How to Raise a Rebel
I’ve been running parenting workshops full-time around Australia for close to ten years and in all that time no parent has ever told me: “I want to raise weak children who are followers and who can’t think for themselves. Obedient sheep. That’s what I want my kids to be.” On the contrary, I am consistently being told by parents that they want to raise kids who are strong, independent thinkers. They want to raise leaders.
Ironically, however, as soon as their kids start to demonstrate strength and independence I see many parents tell their kids to “cut it out, do as you’re told, and stop speaking back to me!” Obviously when we tell our kids to do something it’s because we know it’s a good thing. We want them to listen to us because our ideas are good. But if our goal is to raise independent kids, we don’t want them to follow us so perfectly. Instead, we want to help them think for themselves.
It would certainly be convenient to raise compliant children who behave well, who don’t break rules and who don’t challenge us. But is raising an obedient child really the end goal? Do we want a mindlessly compliant child who merely follows the crowd, even (and especially) when the crowd is doing the wrong thing? Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting says,
"If [kids] take their orders from other people, that may include people we may not approve of. To put it the other way around: kids who are subject to peer pressure at its worst are kids whose parents taught them to do what they’re told".
Obedience and convenience are nice to have. But they may not be what will help our children flourish or develop a deep moral conscience. Perhaps we might do well to encourage our children to be a little more… rebellious?
Reflexive rebels versus reflective rebels
But if we’re going to raise rebels, we need to do it the right way. I recognise the irony is prescribing how we should encourage rebellion, but let me explain: There are two types of rebels: reflexive rebels and reflective rebels. A reflexive rebel is your typical teenage rebel without a cause. They’re the ‘you can’t tell me what to do, it’s my life!’ kind of rebel. This kind of rebellion, if not handled carefully, can end up causing ruptured relationships, anger and pain. And that is because the focus is on self rather than other.
A reflective rebel, on the other hand, rebels by challenging the status quo, breaking rules constructively and creating positive changes by doing so. This kind of rebel chafes at inequality, intolerance and unkindness and rebels against a world that creates injustice. Reflective rebels focus on others rather than on self. Rebellious kids are willing to think for themselves rather than bowing down to the god of popular opinion or being swept up in the current that takes them down the path of least resistance. Rebellious kids are willing to make hard choices and take hard stands in defence of what they believe in and what they know is right.
So, how do we encourage this good kind of rebellion in our kids?
Don’t tell them what to think. Instead, ask them what they think
It’s easy to lecture. It’s easy to tell your teens they don’t know what they’re talking about when they offer an opinion. But it’s better to ask. When they say “F#$! Trump” you might respond, “Wow, you have strong opinions about Trump. Tell me why you feel so strongly.”
Invite them to take the perspective of others
When someone with a different religion, culture, or way of life does something that they react negatively to, invite them to consider why that person feels the way they do. Everyone acts the way they do for a reason. Encourage your child to rebel against their inner critic and seek understanding.
Encourage them to think critically but act compassionately
When something comes up in their lives, in the world or in the media, encourage them to talk about it, and to think critically. Have them ask “Why?” and then consider what the best way to act might be given the circumstances. Let’s consider Israel Folau. The Guardian describes the ongoing situation perfectly,
"Folau’s social media comments have unleashed a tsunami of outrage: from those offended by his blunt homophobia to those who are outraged that those who are offended would dare to impinge on his freedom to outrage them".
A fiercely divided topic with a well-known sports star at its centre is the perfect opportunity to sit down and talk to your kids. Ask them, ‘What do you think he’s done? Is it right or wrong?’ Ask them to think critically about the situation, not just parrot back what they’ve heard from friends or family members. Then ask them how the behaviour might have affected others? Teach them to look at and consider how others feel and to try to see perspectives different from their own.
Finally, ask them what they’d do differently. How would they behave to create a different, better outcome? Bruce Pascoe, an Australian Indigenous writer, says,
We need our children to rebel…. We need to instil the wisest of all our skills in our children: doubt.
Doubt, independent, critical and creative thinking, these are the kinds of things that inspire people to investigate problems, stand up for themselves and others and, ultimately, take action. We quiver at the idea of raising a rebel, but we want children that are strong and caring and willing to think about others and do what is right. We should celebrate our courageous, strong rebels no matter their age, and then ask them wise questions to guide them to more effective and moral rebellious acts.