Defiant child – why I have decided to raise a rebel

24 July, 2014

Let me spill the beans. I have a defiant child. Only one, really. The other isn’t half the rebel her big sister is. Here I am going to explain how a book I’ve read has helped me understand that my defiant child is a brilliant, positive indictment on my parenting!!

(Do you yearn for a nice crafty post about how I decorated a door knob with the lining of an old shoe? Remember those days? It’s all children, bugs, giving up shampoo, blah, blah these days, eh. You can pop over to Wonderthrift for your quick DIY hit if you like.)

Today’s post comes courtesy of Alfie Kohn who is The Business when it comes to well researched, robust writing on unconditional parenting. I am reading his new book The Myth Of The Spoilt Child – which is a goody if you are sick of everyone bashing on about how we are raising privileged, indulged kids. The only way to spoil a kid is to not love them enough, not the other way round.

The last chapter is called Raising Rebels and has such nuggets as:

“Encourage young people to focus on the needs and rights of others, to examine the practices and institutions that get in the way of making everyone’s lives better, to summon the courage to question what one is told and be willing to break the rules sometimes.”

defiant child
Here are some reasons I am glad to have a defiant child:

  • Pushing boundaries is the perfect, healthy state of a young child. Their primary urge is to explore the world. It is in their make up. Vital to their development. If they can control that urge just to appease the parents then they aren’t being true to their instincts which could mess things up later. Have an “unruly” toddler? Pat your self on the back – you are raising a healthy kid!

  • I am reading a book, Flow, which is all about attaining true, deep happiness. The number one way of achieving this is to be purely internally motivated. And the number one way of being truly internally motivated? Through living a childhood where your internal motivation is given freedom to bloom. By undermining children’s internal urges we could be giving them the blue print to be seeking other people’s opinion and approval for the rest of their days. When my daughter does something I don’t want her to do I consider how excellently her internal motivation is being primed and how happy she will be as an adult!!
  • There is a weird thing that happens… we want children to be a certain way as children – compliant, basically- but then we really don’t want this in adults. Compliancy is a pretty bland and rubbish attribute in grown ups. So when they hit 18 we want them to switch from compliancy to assertiveness. This is so weird, right? We should respect awesome attributes whether they are in an adult or a child. Even if it means it comes with a huge ‘defiant child” label.
  • A child has an innate sense of fairness and I believe we can nurture or scupper this sense. When Ramona objects because she seems something as unfair, I consider how responding to that objection, rather than wishing she would just pipe down, is likely to preserve that sense of fairness. My defiant child is exercising her passion for justice!
  • There is also something about children having a right to autonomy. With our arbitrary rules and expectation that children must follow them, there is every chance we are violating some of their key rights. When my daughter asserts her own way over mine, I consider how much more fulfilling of her rights this is. And I believe that, as well as that being a good thing all on its own, a child (yes, even your defiant child who makes your life a little more difficult!) who has their rights respected will be one who respects other people’s rights.
  • And finally, I believe that setting up a relationship that is naturally “them against us” or a “battle of wills” is detrimental to a relationship of cooperation. If Ramona does stuff I don’t want her to do I consider how I could help her do the thing she WANTS to do. So that we are in it together, working it out.

Do I get annoyed when she pulls the ink ribbon out of my awesome new vintage typewrite? (What, yes, I totally did need a new vintage typewriter.) I do. I explain respectfully that pulling the ribbon out will break it and I ask her not to do. But she keeps doing it. And I can understand why- what a jolly good time! Have you ever pulled the ribbon out of a typewriter? So satisfying. So I can see this isn’t an urge that is going to go anywhere, so instead we put the typewriter away until we can put it out in a less tempting, higher spot.  And meanwhile I figure out how to find something that will meet that urge to just pull and explore and dismantle things. It is quite a scientific urge, really.

Of course, sometimes I get mad. And I think ARGH WHY CAN’T MY KIDS JUST DO AS THEIR WISE OLD MOTHER SAYS FOR ONCE IN THEIR TINY LIIIIVVVVES!!!!! And then I break off a line of chocolate and have a sit and remind myself of all the reasons I am glad they don’t. Hehehehehe.

“In my experience, most parents sincerely want their children to be assertive, independent thinkers who are unafraid to stand their ground… with their peers. When a child demonstrates the identical sort of courage in interactions with them it is a different story! The truth is if we want children to be able to resist peer pressure and grow into principled and brave adults, we have to actively welcome their questioning and being assertive with us.

So, your kid is too assertive, defiant and never does anything you say? NICE ONE! What a beautiful childhood of freedom you are giving them and what world-changing rebels you will raise!
Why I love my defiant child

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  • Becca 24 July, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Lovely post…I have been told I ‘pander’ & ‘let him get his own way all the time’ and had started to think I was being lazy….mostly when he doesnt want to do things like have a bath or eat his dinner…but turns out just fostering some good old skills for his later life…plus I am now a master negotiater…every cloud and whatnot. x

    • Monika 21 April, 2017 at 10:36 am

      I think this approach is not suitable for everybody and encouraging your kids being rebel will make your life as a parent incredible challenging. I have seen parents in my community thinking about homeschooling but deciding taking their children to school because it was simply too difficult to deal with their own children on a daily basis and they didn’t have enough energy. In my opinion that is much worse for the child (I mean, to go to school at 5 years old) than telling them what to do every now and then. Everybody needs to find their own balance and some limits and compliance are necessary just to go through the day.

  • Beth 24 July, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Have you come across a book called A Rule Is To Break? Sold by Letterbox Library in the UK. Not sure if it’s available in NZ.

  • Marta 24 July, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks. I kind of needed someone to remember me why I have two uncompliant, rebel kids. I really wan’t them to enjoy the freedom of assertiveness. And of taking their lifes in their hands.

  • ThaliaKR 24 July, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Thank you. I’m in a week of solo parenting and find it even harder to not get wildly frustrated with observing the ‘autonomy’ of my boy this week 🙂

    So this is a good, encouraging reminder. I certainly am not interested in raising an obedient, compliant adult, so I try to foster other things in him now. Takes energy, but yes, worth it!

  • ThaliaKR 24 July, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    Also, your post reminded me of an earlier one from Rebel Parents:

    and re-reading that led me to this example of everyday take-a-deep-breath respectful parenting 🙂 :

  • Jo Latif 25 July, 2014 at 10:34 am

    Love it. Totally makes sense!

  • Lilybett 25 July, 2014 at 11:02 am

    If the book on Flow you’re reading is by Csikszentmihalyi (who’s the psychologist who developed the theory) then I think you’ve missed the point of what he’s getting at. It’s not at all about being purely internally motivated. He points out that in order to reach the altered state of consciousness of flow you have to have to balance the level of skill and the level of challenge, and have a sense that what you’re doing has clear goals, is rule bound and gives you feedback on how you’re doing. In return for those things you receive an autotelic experience, where the activities feels like it is worth doing for it’s own sake (the internal motivation reward that keeps you coming back to the activity). I met Csikszentmihalyi a few weeks ago, and he talked about various companies around the world using his theory of flow in order to make workers happier doing their jobs, which led to increased profits. Happiness (according to this guy who studies it, at the moment focusing on older people as a much wasted resource) isn’t about being purely internally driven to pursue what you want to do – it’s much more complex than that and involves mediating between your internal drives and external structures that both constrain and enable your creativity and happiness.

    P.S. Csikszentmihalyi does the best name-dropping. He got to meet Carl Jung when he was a teenager.

    • Lucy 25 July, 2014 at 11:39 am

      HAHAHA wowzers, talk about being TOLD! TO be fair, I am half way through. Although I REALLY got the impression that his whole theory is based on a generation of adults whose internal motivation has been screwed up so they are having to do all this work in their adult lives and that if we got it right in childhood there wouldn’t need to be such a reprogramming/ rebalancing.
      Will keep reading it, eh?!

      • ThaliaKR 25 July, 2014 at 10:20 pm

        Woah, you have a great readership, Lucy!

      • Jessica 9 June, 2015 at 4:42 am

        I will have to say a;ways being compliant and told what to do and sheltered has screwed me up quiet a bit as an adult. I do listen to others and care way too much about what they say or think about me. Your points are valid.

        I have an independent four year old. I have an unruly two year old that EVERYONE says we have spoiled tooo much. But, this is motivation. It gets tiring to try and keep them well mannered and behaved. Thank you for posting this.

    • Jenny 10 June, 2015 at 12:56 pm

      Excellent comment here, thank you. The original post is unbalanced and the author doesn’t seem to understand why children/people also need boundaries and discipline. Not to become compliant, but so that they can master their own impulses (as children or as adults). Rebellion without discipline yields nothing but unhappiness and chaos. Creativity without practice yields started projects never finished.

      All these parents congratulating themselves for raising hoodlums don’t get the other half of the equation.

      It’s just as important to know how to listen to others and follow directions as it is to speak your mind and set your own direction. It is incorrect to think you’re doing your child a service to teach all of one… Or the other… They need to learn both.

  • Mary Firth 26 July, 2014 at 8:49 am

    Oh gosh Lucy you’re so encouraging! Your posts are like a well needed pep talk and always just when I need it! Thanks so much for just being so wonderful and passionate and idealistic and innocent in your quest for perfect parenthood. I think you must have longer fuse than me because although I agree about children thinking for themselves (I was raised to be a rebel, I love that stuff!) it still makes my blood boil when she defies me to the point where I feel like I’m going to totally lose it, purely because she’s doing me. But I do agree with this in principle, just struggle with the practice myself.

  • kathy 26 July, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    I agree with the general principle here, but really can’t figure out how to make this work when the kid is in SCHOOL….very little tolerance for the lack of compliance in the classroom. Leads to a lot of issues…..I could go on, and on….

    Any insights on this would be most welcome. I’m plugging away here. Definitely a challenge!

    • Lucy 27 July, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Perhaps other readers do? Not planning on school for this reason! So hard!

  • amirah 26 July, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    But but,is it that wrong to expect them to listen sometime?they might want to run everywhere,bit they cant do that by a road.they might want to play straight after breakfast,bit teeth have to be cleaned and help in some chores has to be done,depending on age…very hard to deal with defiant children when u asking them to listen in at least basic things.talking doesn’t work that much,or it does,only to be forgotten/ignored 2 mins later

    • rachaelm 29 July, 2014 at 1:28 am

      If I remember correctly, Alfie Kohn also supports the idea that in every situation you evaluate who’s situation is more vital. Obviously, safety is the first concern – but explaining to a child why safety is important could probably go along with that – and curbing the situation beforehand (i.e. we hold hands when crossing the street, I generally always walk on the outside/along the road when we go out together) and that ‘not listening or ignoring’ is maybe a sign of a missed connection with the child. Are you listening to them? (not you, Amirah, just in general, as an idea) If they don’t feel that there is a respectful bond, then there probably isn’t one. The Alfie Kohn thought goes on to to say that in any instance if their ‘need’ to defy is stronger or your point is weaker, then it gives them freedom/autonomy/self-discipline to ‘win’ that moment and move on. My child (4 yrs old) generally eats the bulk of her calories before 4pm (as many growing children do and need to do) and so if she doesn’t or can’t sit during dinner, we try and encourage conversation and family time but I can’t make her eat and I can’t punish her for being distracted, she’s 4. We just try and try again and as they age and gain more developmental skills, these things will happen. Have faith that if you genuinely respect your child, they will respect you back.

  • Nicole 27 July, 2014 at 6:38 am

    I agree with your views, and I was also a rebel as a child. I can’t agree, though, with the idea that people are then expected to be independent and assertive as adults. I have searched long and hard to fund my niche in life as an adult. Relationships, friendships, but especially the workplace, are all made more difficult when you speak your mind and have very strong ideals. What was once admired as a child and teen, has made me question and doubt myself many, many times as an adult. Do you have any advice or beliefs on how to weather through the doubts and criticisms that adults gave as individuals? Especially as a strong-minded female in what is still a male dominated world.

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  • Sian 30 July, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Giving myself a LARGE pat on the back – child number 1 is most certainly a rebel. Much to Grandma’s annoyance! (They didn’t really get on very well last week!). Child number 2 on the other hand is weirdly obedient – does everything we ask. Kids, eh? You bring them up exactly the same but they all have their own little personalities. Love them to pieces and always will. xx

  • ToddlerSlave 31 July, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    Absolutely!!! Before I had Boo, if I had written down all the attributes if wish for her to have they would have been all the attributes that drive me crazy about her now, and all the attributes I’ll be most proud of her having when she’s older! I don’t want her to be a push over, I want her to get what she wants in life! Good on her for constantly standing her ground and making me pull my hair out! She’s spirited and I love that! Love your posts! X

  • Claudia 1 August, 2014 at 4:35 am

    Thanks! I think like some of the other commenters, I needed to hear this. I love that pin I’ve seen that says “I never realised I was such a control freak until I let my child try and help…” Gradually I’m learning to let go of some of the control because if I want an independent, argumentative, interesting person I have to let him be himself.

  • Amy Brandon 7 June, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    My kids drive me absolutely bananas because they NEVER (ok, a smidge exaggerated) listen to me!! But even when I am completely batty with aggravation and annoyance, and I am thinking up all the worst punishments, threats and sneaky ways to coerce them into submission…in the end, I go and have a heart to heart with them.
    I don’t want their compliance. At least not in the form of me taking away their dignity to get it. I want them to learn how to be caring, thoughtful individuals. And it starts here.

  • Ian 7 June, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Interesting view point!

  • Susie Y 11 June, 2015 at 2:36 am

    I feel like there is a middle ground, or maybe a piece missing here…because I agree with all of this – I want a child who knows that his own authority and inner voice trumps anyone else’s, including mine or any other adult’s. I want him to feel perfectly comfortable saying no. I don’t coerce or manipulate him into compliance. But! That doesn’t mean raising a self-centered tyrant. It’s equally important to me that my kids recognize and respect other people’s boundaries, and that means both respecting their boundaries (listening when they say no), AND expecting them to respect YOUR boundaries. They should expect their “no” to be honored, and also be expected to honor the no of someone else. When I’m done playing tag and he yells because he wants to keep playing – sorry kiddo, I’m done. I have a really firm line where I make sure that he isn’t coercing me, just as I’m not coercing him.

    • Susie Y 11 June, 2015 at 2:40 am

      Oh, and the other piece is that you can set up a situation where they feel internally motivated to go with the flow. I have an incredibly spirited 4yo, very much prone to rebellion, but if he feels connected to me, if we’ve had enough play time together and he feels respected and loved, then he gives it all back in cooperation and we hardly have any conflicts. If he feels disconnected and unmoored, every little thing can become a point of contention. So you don’t have to accept days full of meltdowns and conflicts in order to raise a internally driven, skeptical rebel.

  • Susan 21 June, 2015 at 7:19 am

    I respectfully disagree. We must prepare our children for the real world, which means they don’t always get what they want and they must submit to authority (police) or to the expectations of a supervisor in their job. I expect my children to obey the authority of myself and my husband as well as their teachers. They are well aware that they are not expected to obey their friends or siblings. We often have discussions about making good decisions. They may challenge authority in a polite manner if they feel they are being treated unfairly. In my humble opinion, to allow or encourage a child to disobey for his or her own selfish reasons is not preparing that child for real life.

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