It’s not about giving in to everything, it’s about mutual respect between parents and the children – treating them as equal persons in the household and realizing that their wants are just as valuable as your wants.

As for scripture: Matthew 7:9-11 (NIV) “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

PS – Sarah, I was RIGHT where you are three years ago as I was reading all of the unschooling literature. It’s overwhelming at first and feels INSANE. Just start small – saying yes to more things – eliminating rules that are there purely for convenience or because “that’s what others are doing.” One thing at a time.

SARAH D: Thanks, yes I have always leaned towards unschooling but didn’t know what to read and feel like I am just beginning to fully grasp it, as I am more aware of various authors and websites and friends that follow this philosophy too. When my older two were younger I was just waiting for them to bring me something not realising just how involved you should be as a parent!

AADEL: I think it is more about letting our kids go out and get want they want rather than limiting them with socially constructed boundaries that we don’t think twice about or question whether they really matter in the long run. Unschooling is about a relationship dynamic more than it is about just giving into our kids. We both have a say – and like Missy says reality kicks in and we can’t give our kids everything. They learn through natural boundaries rather than arbitrary ones. (If that made any sense because I am very tired this morning!)

SARAH C: The “spoilt” children that I know have not been spoiled by too much stuff (or too much freedom), but by inconsistent conditional love and by parents who equate love with stuff. I struggled at first, in a Christian climate that treats all desire as sinful and teaches that the way to stop someone sinning is to hurt them when they do (and the way to stop children from asking for things is to deny them everything). But at the bottom of it all, I don’t believe blessing children causes them to want more, but rather to feel satisfied.

SARAH D: I’m struggling as a lot of the unschooling stuff is written by people who do not as yet know Christ, and I don’t want to adopt an unscriptural approach! It’s also hard coming from a Christian family where we are told children are manipulative and I know we are all born into sin so don’t necessarily buy into the all children want to do the right/good thing if we just give them chance. I do believe there is an element of training children that is needed but more in a “guidance and facilitating” way than a “punishing and control” type way. I’m just trying to find the balance I guess.

MISSY: Have you read Sara Janssen’s blog? Walk Slowly, Live Wildly. She has a lot of unschooly stuff from a Christian perspective. There are also a TON of great blogs from writers on this site with lots of wisdom.

SARAH D: Oh wow thank you, that blog looks great.

AADEL: Also – if you look up some authors about grace-based parenting that might help. Let me go look for a couple that I have read.

SARAH C: I believe that children born into a Christian family know God from their earliest days, and are our brothers and sisters in Christ – so the Biblical way to treat them is as disciples, who we walk alongside, learn and grow with, and treat as responsible for their own selves. Of course if you don’t believe that they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, then if anything our responsibility is even greater to lavish love upon them and go the extra mile for them! Radical-ish unschooling and grace-based discipline are for me indistinguishable in the outworking. One may talk about having healthy boundaries, the other may talk about feeling free to say no when you need to, it looks the same in real life. (My favourite GBD site is Arms of Love Family Fellowship, although she doesn’t consider herself an unschooler at all.)

TAMI: Sarah D, I would also read these books both written from a Christian perspective:

“Home Educating with Confidence” by Rick & Marilyn Boyer. I don’t think they would call themselves “unschoolers” but I think they would self-describe as “delight driven.”

“The Successful Homeschool Family Handbook” by Raymond & Dorothy Moore. This one gives a greater understanding the merits and research basis of delayed academics, and the way the house looks/run without “doing school.”

SARAH D: Ooo I have read the first one and have the other on my bookshelf yay!

TAMI: What also really helped me get my head wrapped around how to have a peaceful household with a healthy balance between freedom and boundaries (not perfectly, but in general) was to watch a ton of videos and read up on how Sudbury schools work.Here’s a great playlist to get you started: Sudbury videos.

TESSA: We’ve always been paycheck-to-paycheck since we started unschooling. So, for us, it was definitely not about giving our children every single thing they wanted. It was just about letting go and giving them the freedom to choose they wanted to learn and doing our best to show them how to find the information they were interested in.

And it’s even more so now, since we have literally no money (just moved to NH 1 1/2mo ago and hubby doesn’t have a job yet). And, living in a house with 6 other people (making 10 people total), means we have no real space of our own. So, lol, can’t bring out a whole lot of our stuff at once either. The internet is a wonderful, wonderful tool that is used basically non-stop in our family right now (no gas for vehicle to even go check out the local library).

CARMA: As others have said, it’s not about over-indulging, or even just indulging, the children’s every whim. In its simplest definition unschooling is simply learning as life brings you opportunities, and without a forced schedule or curriculum. When you get into radical unschooling, that’s when you begin to carry the philosophy over into other aspects of parenting. When you remove “instant unquestioning obedience” as a goal for parenting, it opens up so many more options for relating to your child and escorting them gently into the adult world!

As a simple example: I never forced my children to wear a coat when I thought it was cold. If they didn’t want one, I would ask them to step outside and check the temps. If they still didn’t want to wear one, knowing that they might be cold later, I would just bring one along for them. No big deal, no need to turn it into a battle for supremacy on the one hand or an object lesson on the other. Instead, it was a partnership with me (the more experienced partner) being as prepared as possible for what might happen, and the child being given both autonomy and a good opportunity to learn on her own (without being forced) that mom sometimes knows what she’s talking about. And mom learning that often the kid really ISN’T cold even if mom is!

MELISSA: Sarah D, here is a blog post I put together called Can Christians Unschool. It has links to great sources, maybe it might be of interest to you:

We tend to fall into the radical unschooling category, so for us giving to our children is all about being generous with them with our time and our money. Obviously, if the money is not there to do so, then that is a factor. But it also brings into play, if Mom and Dad have money for their own wants, then it stands to reason they should make the wants of their children just as important as well.

We give our kids spending money, not money earned, just money to save up to spend or to spend right away on something they need. As we are able we also buy them things they’d like to have. Doesn’t have to be crazy things. Sometimes it’s a trip to pick out some candy at the local drug store, or a jaunt for ice cream, or some craft kits from the dollar store, and sometimes it’s books, or toys, or even plants for their rooms.

I’ve found Sandra Dodd and Joyce Fetteroll to be more respectful of children and to parent more in Jesus’ footsteps than many who profess to be Christian and yet parent very harshly.

CARMA: Another example: my oldest refused to hold my hand in parking lots or crossing the street. Now she was not a kid who would dash away from me as some will, so I had options. I thought about it and told her she could ride in the cart or put her hand in my pocket, but if she didn’t do that then she would need to hold my hand. She usually chose to tuck her hand into my pocket – we never had a problem. Come to find out, she has Asperger syndrome and STILL doesn’t like holding hands (she’s now 17); it is a very real sensory issue for her so I’m doubly glad I didn’t push it.

STACEY: I am raising a second family of sorts. I have 2 grown bio kids and now have 4 young ones adopted internationally. My adopted kids all came home a little older: 19 months, 4 years, 3 1/2 years, and 8 1/2 years old and with various levels of “trauma.” I have homeschooled for over 16 years. These 4 little ones have different special needs, attachment issues, emotional/social delays and I am “academically” UNschooling them and don’t live by schedules, but do everything else according to traditional Christian/Biblical values … does that make sense? So I’m definitely not radical unschooling, but maybe I don’t really count as unschooling either.

The point is all my kids are SO different from each other and so different then raising my birth kids that I have to adjust things constantly to their ever changing needs, moods , behaviors. Each kid needs something different. “Raise up a child in the way he should go….” That might look different for each child. I have learned that I cannot do things the same way I used to do them when raising my oldest two. I can’t always do things according to some predetermined method or philosophy, but I sometimes have to wing it. God will give wisdom for each situation.

BOBBI: I have been thinking a lot about this as well. I have in the past spent very little money on the kids even though they got plenty of toys every birthday and Christmas so they “got stuff.” But we have been radically unschooling for maybe 5 months now and have been SHOWERING the them with as much stuff as they requested and sometimes didn’t even ask for (in budget of course).

At first they seemed to horde it like it was all going to be short lived and taken away. Then they started acting like they were entitled to it and I was unfair because I “wouldn’t” buy something, ANYTHING very small – we had NO extra money! He was downright ugly toward me but it eventually surfaced that he thought the tie-dye kit (for all of us) was more important to me than he was!! This was KEY in really getting to the heart of the issue. From years of putting other things before his wants, this was the deep hurt and thought pattern that had developed! I was able to apologize for past wrongs and talk gently with him and also explain how we just don’t always have the money to get him what he is wanting.

Having said all that, I too have wondered still recently “Am I fostering a spoiled mindset?” But then I think back to how hateful and mean and argumentative and nasty my boys were, to each other mostly but not only, because it was also to many others around them. They did not care and did not give and did not communicate respectfully because I did not demonstrate those things on so many levels. I THOUGHT I did, and tried to, but was controlling, manipulative, coersive, stingy, selfish, spanking. Basically I did not understand unconditional love toward our very own God-given but not “owned” children.

They have STOPPED fighting! The 12yo has stopped bullying (for the most part) and the 7yo has stopped whining (for the most part). They are also starting to do stuff for me and others out of hearts that simply help.

So, granted, it is not just the getting stuff but the overall changes that have affected our boys so possitively. The idea that they MATTER ENOUGH and are IMPORTANT enough. If I can I will. But at the same time balancing that with making sure they also learn responsibity by earning money for some of the things they want. It can’t all just be given to them.

By example I taught them how to be selfish. Now, by example, I am teaching them how to GIVE!

Space-wise.. if you have the space, I say “get it!” Even if it only stays for a while it’s an experience! They could sell it later. Or maybe see if they would be willing to keep it in their room knowing exactly how much space it would take. Let them decide. Then if it’s too big they will have learned from their own choices in a safe environment without feeling any “I told you so!”

SARAH D: Thank you, that makes sense. I do tend to get the children what I can, when I can, and sometimes worry that I’m not teaching them the value of things but actually I like your explanation! LOL

JACINDA: Not read other comments but we CAN’T remotely give our kids much. They live very basic lives and are happy. We just live. And I consider that most of what they need to learn from.

FURTHER READING: Giving in to My Kids (Or, Why I Unschool)

[Editor’s note: These posts have been slightly edited for publication. Brief side comments that did not add to the discussion were removed; shortened words and abbreviations were expanded for clarity (such as US for unschooling or DD for dear daughter), and names may have been changed at the original poster’s request.]

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