Why kids rebel:
What kids believe about the legitimacy of adult authority 

© 2018 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Rebel without a cause? Not really. Studies suggest that kids recognize our authority in certain matters. But they resist when they perceive us as trying to control their personal lives.

Nobody is born per-programmed to defer to authority. During the toddler years, children are inclined to follow their impulses, and they often do.

In fact, the most ancient approach to early childhood – practiced by hunter-gatherers – is to avoid issuing commands. Parents in tradition societies engage in a kind of collective, shrug when it comes to toddler discipline. Little kids can’t be reasoned with, and they lack self-control. So don’t knock yourself out trying to do the impossible.

Around the world, societies wait until kids are older – between the ages of 5 and 7 – before attempting to hold them to strict behavioral standards.

But let’s put preschoolers to one side. They have developmental constraints that put them at high risk for resisting authority. What happens later, when children reach school age? How do kids decide whether to resist or obey? And how does this change over time?

It’s no secret that kids are more compliant during the early school years. And as adolescence approaches, kids are increasingly likely to question adult authority and rebel.

Yet they aren’t anarchists; nor are they scheming to run the world. On the contrary, kids – even teenagers – are ready to be cooperative.

There is a catch, however, and it’s a big one. Kids recognize limits to our authority. Like us, they regard certain matters as personal. And when they think that an authority figure is overreaching – meddling in their personal affairs – kids are more likely to resist.

How they resist depends. They might protest and argue, hoping to persuade us to change policy. Or they might avoid direct conflict, and disobey us on the sly. But either way, they judge our authority to be illegitimate. We simply don’t have the right to interfere.

Understanding this can help us re-evaluate our priorities, and find more effective ways to inspire cooperation from our kids. Let's take a closer look at the evidence.

How kids view authority figures

Do you respect authority, or reject it?

You might have a certain predisposition to trust authority figures, or a maybe you tend to question them. But either way, you have to admit this is a silly question. That’s because you don’t respond the same way in every situation. It depends.

What rule is the authority trying to enforce? If the rule corresponds with your own moral principles, or otherwise seems reasonable and within the authority’s jurisdiction, you’re likely to comply. The zookeeper tells you not to rattle the door of the lion’s cage, so you don’t. The museum docent tells you not to touch the painting, so you don’t.

But none of us, I hope, grants authority figures unlimited power. If your boss tried to meddle in your private affairs – telling you how early to awaken on your day off – you’d resent it, and likely ignore her command. Her authority doesn’t extend to your private life. That’s off-limits, so the command is invalid.

As it turns out, kids feel the same way, and I’m not just talking about uppity teenagers. Long before they reach adolescence, kids take a nuanced view of adult authority.

We can see this in a study led by Kristin Lagatutta. She and her colleagues presented 60 American children (4-, 5-, and 7-year-olds) with a number of vignettes – stories about child-protagonists who came into conflict with their parents.

Each vignette featured the same basic situation: a parent forbidding a child from doing something that he or she wanted to do. But the nature of the prohibition varied.

In some cases, the parent forbade the child from engaging in a clearly antisocial act (like stealing). In other cases, the parent was attempting to stop the child from exercising a personal choice – like the choice of what to wear, or what recreational activity to engage in, or which child to play with.

After sharing these stories, the researchers asked kids to predict what would happen next.

The researchers asked kids to predict what would happen next. Would the child-protagonist comply with the parent’s command? And how would the character feel?

As you might expect, there was an age difference. Consistent with their developmental reputation for fractiousness, 4-year-olds were more likely to predict that the protagonist would defy an adult’s moral directive (e.g., about stealing).

By contrast, older kids were more likely to predict that the child would obey moral directives, and feel good about doing so.

But there was no age difference when the scenarios concerned personal matters. When it came to parental commands about personal choices, even the oldest kids, the 7-year-olds, balked. They frequently predicted that the child-protagonist would defy the parent. And feel happy about it too! (Lagatutta et al 2010).

The right to rebel

Matthew Gingo has documented similar tendencies among older school children.

In a study of 120 American elementary school students (ranging in age from 8 to 12 years), Gingo presented kids with his own series of stories.

  • In some stories, a child-protagonist was given an order that was “prudential," or aimed at protecting the child’s well-being. For example, the child was forbidden to climb a rock wall. The authority figure said it was too high and dangerous.
  • In other stories, the authority figure urged the child to do something anti-social. For instance, after a child was accidentally kicked by his friend during a ball game, his father ordered retaliation: Kick your friend back (Gingo 2017; Gingo 2012).
  • Finally, there were stories where the authority figure attempted to control aspects of the child’s personal life. In one tale, a girl was engaged in her favorite activity at the park – drawing pictures. Her mother told her to stop drawing and to play soccer instead, despite her daughter’s protests that she doesn’t like soccer. In another story, a father insisted that his son stop playing with a good friend. The father didn’t think this friend was “fun."

Each of these stories ended the same way: First the child-protagonist voiced his or her opposition to the policy. Then, when the adult refused to relent, the child secretly disobeyed the adult – and lied about it afterwards.

Gingo wanted to know how kids judged the ethics of these situations. So he asked kids to answer the same questions about each scenario.

Was the adult right to issue the command? Was the child right to disobey it? Was it right for the child to lie about it afterwards?

An overwhelming majority of kids agreed that it was proper for an authority figure impose “prudential" rules about safety and well-being.

All of the 8-year-olds granted parents this authority, and most of the older kids (90% of 10-year-olds and 80% of 12-year-olds) did so as well.

But in other scenarios, kids were much more questioning of the adult’s authority.

Kids were most united in their opposition toward anti-social commands, with even the youngest kids – the 8-year-olds – taking a bold stand: 95% of them said it was right for the protagonist to disobey such an order from a parent or teacher.

Kids were also resistant to directives about a child’s hobbies and friendships.

Among 8-year-olds, just 60% said it was right for a parent to interfere in this way – significantly fewer than the 100% who supported directives about safety and well-being. And the older kids were even more disapproving, with up to 90% of them seeing this as an illegitimate overreach of authority.

So the kids in this study took a nuanced view of their obligations toward authority figures. They agreed that adults can rightfully impose certain restrictions, but these restrictions must be consistent with a child’s prior beliefs about morality (e.g., kicking an innocent person is wrong). And adults must confine themselves to certain, discrete domains.

Kids are prepared to accept authority when it comes to prohibiting aggressive, antisocial behavior. They may think it’s acceptable for us to issue rules about safety and health. But when it comes to personal choices, kids are more likely to reject our authority.

But what about culture? Aren’t kids in the United States more rebellious than kids in, say, China?

The studies we’ve discussed involved kids from the United States, and, yes, culture matters. There are cultural differences in the way that children view authority figures.

But what’s interesting is that the same trend about personal issues applies across cultures.

For instance, when Judith Smetana and her colleagues compared U.S. youngsters with their counterparts in Hong Kong, she found that kids in both countries showed the same bias regarding personal control. Kids were less likely to regard rules about personal decisions as legitimate (Smetana et al 2014).

So do children’s views about authority actually affect their everyday behavior? If my kids perceive my authority to be illegitimate, are they less likely to obey me?

Yes, research supports this idea. For example, Emily Kuhn and her colleagues interviewed more than 200 American kids at two time points – once at the end of their 5th grade school year, and then again after they had completed the 6th grade.

The researchers asked kids about the rules their parents imposed, and whether or not the kids complied with them.

What did they discover? That kids who perceive legitimacy are more likely to cooperative with their parents:

“Children who felt that their parents' rules were more legitimate were more compliant overall than were children who felt that the rules were less legitimate" (Kuhn et al 2014).

And what about teenagers? Aren’t they just prone to rebel, regardless of what we do?

As noted above, kids become increasingly likely to resist authority as they enter adolescence and become young adults. And this may sometimes look like rebellion for rebellion’s sake. 

In a cross-cultural research, Patricio Cumsille and his colleagues found a direct relationship between family conflict and the sheer number of rules: The more rules in the family, the more kids argued (Cumsille et al 2002).

But it’s also clear that parental legitimacy matters.

Teens affirm that parents have the right to enforce rules against hurting other people. They also endorse some rules about health and safety, and they may believe it’s legitimate for parents to insist on certain types of conventional behavior, like showing good matters.

But they take a different view about rules designed to regulate their personal choices. When parents try to control adolescents’ person lives, they are more likely to perceive our authority as illegitimate.

The choices might include music, clothing, or extra-curricular activities. They might include the friends that a child wants to spend time with, or the online media that a child wants to consume. They might include how a kid spends his or her pocket money. Or how late a child sleeps in on the weekends (Yaffe 2017).

In different families, the precise issues may vary. But the reasoning is the same. I’m not hurting anybody. I’m not endangering myself. I’m not imposing on anyone else. This should be a question of personal choice, so you have no right to interfere.

The degree of resistance might vary, and kids will resist in different ways.

On the one hand, if kids believe they will be compelled to obey – whether you are right or not – they may protest and argue. The only way out for them is to convince you to change your mind. Verbal battles may ensue.

On the other hand, kids may decide to go into stealth mode. Instead of confronting you, they disobey discreetly – without your knowledge.

But either way, kids make the same distinction. In studies conducted around the world – from the United States to Japan, from Chile to the Philippines, from Iraq to China – teens are less likely to view parental authority as legitimate if we attempt to control their personal lives (Smetana and Asquith 1994; Smetana 1988; Utsumi 2015; Darling et al 2005; Smetana et al 2015; Yaffe et al 2018; Yao and Smetana 2003).

Of course, parents usually agree that there are boundaries. They recognize their children’s rights to make personal choices. But life is complicated, and many decisions straddle more than one domain.

Choosing friends is a personal matter, but what if your child wants to hang out with gang members?

A child’s bedroom might be his or her personal space. But what if it’s a mess, and that pile of clothing on the electrical cords poses a fire hazard?

So even if we take pains to exercise legitimate authority, we will experience clashes with our kids.

Research suggests that we’re more likely to resolve these conflicts if we talk with our kids about the need for balance – between our legitimate areas of concern, and our kids’ need for autonomy. Here are some tips for achieving this.

1. Stay involved in your child's life -- by asking questions, listening, and offering support.

Kids become more independent as they grow up, but that doesn’t mean parents have to be ignorant about their children’s personal lives. In fact, research suggests that kids are more likely to grant us legitimate authority when we stay involved – asking them about what they do in the free time (Darling et al 2008). 

Kids won't share everything. They have their own, developing sense of privacy. But it seems likely we can maintain open channels of communication by keeping up a track record of good listening and supportive problem-solving. Read more about the importance of being a good "emotion coach."

2. Practice authoritative parenting -- not authoritarian parenting

As I explain elsewhere, there is a big difference between these two parenting styles.

Authoritarian parents tend to demand unquestioning obedience. They try to enforce compliance through threats, punishments, and psychological control.

By contrast, authoritative parents take a less dictatorial approach. They set limits, and hold kids to high standards. But they offer lots of warmth, and explain the reasons for rules. They encourage kids to ask questions, and they listen to their children’s concerns. Authoritative parents are prepared to revise their policies – if a child can make a good case for doing so.

You can imagine how the latter, authoritative approach could make kids feel more supportive of family rules: Kids understand the reasons for the rules, and believe they have a voice in the process. And research backs this idea up.

In countries as different as Chile, the Philippines, and the United States, adolescents with authoritative parents are more likely to believe that their parents have legitimate authority (Darling et al 2005; Kuhn and Laird 2011; Trinker et al 2012).

3. Understand that your job keeps changing: You need to delegate more responsibility – and grant more autonomy – as children get older.

It's the main reason why adolescents seem so rebellious: Although teens still recognize that adults can wield legitimate authority, they take an increasingly narrower view of what adults can legitimately control. Issues that were once in the prudential domain -- like whether or not a child must wear his winter coat to school -- get absorbed into the personal domain. 

Kids demand more autonomy as they get older, and it’s a sensible demand. Eventually, they will become young adults -- individuals empowered to make all sorts of decisions for themselves, including decisions about their own health and welfare. If we ignore this -- and try to apply elementary school restrictions on high school aged kids -- we're inevitably casting ourselves as illegitimate authorities. 

More reading

For more information about the role that parents can play in regulating child behavior, see this article about positive parenting, and these tips for handling aggression and defiance in children.


References: Why kids rebel

Cumsille P, Darling N, and Peña-Alampay L. 2002. Legitimacy Beliefs and Parent Adolescent Conflict and Adjustment in Adolescence: A Chilean and Filipino Comparison. Paper presented at the Society for Research on Adolescent Development, New Orleans, La., Apr. 2002.

Darling N, Cumsille P and Martinez ML. 2008. Individual differences in adolescents' beliefs about the legitimacy of parental authority and their own obligation to obey: A longitudinal investigation. Child Development, 79(4), 1103-1118.

Darling N, Cumsille P, Peña-Alampay L. 2005. Rules, legitimacy of parental authority, and obligation to obey in Chile, the Philippines, and the United States. New Dir Child Adolesc Dev. Summer;(108):47-60.

Gingo M. 2017. Children's reasoning about deception and defiance as ways of resisting parents' and teachers' directives. Dev Psychol. 53(9):1643-1655.

Kuhn ES and Laird RD. 2011. Individual differences in early adolescents' beliefs in the legitimacy of parental authority. Dev Psychol. 47(5):1353-65.

Lagattuta KH, Nucci L, Bosacki SL. 2010. Bridging theory of mind and the personal domain: children's reasoning about resistance to parental control. Child Dev. 2010 Mar-Apr;81(2):616-35.

Smetana JG. 1988. Adolescents’ and Parents’ Conceptions of Parental Authority. Child Development 59(2): 321–335.

Smetana JG and Asquith P. 1994. Adolescents' and parents' conceptions of parental authority and personal autonomy. Child Dev. 65(4):1147-62.

Smetana JG, Wong M, Ball C, Yau J. 2014. American and Chinese children's evaluations of personal domain events and resistance to parental authority. Child Dev. 85(2):626-42.

Trinkner R, Cohn ES, Rebellon CJ, Van Gundy K. 2012. Don't trust anyone over 30: parental legitimacy as a mediator between parenting style and changes in delinquent behavior over time. J Adolesc. 35(1):119-32.

Utsumi S. 2015. [Social reasoning of early adolescents and parents regarding parent-child conflicts]. Shinrigaku Kenkyu. 86(3):230-9. [Article in Japanese]

Yaffe Y. 2017. Development and Validation of a New Parental Authority Instrument (PAI). North American Journal of Psychology 19(1):169-194.

Yaffe Y, Seroussi D-D, and Kharanbeh S. 2018. Endorsement of parental authority in adolescence: Bedouin vs. Jewish adolescents in Israel. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth 23(2): 168-176.

Yau J and Smetana J. 2003. Adolescent-parent conflict in Hong Kong and Shenzhen: A comparison of youth in two cultural contexts. International Journal of Behavioral Development 27: 201–211.

Content last modified 10/2018.

Image of elementary school kids by Michael McCauslin / flickr

Image of skateboarding boy by US Air Force Airman 1st class Amber Russell