If you get the sense that your teen is about to pull a Colin Kaepernick and sit for The Star-Spangled Banner at the Friday night game, don’t start lecturing him just yet. This might be exactly the kind of teenage rebellion you let fly — and may even be essential for his development. New research suggests teen rebellion, rather than being a bad thing, can actually be one of the most productive assets to developing a strong and effective decision-maker. That’s right: You can use some of your kid's acts of defiance to tap into virtuous values that make them push for a better, fairer world.
“We don’t give teenagers enough credit,” says Chris Bryan, the study’s first author and a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago. “When they reach adolescence, [kids] naturally want to assert independence, and this is a big opportunity. Teenagers are prosocially motivated people, and if you are able to connect their rebellious behavior to those higher values, you can motivate them to do all kinds of good things.”
Showing your kid Kaepernick as an example of this productive rebellion can be a good way to help them focus on rebelling for a cause, rather than rebelling just to assert their independence. It could help them recognize that two of their biggest values (the desire to not be controlled, and a deep desire for fairness) can actually be channeled for good. The evidence? Bryan’s latest study shows how framing defiance as an act of social justice can channel your child’s inner good guy.
In his study, Bryan and his colleagues looked at the healthy eating choices of about 500 middle-schoolers. The team focused on diet because it’s one of the most personal choices a young person makes, but the findings can apply to other decisions too, like choosing to do your homework, or pursuing a fruitful career. They gave one group a critical expose on the dishonest marketing tactics of food companies, while the rest read a straightforward article about what’s healthy and what’s not. The next day, teens that read the expose, which depicted food companies as controlling, often hypocritical figures, were about 11 percent more likely to avoid Cheetos, soda, and other junk food items than the control group.
To connect the dots: Telling kids what’s strictly good or bad — like sitting down is bad, and standing up is good — isn’t very effective, just like telling kids what’s healthy and what’s not isn’t very effective. But when you take the time to reveal to them there’s a higher authority that’s being called out (in this case, “evil” food companies and, in Kaepernick’s view, acts of racial injustice), you give them a pointed outlet to channel their dissatisfaction, Bryan says.
So if your teen decides he’s going to sit or kneel, not stand, for the anthem, you can let it slide. But make sure they understand it’s not something you do just because some NFL players do it, or because you’re tired and want to stick it to the teacher and be a badass, but because there’s a real social problem these players want to address. For parents, that might mean gritting your teeth a bit. “Even if you do know better, understand that your kids need to learn to know better for themselves,” Bryan says. “Teens are already trying to do that. Having respect for that and teaching them information that’s relevant to their ability to make their own decisions is a lot less off-putting than [telling them straight up what to do].” Encourage rebellious behavior in a way that shows them why critical thinking can be valuable and also pretty cool. The key is to talk to them, and connect the dots between the desire to rebel, the right authority figures by which to rebel against, and how to do it in a civil way. In short, make sure they’re being the right kind of rebel: one with a cause.