The ‘Risky’ Business of Trusting Children

Trusting children to make their own choices sounds risky enough when it applies only to education, but what if you extend this trust to other areas of life? Will children decide they don’t want to go to Mass or eat healthy food? Perhaps they will want to watch inappropriate movies or play computer games all day. Some parents decide they just can’t pass control over to their children as it would be irresponsible. They wouldn’t be fulfilling their duty of protecting and caring for their children. At first glance this might all seem very true.

But I wonder… why should children choose to do things parents feel are not appropriate? Can the way we parent influence the choices a child makes? Can we give a child the freedom to choose but at the same time be confident they will make the right choices? I think we can. If I didn’t, I would keep firm control over my children at all times, because I regard myself as a responsible parent.


I ask Charlotte what it feels like not to be trusted.

“I don’t know,” she says. “You always trust me.”

“I don’t think it would be very nice,” says Sophie. “I’ve read books about children who aren’t trusted.”

“Why do parents think the worst of their children?” asks Imogen. “Why do they assume they will always do the wrong thing if they have the choice? Aren’t they confident they have given them the skills to make good choices?”

Maybe there are misconceptions about unschooling. Unschooling parenting isn’t hands-off. Children aren’t thrust out into the world and told to find out everything for themselves. They don’t have to decide what is right and what is wrong without any input from their parents.

Children are brought up in a family. They observe their parents and learn from their example. If they feel secure and respected and valued and are treated with love and kindness, why shouldn’t children love and trust their parents and accept their values?

The biggest fear for parents when they think about unschooling seems to revolve around the issue of the Faith. Of course it’s important that Catholic children know and love their Faith. We can’t leave them to discover what faith is all about alone. It’s our duty to share the truth with them, but, as I see it, we can hardly fail to share it. Faith is something we live. It’s who we are. We discuss it. We read about it. We pray together. We go to Mass as a family. Our children are immersed in our Catholic Faith and they accept the truth we live.

My husband Andy and I never say, “You have to come to Mass,” but I admit we also never say, “Do you want to come to Mass?” Going to Mass is just not an issue. We believe in God. We are Catholics. We go to Mass. That’s what we do. It’s just like breathing. In our 26 years of parenting, not one of our children has ever said, “I don’t want to go to Mass with you.”

I say to my children, “Why have you never questioned going to Mass?”

“Why shouldn’t we come? We want to come. We love going to Mass and it’s the right thing to do.” They look at me as if they don’t understand why I’d ask such a question. Perhaps some questions don’t even have to be asked.

Will my children always want to practise their Faith? I have no idea. They do have free will. I don’t think any parent can Faith-proof their children, whatever their method of parenting. But I feel I have done my part responsibly. The rest is up to them.

What about inappropriate movies and books? Should we let children read and watch anything they choose?

We can try and control what our children read, and this is possible when they are young, but there comes a time when we have to trust them. I think it’s more valuable to ensure they know what is right and what is wrong, rather than censor everything. What is right and what is wrong… We discuss so much with our children. Our unschooling children do listen to us, just like we listen to them, and they do respect our opinions.

When the boys were young teenagers they went together to the cinema. We weren’t sure if the movie would be entirely appropriate and there was one scene that wasn’t. When the boys returned home they told me about it.

“It was okay, Mum,” said Duncan, the elder brother. “We didn’t watch that scene. I told Callum to look away until it was over. I sort of glanced at the screen every now and then until I was sure it was safe to watch the movie again.”

I was really touched by this. That inbuilt sense of right and wrong ensured they acted appropriately. I didn’t need to be there to control the situation.

Of course, there are some things that just aren’t worth worrying about. A child has the right to choose what she wears each day, and what and how much she eats. She knows how much sleep she needs and whether she needs a cardigan or not. Maybe little children might need some help in determining these needs and how to fulfil them, but it can be done gently and without taking over. We can guide rather than control until we are no longer needed. I wonder if we tend to want to have a say long after that time has arrived.

I think children can recognise they need us…

“Girls, I’ve just thought of something else. What if you came to me and said you want to leave home. Should I let you? Should I trust you to know what you need?”

“Mum! Don’t be silly. We’re not ready to leave home. We know that. We still need you.”

“I guess there might be some children who can’t wait to leave home because they feel their parents exert too much control over them,” someone adds.

That makes me think: I wonder if some children are inadvertently pushed into making the wrong choices by never being trusted? If we hold too tightly out of fear, don’t we run the risk our children will rebel? We will lose them, despite our best attempts to protect and look after them.

So is it risky trusting children, giving them the freedom to choose? I will speak for my own unschooled children… I don’t believe it is.

(Just in case anyone is wondering… I no longer have babies and toddlers but if I did, I wouldn’t let them play in the street even if that’s what they wanted to do. That would be irresponsible. But I would let them eat whenever they were hungry, and sleep with me and carry them around if they didn’t want to be alone…)

All the views in this post are based solely on observing my own unschooled children. I have no idea if they are in line with accepted radical unschooling philosophy.

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  1. Reply

    I really do love this post! Too many things to respond to but what you said about discussing things with our children stands out and, also, the last part about responsibility. We can protect our children without controlling them, can't we? I think it all comes down to selfless, unconditional love.

    Despite the fact that I have never followed a formal religious program and our children have only one Catholic parent, our older children have grown up with a strong and well-informed faith. Like you said, we discussed and lived the faith (I think they were lucky to have two parents who were supportive of the faith even if one was not practicing).

    Thank you for writing these posts and helping me to think and understand more.

    God bless:-)

    1. Reply


      "selfless, unconditional love" Yes! I should have incorporated those words somewhere in my post. They are perfect. I think you are so right. It all comes down to unconditional love. It's so easy to give that kind of love to babies who we love just as they are. As children get older other things seem to get in the way which is sad.

      I am sure you will agree that faith isn't a textbook or a program, though being willing to learn more about it increases our love and understanding of it. Children need to experience it in action.

      A lot of the time, I know how things are in our family but can't explain why. Exploring ideas through writing helps me to understand. Thank you for sharing my thoughts!

      God bless!

    • Anonymous
    • May 28, 2013

    I am happy to read that not following a traditional religion program can still lead to faith filled children and adults.

    In our family I really do not like to force my kids to eat what they do not want to. I do not even insist they try a bite. I try to keep mostly healthy foods in the house especially for this kids who do not like what is for dinner. However, I only cook one dinner per night – they need to fix something themselves if they do not like my child friendly cuisine. I do have two kids who are choosier with regards to eating but other kids who will try new things.


    1. Reply


      We love sharing saints books and DVDs. We are also reading "The Creed in Slow Motion" after Suzie Andres recommended it. I have "The Mass in Slow Motion" too. So many good books! Charlotte has been listening to some podcasts. So have I! There are many wonderful resources we can share with our children even if we choose not to use a program.

      I gave up the food battle after a long fight. It took me a long time to realise that children's preferences should be respected. I always assumed that if I liked something, they should like it too. If only they tasted it… I like your approach! We also only cook one meal but I make sure that at least part of the meal is liked by everyone, and just add simple extras to replace the bits someone may not like.

      Thank you for sharing!

  2. Reply

    Sue, these posts are so timely for me. God bless you! I wish we could just sit down and chat over a cup of coffee. Thank you from the bottom of my heart! Keep writing.

    1. Reply


      I would love to sit and chat over coffee too! It has been so lovely sharing ideas with you recently. Thank you for your encouragement. Maybe if I write more, you can also keep adding your own thoughts, so we can work out this parenting/homeschooling thing!

  3. Reply

    I think you are quite right, if we "helicopter" our children they will never be in a position to make a decision for themselves and may struggle as adults.

    We need to reinforce that we trust them to make decisions for themselves and that they will be the right ones. Of course there will always be children and adults that are exceptions to any rule … lol

    Another great post Sue!

    1. Reply


      "Helicopter"… That is such a great description!

      I've been thinking about how kids thrive on trust. They just seem to grow in confidence and ability, and want to do their best for us.

      Exceptions to the rule… I am smiling! Yes, some children and adults never seem to make the best decisions. My son Callum is always making mistakes but I don't think that's a bad thing. Sometimes my husband just wants to jump in and take over to prevent him getting himself into yet another mess. But I think some people learn best by making mistakes. They need to experience things for themselves, and try out their own ideas. All the mistakes Callum is making aren't sinful or life threatening so I just support him and commiserate with him when things go wrong. I know he appreciates my support and unconditional love. They give him the courage to pick himself up and try again. It would be so easy to make him feel a failure. I tell him I admire his willingness and enthusiasm to keep trying!

      Trusting kids to make the right decisions… I don't think they are always going to make the perfect decision. No one does. But as long as the decisions aren't harmful or dangerous (which they're not in our case) maybe it doesn't matter.

      Your comment made me think. Thank you!

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