If there were a top 5 list of concerns about unschooling, the “spoiling” question would probably be right behind “how will they learn to read?”.
Recently I read an article entitled, “Reasons Today's Kids Are Bored at School, Feel Entitled, Have Little Patience & Few Real Friends" by an occupational therapist named Victoria. I disagreed with nearly all of the piece, but it expressed one particular concern that I’ve heard about unschooled kids specifically.
A Widely-Held Belief: Self-Directed Kids Can't Handle the World
Victoria writes, “If we leave it all up to them [kids], all they are going to do is eat macaroni and cheese and bagels with cream cheese, watch TV, play on their tablets, and never go to bed.”
It’s funny, because this cheese-hating author is writing hypothetically about what kids would do if left to their own devices, without ever taking the time to talk to parents who literally leave their kids to their own devices.
The concern from writers like this is that without adult-imposed hardships, kids will never learn what it means to get their hands dirty and work on anything of substance. She worries that children will feel entitled to a perfect world that never presents them with challenges, and that they will be less hardy and resilient when they leave their parents’ homes and face the cold reality of the “real world.”
But is this true? For the vast majority of kids, we’ll never know. Their parents will impose artificial hardships aplenty with the same justification that this author uses. But how do kids who actually do what they want face the world's challenges?
A Glimpse of Unschooling Children Dealing with Stress
For the last eight days our family traveled to the United Kingdom to visit friends (whom we incidentally met through the Free State Project!) with our three children ages seven and under. The trip was generally an incredible time, but if you want to create an environment where hardships abound, flying six-and-a-half hours to a time zone five hours ahead is a good start. How did our children cope?
Well, on the flight over, our oldest son became afflicted with some combination of air-sickness and over-tiredness, and ultimately vomited for the last two hours of our travel. His five-year-old brother (often the needier of the two) rallied behind him – carrying his bags, checking on him frequently, and even offering to push the little chair the airport gave us when we landed.
On the second day of our trip, we learned that our much-anticipated trip to London was going to be a much hairier ordeal than we would have guessed. What we thought would be a 50-minute journey was expected to be two hours due to rail work. When Taylor (my wife) reported the news to see if our kids still wanted to try to go, they unanimously agreed that they did.
One of them said, “You think we came all this way to let a little delay stop us?!”
The trip into London wound up being four-and-a-half hours of trains, replacement buses, the UK underground, and more walking in a day than our family would typically do in a week – and all without a single complaint. What’s more than that, we actually had a phenomenal time experiencing the journey of traveling in a foreign country without worrying about reaching the destination.
None of this is to say that our kids never complain. They do. But when these unusually difficult circumstances presented themselves, they rose to the challenge and took them head on.
Children Can Rise to the Challenge
We see our children succeed every day in their self-directed challenges (a hard video game level, an interpersonal conflict with a friend, or feeling overtired from staying up too late), but it was pretty amazing to see in a land far away from home and outside of their comfort zone. Self-directed children can be resilient!
The rest of the trip followed in much the same way. We had some incredible times, faced difficulties, had to adapt on the fly to unpredictable events, and had to avoid getting run over by cars driving on the wrong side of the road. But our kids, who literally do whatever they want most of the time, more than rose to the occasion.
Now none of this will serve as concrete evidence to dispute Victoria's guesses about what kids become when left to their own devices, but it certainly raises at least one interesting question...
Do Choices Lead to Laziness and Entitlement...or Focus and Autonomy?
Victoria posits that kids are given too many choices and it leads to a lack of resilience and work ethic. If this is true, then shouldn’t the kids who are given the most choices be the least resilient and the laziest? Our experience so far suggests that they aren’t, and I actually think the author has it exactly wrong.
When kids are left to pursue their own path in the world, they are presented with obstacles and difficulties every single day. While these challenges might not seem meaningful to the adults around them, to the kids, they really matter.
Kids who choose their own path take the challenges before them seriously. Instead of facing down the arbitrary challenges of overbearing adults, like doing homework and finishing their broccoli, they are taking on challenges of their own choosing. Instead of focusing on resenting the person who is forcing them to be challenged arbitrarily, they simply focus on the task at hand.
I think these children will then pursue a life filled with meaningful challenges of their choosing, doing their best to be their own productive, successful authority most of the time. They might not ever find a life that perfectly meets that description, but it’s at least a worthy target.
Freedom: The Best Practice for Adulthood
So are unschooled kids spoiled? Only if you think allowing someone to be free is spoiling them. And if freedom spoils children, then why don’t adults who make their own decisions get more spoiled as they get older? It’s absurd when you sit down and think about it.
I’d rather give my kids more practice making decisions and facing their chosen challenges than dictate their choices and make up their challenges. I hope that I am giving them plenty of practice, so that making good decisions will come easily when they are adults living on their own....but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
5/22/18 Editor's Note: The author's name of the piece cited in this blog has been corrected.
James is an unschooling father of three, an entrepreneur, and a Free State Project mover living on the Seacoast of New Hampshire. When he’s not spending time with his own children, he tries to get adults throughout the country to re-think the adult-child relationship through speaking engagements, staff trainings, and his podcast, One Free Family. He continues to experiment with the ideas of child autonomy and self-direction at Camp Stomping Ground, a summer camp he co-founded in 2014.