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With unschooling the question often comes up:

“What if my children are never forced to do hard things? Will they ever learn grit and determination? Will they develop a sense of entitlement?”

The argument is often made that doing whatever you want is not how the real world works.


“What if a boss gives me a task I don’t want to do? I can’t keep a job and do whatever I want to do.”

Let’s think about that scenario a moment.

What if a boss gives you a task you don’t want to do?

Why don’t you want to do that task? I think that’s a relevant question. What if the boss is asking you (your child) to do something immoral, against your conscience?

I recently watched the movie “Experimenter,” which is an artistic telling of the life and psychological experiments of Stanly Milgram. Milgram’s experiments demonstrated how the average American would obey authoritative instructions (given calmly and not by force) to harm another person (or so the subject believed), even when it clearly went against their own conscience. Overwhelmingly people obeyed. Apparently the experiments have been recreated in recent years with the similar results.

I know everyone would like to say “I wouldn’t have done that,” but I must say, culture is a hard thing to escape. I have found myself in situations where I said “yes” to things that later I wondered why in the world I said “yes.” I think this is why so many women submit to things they would not otherwise choose in birth, because of culturally how we are socialized to submit to all authority, somehow believing the authority is able to take away the responsibility from ourselves and allow the responsibility to rest with the perceived higher (human) power. “Just following orders” and “Those are the rules” kind of mentality.

I remember reading the book “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher R. Browning in college. It tells the story of how ordinary, normally “good” people, came to do horrific atrocities in World War II. The question that swirls around and around my head is: How could this happen?!

Milgram, whose experiments were also fueled by that same question, came to call this phenomenon the “agentic state.” The agentic state theory asserts that:

“people allow others to direct their actions, and then pass off the responsibility for the consequences to the person giving the orders. In other words, they act as agents for another person’s will.”
The Milgram Experiment | Simple Psychology

Here’s a great clip from the movie “The Experimenter” with the character of Milgram explaining the agentic state.

I’ve been wondering how the experiments would go with homeschooled, unschooled, free schooled, and hunter-gatherer subjects. Is any of that enough to escape the compulsion to submit to authority when it goes against your conscience? My hunch is that, at very least, unschooling helps.

I want my children to always be questioning, and to always feel that sense of autonomy. I want them to see that any job they have, any action, as “my own choice.” I try not to socialize an agentic state in my children. It’s hard, though. Culture is loud. The pressure to conform is loud, and conforming is not inherently a negative thing.  You can’t just say “no to what everyone else is doing,” because that’s no more thoughtful than “yes to what everybody else is doing.” But I don’t want my children to passively go along with the program. That’s true. I want them to choose the program or not. I don’t want them to ever feel trapped in a job. My children may have seasons in their life where they choose drudgerous, hard work in order to be able to provide for their family (or some other reason), but I want them to always see that as a choice they are making, not a life they are forced to endure.

I think this distinction between the autonomous and agentic state goes along with the work of psychologist Carol Dweck for what she calls a “growth mindset.”

“A ‘fixed mindset’ assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A ‘growth mindset,’ on the other hand, thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities. Out of these two mindsets, which we manifest from a very early age, springs a great deal of our behavior, our relationship with success and failure in both professional and personal contexts, and ultimately our capacity for happiness.”
Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives – Brain Pickings

Hard Work - Part 1: What if my children are never forced to do hard things? | Starr-Eyed Pragmatist :: The Two Mindset Theory: Growth & Fixed by Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

The Two Mindset Theory: Growth & Fixed by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. source

I think an internal belief in one’s own autonomy is an integral part of having a growth mindset. Another aspect is being ok with making mistakes. How can a child learn how to “try better next time” if it is never ok to 1) make a choice (especially one not approved by a parent) and 2) make a foolish choice? I think my children need to practice making choices, both wise and foolish, to learn how to make wise choices in adulthood.

Now up to this point we have looked at the question from the perspective of the consequences of coercion and the benefits of autonomy. Next, in Part 2, we’ll go back and think about original question some more from this perspective: Do people do hard things even when they are not forced to do them?

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