Unschooling and Self Worth

Girl Playing Piano - Unschooling and Self Worth

(First published in Live Free Learn Free, 2006)

My husband is out mowing the backyard, and I have the strong urge to bring him a glass of water.

When I was little, my father mowed the lawn every weekend, and it was my job to bring him ice water – a job I took very seriously.  I made sure to find his favorite cup, put in just the right amount of ice, and fill it to the very top with cold tap water.  I carried it carefully so that I wouldn’t spill a drop, and I smiled as I handed it to him.  It only took him a moment to drink, but he was always so appreciative.  It made me feel worthy.

Making A’s in school was also a source of self-worth.  A– wasn’t enough, and I literally cringed at the thought of a B. Unfortunately, there were a few subjects (geometry, anyone?) that I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around, and I carried the guilt of my less-than-perfect performance with me for years.  I wasn’t good enough.

Other sources of “self-worth”?  Boyfriends, professors, bosses, paychecks, new clothes, strangers who paid me compliments…. Notably missing as a source of self-worth was my self.

Children as Individuals

Girl Blowing Bubbles - Unschooling and self worth

For us, one of unschooling’s greatest benefits is its natural reverence for a child’s self-worth. Rather than imposing our own structure on our children’s education, it necessitates that we trust our children and help them find and follow their own interests, forge their own paths, and pursue their own dreams.

Unschooling strips away many of the artificial sources of self-worth so prominent in our schooled society: scores, grades, rankings, placements, tracks, diplomas. Without these artifices, unschooled children are free to explore their worlds however they see fit without the fear of failure that drives so many schooled children. When the expectation is that a child should do what is right for her/himself, rather than conform to another’s schedule or agenda, there is, in fact, no way to “fail,” and without this fear lingering over them, children are more likely to pursue their passions, take risks, and persist despite adversity.

Not only are unschooled children free from grades and tracking, but they are also free from labels – labels such as “learning disabled,” “ADD/ADHD,” and even “gifted.” These labels, and others, do little more than limit and pigeonhole children. And, not surprisingly, they detract from their sense of self-worth. Every label has a stigma, a stereotype, and children are often quick to internalize these images, molding themselves to fit society’s vision of them.


Unlike schooled children, unschoolers are responsible for their own educations, a crucial element in building intrinsic sources of self-worth. Responsibility leads children to trust themselves – their opinions, judgments, feelings and intuitions. They are also more able to own up to, learn from, and rectify their mistakes, rather than hiding them or feeling ashamed because of them.

Because they are responsible for themselves, unschoolers have a vested interest in the outcome of any project or decision. They want to succeed – not for a grade or a pat on the back, but for themselves. In order to do this, they ask for help when needed (something frowned upon by most teachers; cooperating isn’t positive – it’s cheating!), work to understand problems by researching and asking questions, put in the effort required, and both attend to details and carefully craft the desired outcome.

The Gift of Time

Boy Picking Dandelions - Unschooling and Self WorthUnschooling also allows a child time – time to dream, time to plan, time to do. There are no bells requiring them to stop one thing and start another, no deadlines, and no age requirements. Instead, they have time to dream big dreams and to focus on projects and passions. By spending so much time directing their own education, choosing their activities and thinking for themselves, they learn more about who they are than they would if they simply followed someone else’s schedule.

Ultimately, unschooled children simply know themselves better than most. They understand not only what they like and don’t like, but the reasons behind their tastes. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They know what they believe and why. They are in tune with their selves and are, predictably, more confident in their choices and in their actions.

Perhaps it is because most people don’t know themselves well that they look to outside sources to VERIFY their self-worth. They don’t know enough to value or devalue themselves, so they look for input from those around them. They have an extrinsic sense of self worth.

How Adults Help

In traditional child/adult relationships, the parent or teacher tells the child how to feel about her/himself, either with good grades and other external rewards, or with poor marks, punishments and disappointment. Not unexpectedly, the child never develops internal measures of self-worth and is constantly looking to others to gauge how s/he should feel about her/himself. “Am I good enough?” “Am I successful?” Even, “Am I happy?”

Unschoolers, on the other hand, are usually surrounded by adults who genuinely care for and are interested in them, who are concerned about their welfare, and who respect both their choices and them as individuals. Adults are viewed, not as dictators who dole out punishments and rewards, but as nurturing facilitators and guides, assisting when the child asks for help and offering advice when needed. They help children find their way in a large and complex world, allowing them to explore, discover and come to understand their planet, their cultures, their communities and, ultimately, themselves.

Happy with Himself

Boy at the ocen - Unschooling and self worth

So far, my son doesn’t share the problem that I had growing up. He knows himself – his strengths and weaknesses, his aspirations and limitations – and he feels good about who he is. If he’s unable to do something or is unsure about something, he asks for help – a step I was always afraid to take, not wanting anyone else to know I wasn’t “good enough” to solve the problem on my own.

And when he does do something well, all on his own or with the help he needs, it is a source of pride for him. It doesn’t, however, define who he is. He enjoys presenting his creations to others, but doesn’t do so simply to feel good about himself. Instead, he shows them what he thinks they’ll enjoy. He knows I love Lego, so he often leads me, eyes closed, to his newest creations, where he surprises me with colorful robots or complicated buildings. He knows his artist father enjoys superheroes and comic books, so whenever he draws a new comic, he makes sure his father gets to read it. His grandmother is a musician and always gets to hear his newest songs.

And he’s decided, on his own, to bring his father the glass of water I poured – simply because he likes to help. He’s not looking for approval. He doesn’t need to. He’s happy with himself, and that’s what really matters.