Listen: Dr Justin Coulson on how to raise a courageous, thoughtful, ‘Reflective Rebel’.
“The world needs rebels!”—said no parent, ever.
For most mums and dads, rebellion in kids and teens is their worst nightmare, the cause of tears, tantrums, sleepless nights and household mayhem.
Yet according to families and parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson, there is in fact a form of bucking-the-trends, that is good and desirable. It was the topic of a TED Talk he gave recently.
“There are two kinds of rebels: the ‘Reflexive Rebel’ – that’s the teenager without a cause, the angry rebel who ruptures relationships and only thinks about themselves,” he told Katrina Roe. “The other kind of rebel is the ‘Reflective Rebel’—one who thinks independently and wisely, without that anger that leads to low quality thinking.
“They’re strong and independent in their thinking, but they’re also empathic. They say, ‘I understand what you’re asking me to do, but it doesn’t feel right for these reasons—so I’m going to go in this direction instead, because that’s the right thing to do.”
The Values that Make a ‘Reflective Rebel’
To raise children to become deep thinking, principled, ‘reflective rebels’, there are some qualities parents can foster in their children.
- A deep sense of right and wrong,
- Moral courage: the ability to stand up for their values,
- A level of independent thinking and autonomy
- A desire to make the world a better place.
It’s the autonomy that many parents struggle to build into their kids.
“A lot of parents say ‘I want my children to think for themselves, make their own decisions, and not follow their friends down the path of least resistance’,” Dr Coulson said. “But even though we say we want these strong, caring, independent, courageous kids we often find ourselves saying ‘just do as I say’, or ‘because they’re the rules’.
“We’re saying we want independent thinkers but what we really want is conformists. But the more you force a child to do something, the more resistance you get.”
Controlling Parents Create Bad Rebels Instead of the Good Kind
Unfortunately for authoritarian parents, it’s the control-based style of parenting that can actually create the destructive ‘Reflexive Rebels’ that nobody wants, instead of the independent thinkers we hope to raise, says Dr Coulson.
“The evidence from around the world tells us that a child is rebellious when they feel like they have to push against something, when we are too controlling,” he said.
“Our guidance and discipline might be very wise and helpful. But the more controlling we are the more insistent they become that ‘you can’t tell me what to do’.”
Dr Coulson has three teenagers himself, and so he is speaking from both research and experience when he says that things go better when parents give their children some freedom to choose, instead of forcing them to do what they’re told.
“We say, ‘Here are our expectations and this is why it matters, what do you think is the best way to go?’”