Misconceptions: Unschooling Children are Self-Centred and Inconsiderate

Imagine giving children the freedom to choose. What if they are allowed to follow their own interests, and do whatever they like? What if there are no rules?

Perhaps this sounds like a recipe for disaster. Will it produce self-centred and inconsiderate children? A lot of people believe it will. And maybe they’re right. We’ve all heard of children who run wild as soon as they realise they no longer have to answer to anyone.

If we say to our children, “You can do whatever you like,” and then stand back and let them get on with it, perhaps they will indeed become self-absorbed. But such hands-off parenting isn’t unschooling. Letting go of control is not enough. We have to do more if we want our children to use their freedom in the right way.

How do children know what is the right thing to do? What motivates them to use their freedom in a positive way? How do we encourage children to be considerate, and self-giving?

We could start with a parent’s example. If we want considerate children we need to be considerate ourselves. If we want them to be more interested in the needs of others than in their own, we have to be willing to give of ourselves even when it’s inconvenient and we are tired and it hurts. Being a good example is essential. We can’t just talk to our children about the virtues we want to instil in them. It’s not even enough to show them virtue by sharing stories of people we want them to emulate. We have to endeavour to be the kind of people we want our children to become. And that’s hard.

But encouraging our children to be self-giving involves more than being a good example. That can’t be enough because, of course, I’m not perfect. None of us are. So in addition to living a life where we are willing to make sacrifices for others, we also need to love our children unconditionally.

I try to be a good example, but sometimes I fail. My children see me fall, but they also see me pick myself up and try again. That’s important. They understand how tough it is sometimes to do what is right, and they forgive me when I go astray. Why? Because they know I love them unconditionally and I forgive them when they make their own mistakes. They are treating me how I treat them.

Mistakes? Yes, unschooled children won’t always make good choices. But as I said, this is true for everyone. We all have times when we fail to live up to our ideals. But I do think unschooling gives children an internal sense of right and wrong. It comes from being loved unconditionally.

Love can be used as a carrot. Parents might show their love when children behave well and withdraw it when they are displeased, in the hope their children will think twice about their actions and resolve to do better in the future. But does this work? I have found the opposite to be true.

When we know we are loved, even when we make mistakes, we will strive to do better. We want to be worthy of such unconditional love. Maybe some people doubt the truth of my words. Won’t children take advantage of such love? Surely they will think they’ll be able to get away with anything if a parent continues to love regardless of behaviour? This sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But it’s not what I’ve experienced.

Love is so very powerful. I have been humbled by the love my children show me when I fail as a mother. I don’t say, “They’ll love me whatever I do so it doesn’t matter how I behave.” No, that love always encourages me to try harder, to be the best mother I can, to be worthy of the love I know I do not deserve but receive anyway.  Love can change mothers. Why should it be any different for children?

Going hand-in-hand with good example and unconditional love is guidance. Unschooling parents might not make rules, but they do live by principles and values which they share with their children. As a family, we are always talking. We discuss anything and everything in a respectful manner which means we don’t lecture our children or talk at them even though we have more experience than them. Children are as valuable as parents and should be treated with respect. When I listen carefully and respect a child, she in turn will respect and listen to me.  And then I can share my experience if I feel it will help. Of course, there are times when our children surprise us with their own thoughts. Sometimes they can teach us. Parents aren’t always right. This talking and listening and respecting each other results in us being connected to our children.

We can choose to give our children their freedom. Or we can hold onto them tightly. But why choose control when we know we can’t make children considerate and self-giving by force? Maybe you disagree with my last sentence, thinking we can indeed force children to behave as we think right. This is how I see it: The problem with control is that the motivation to behave a certain way is coming from outside the child. It comes from the parent who might not always be around to enforce it. To be truly valuable, the motivation to do right must come from within a child. We need to give her the opportunity to choose if she is to develop this kind of self-control. When a child is free to choose, she is free to give herself to others.

These are some of my thoughts on this topic, but they, of course, need to be backed up by evidence. What are real unschooled children like? I could tell you many, many stories about my own children to illustrate the points in this post. You’ll find lots of them here on this blog. Instead of repeating them perhaps I’ll just add a few links:


My children are considerate, loving, helpful, self-giving (but not perfect). They aren’t unusual. They are typical unschoolers. I think it is safe to say…

Just because an unschooling child has freedom of choice, this doesn’t mean she will choose to be inconsiderate and self-centred. That’s definitely a misconception.

PS Of course not all people who describe themselves as unschoolers are necessarily unschooling. This is why we can all say, “I know an unschooling family where the children are wild and self-centred… ” Perhaps we need to look past labels, to the principles people are living their lives by, when we are looking for the evidence that will dispel the various myths. 

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  1. Reply

    Sue. I agree wholeheartedly with your well-stated article. I have found it interesting while researching unschooling online that those who seem hostile to the Gospel of Christ seem much more readily open to the idea of unschooling freedom while those in the Christian camp can seem so obsessed with child brilliance and perfection. I wonder if we were 100% convinced of The Lord's guidance and direction in our lives coupled with complete disregard to outside opinions if unschooling would feel very natural and obvious for those in the Faith. Since homeschooling is about relationship, faith, trust, and love it would seem to be the perfect fit with our Faith in Christ.

    1. Reply


      I'm so glad you understood what I was trying to say! It took me a long time to get my thoughts in order and even then, I feared I didn't make much sense. Also, sometimes people don't understand our thoughts because they haven't had the same experiences as us and are looking at things in a different way.

      Unschooling is so in tune with Christianity. Maybe people think it's their Christian duty to hold tightly to their children and keep them safe with rules, even if this proves hard (it's just what parents have to do), so unschooling is not seen as being a legitimate Christian way of life. I do agree with you: If we trust God is guiding our lives and we follow regardless of other people's opinions, unschooling does seem very natural. "relationship, faith, trust, and love"… oh yes!

    2. Reply

      I'm so grateful Sue for your ministry. It's so fabulous to have a mom friend all the way in Australia. Isn't it interesting how you are entering into Fall just as we are entering into Spring. Our summer is so short here that it is all we can do to get enough rest in the summer months. We make up for it as we hibernate through winter. I listened to your podcast on Podbean about the weather and enjoyed it. You know about winters! We know a little about wild fires here. A few years ago it was so dry that the air was filled with orange smoke for days because of wild fires.

      We have friends who live over in Perth. They are originally from London but moved to Alaska for a time. I met her at a first-time-moms group through our hospital. Our firstborns were only six weeks old. After several years they moved to Perth and have been there ever since. They did move back to Anchorage for a very short time but moved back suddenly. Her husband works for the oil business. My husband does as well but we have not moved around. I would love to live abroad for awhile though. Maybe someday in the future.

    3. Reply


      I'm continually grateful for the Internet which has allowed me to make friends with so many beautiful people across the world. I am so glad we have become friends. It's great being able to share ideas about education and parenting, as well as swap details of our lives. Yes, our weather patterns must be very different. The weather does influence our lives so much. I would never have imagined you experience wild fires too. That's interesting!

      My eldest daughter lives in Perth. I have never been there, but I am told it is a beautiful city. My daughter loves it! I think she likes the fact the city is on the coast and the weather is very mild. We live inland up an escarpment where it is cooler than the coast. Very different from Perth!

      As you know from my podcast, I lived in England and Wales for a time, but we haven't been overseas for many years. We've become homebodies! Perhaps you will get to travel one day!

      Thank you so much for your comment and for listening to my podcast!

  2. Reply

    A very thoughtful post, Sue. I think your words fit for all children, whether they're unschooled or they go to regular school. I agree about unconditional love not meaning lack of control. If anything, when a child feels unconditional love, I doubt there is a need to act out for attention. The child feels safe and confident to learn and discover about her world. The parent also feels safe and confident to let the child explore her world. A child growing up feeling unconditional love evolves into a more balanced adult.

    1. Reply


      I also thought about unconditional love and children in general as I was writing. Maybe what you describe is attachment parenting. We tend to associate this style of parenting with babies and toddlers, but perhaps we need to continue showing that unconditional love as they get older (regardless of education choices). It's always good to mull things over with you!

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