Child Pushing Boundaries? Why You're Little Rule-Breaker May Be a Future Rule-Maker

Well it took seven years but finally got the note.  The one about bad behavior at school, in this case, the locker room.  My third-grader allegedly instigated a "slow down" to delay gym class and the dreaded "pacer test".   Hardly the stuff of a burgeoning anti-social personality disorder.  Still, I briefly wondered if my daughter with the occasional display of Wii-induced ADHD who rarely spoke aloud in preschool had u-turned into the child strategically placed right next to the teacher's desk.

My father warned me about this possibility well before I knew to pay attention...

Your kids are going to push you. Get ready. Let them know where the line is right now or you'll be sorry when they're sixteen.

So I have a few more years to get it right.  And there may be a silver lining to the occasional behavioral infraction according to this headline on Science Daily:

Do Your Children Push The Boundaries? It May Be A Sign Of Future Leadership Abilities

Aha. Pushing boundaries.  Check.  Future Leader.  Check?  So I may be harboring not so much a future Ted Kaczynski or Bernie Madoff (can you name a high-profile female sociopath?) as the next Norma Rae.  Only I never thought of the girl who's often last in line, the one who dotes on her mealworm and wants a pair of glasses despite perfect vision, as leadership material.

So I eyed a possible link between rule-breaking and future rule-making with a mix of optimism and skepticism:
Good parenting may better prepare children for future leadership roles if the children happen to challenge the boundaries set out by their parents. This gives the children an opportunity to learn why the rules are in place and then learn from their parents how to achieve their goals without breaking the rules. 
Good parenting?  An authoritative parenting style characterized by firm, reasonable rules accompanied by some explanation and lots of support and affection.  As opposed to authoritarian parenting (lots of strict, unbending rules/little support or warmth) and permissive parenting (few rules/lots of support).

Researchers from Washington state and Canada wondered how parenting styles, rule violations and adult leadership all played out.  How better to look at the potential influence of parenting teased apart from genetics then with that beloved set of longitudinal data mined over and over - The Minnesota Twin Study, collected from now adult fraternal and identical twins.  A big heap o' data with a built-in control for genetic variance.  For the moment we'll forget the DNA of even identical twins differs over time, just go with it.

The sample for their little study included 101 of the fraternal and 87 identical twins now in their 40's.  It's all self-report, so not great, but still valuable considering we got the genetic component figured into the equation here.  Basically we can hold genes constant to look solely at other roots of leadership, namely parenting styles and a preference for pushing boundaries. 

So the twins answered questions about their parents, childhood infractions, and personalities back in 1995.  The adult leadership reports came in 2000.   Again, not the most solid of studies, all correlational.  

What shook out? The twins with the more authoritative parents reported more moderate rule-breaking (e.g., family/school offenses) than serious violations involving stealing, drug use, police contact, real juvenile delinquency stuff.

Modest rule-breaking was positively related to future community and workplace leadership. But the warm but firm parents didn't promote bad behavior.  Their kids committed fewer modest and serious violations.  When these kids did stray from the path, it seems the parents were able to communicate valuable lessons.

Maybe which rules to break, which to respect, why some are important, some not.  Basically they didn't progress to serious transgressions, not like the other boundary-pushing kids with less authoritarian parents.

Lesson here, you got children who push the boundaries (by a mix of genes and personality triggers), if you help them understand why the rules are important or necessary (and sometimes just another instance of infuriating red tape) you might be encouraging an expert, an entrepreneur, president even instead of a child you can see only during visitor hours.

You'll notice that I didn't say and the results did not suggest parents who endorse school slow-downs and such put their youngsters on the road to success.  So although I'm a little bit proud of my daughter's rebellious streak, I communicated displeasure at her locker-room disruption and disrespect.  Kids got to learn and understand the rules to bend them, to remake them.  Kind of like the gender roles too.  Gotta know them to transcend them which is why I never ousted Barbie. 

What other rules can we encourage our kids to bend? Thought I'd have some real good examples after this teaser from WebMD in my inbox:

Rules Kids Need To Break

In lieu of a tempting set of transgressions I learned children should not follow any directives that "squelch their identities" like "Don't Be Friends with Suzy"  should Suzy be a perfectly pleasant person. Or don't color outside the lines.  Don't wear those orange neon leggings with the red and blue polka-dotted tank top. 

Fess up, what did your little darling do today?  What did you do as a kid?  Or teen. And did it pave the road to juvie or the proverbial presidential suite. 

BTW, first person to name a well-known female sociopath wins the First Ever Momma Data Medal of Merit.


Hope said...

Aileen Wuornos? Subject of a major motion picture and a serial killer

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Terrific, Hope! You win! Ailenn Wounos, the woman who killed all the truck drivers? Or was she a truck driver?

TherExtras said...

You covered this topic nicely, Polly.

I think helping children understand the grayness of rule-following is challenging...depending on the age of the child and the ability of the parent to understand same.

Not feeling too bad I did not win this contest. Can't remember the name of the axe-lady who took out her parents.


Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Barbara! Yes, the gray areas are so hard, which would pretty much be most of parenting and life, no?

And yes, it felt odd writing about sociopath on my blog, but really, ther are so few high-profile ones that I wondered who we'd come up with. I'm sure they're plenty out there, but....yes, Lizzie Borden!