Do children become rebellious in all cultures?

Written Oct 8, 2016

Children rebel because we treat them like … children!

For thousands of years, children grew up peacefully, and learned through play and by emulating their elders. I believe child rebellion is a symptom of our education system and, by extension, our culture.

The Paradox of Achievement

In a fascinating paper, the authors note:

Autonomous behaviors are fully volitional; they are freely pursued and wholly endorsed by the self. Controlled behaviors, on the other hand, are pressured and directed, whether by external or internal forces, leaving people feeling like they have to do the behaviors.

In other words, the harder you push people, the more they will resist.

Deci and Ryan’s paper was specifically addressing motivation within the classroom, but can be more broadly applied to all aspects of parenting.

when the climate pressures students to achieve high test scores, not only will the motivational and emotional costs be substantial, but high-quality achievement will also typically suffer for the vast majority of students. Thus, the paradox of achievement: the harder you push, the less you get. (my emphasis)

Similarly, our culture has generally transformed youth from a time of play, to a time of “preparation” for adult life, and for study at school (to get a good job). These expectations cause parents to apply a lot of pressures (extrinsic motivation) to their children, and the result is … rebellion.

An unusual example of “rebellion”

Most people who are familiar with the Amish culture regard it as hard-working, conservative, and strict. Fewer people are aware of Rumspringa. This is an institutionalized form of rebellion within Amish culture. It allows adolescents to have a period of “running-around”. At the end of this period, the youths choose to either return, or leave their community. Rumspringa therefore allows the adolescent to internalize their choice (intrinsic motivation).

The paradox of helicopter parenting

Contrary to the good intentions of helicopter parents (and most caring parents), it appears that the more a child is subject to extrinsic motivation (such as being pushed to participate in many activities, and to get good grades), the more likely a child is to rebel. Therefore, a caring parent may best serve their children by encouraging independence, autonomy, and the freedom to fail.

The implications for our education system

Therefore, according to this paper, the worst things our schools can do:

  • Standardized testing
  • Competitive grading (comparing children to each other)
  • Rewards (such as gold stars)
  • Rigid curricula
  • Homework (without clear purpose)
  • Passive classrooms (minimization of student involvement)

An alternative – The Sudbury Model of Education

The fundamental difference between a Sudbury school and any other type of school is the student’s level of responsibility. In a Sudbury school the students are solely responsible for their education, their learning methods, their evaluation and their environment.

Sudbury school students have total control over what they learn, how they learn, their educational environment and how they are evaluated. They choose their curriculum. They choose their method of instruction. They choose, through a democratic process, how their environment operates. They choose with whom to interact. They choose if, how and when to be evaluated _ often they choose to evaluate themselves. This is radically different from any other form of education and this is what differentiates a Sudbury school.

Once people understand the Sudbury philosophy, they often ask “why doesn’t everyone send their children to a Sudbury school?” My answer is simply that many parents do not believe or trust that their children are motivated to learn. I cannot count the number of times that a parent has told me, “it sounds great, but my child would just play all day and never learn anything _ she needs to be pushed”. Out of politeness, I do not question this belief. In my mind however, my response is, “if your child is not motivated, she would still be lying in her crib, crying for food when she was hungry”. The child was motivated enough to learn how to walk, how to eat solid food, how to talk and many, many other skills. It would truly be easier for children to just lie in the crib and cry for food, but they choose to take the harder path of learning to move from babyhood to childhood. Likewise, children will choose to take the difficult and empowering path of moving from childhood to adulthood.


It’s time to start trusting our children again. Rebellion requires a cause. We need to treat our children like … people.