Dr Justin Coulson
35,736 views • 16:21

As a society, we have got a confusing relationship with the idea of rebels and rebellion. So, close to home, if we have a rebel sitting in front of us in our living room, I think it's probably fair to say that we struggle. We find it challenging, and yet we love stories about rebels. We love their conviction; we love their courage. We love how they're so willing to stand firm and strong and steadfast in the face of so much opposition. You know, the world and their communities can turn against them, their friends can desert them, even families can turn against these rebels, and yet they stand firm, unflinching, unmoving, and they do incredible things. I think that we love the idea of rebels so much because we know the end from the beginning. We know how it ends, so we know we can love them because of what they did - maybe not going through it - but you know, we make movies about rebels, we write books about rebels, and their stories become part of folklore. Well, my wife and I are the parents of six children. I know, I get that response a lot. It's 2017. We have six kids. I look like a rebel, don't I? When I walked out, you thought, "Yeah. Rebel. He looks like trouble." And if you pay attention, you'll note that those six children are all girls. I know, yeah. Not sure how we did that, but we're delighted, and we are absolutely crazy about them like most parents usually are about their children. Because we have six daughters, we recently bought a book that's been quite popular lately about raising rebel girls, because we want our girls to be who they want to be, to be what they want to be. But from time to time, we find ourselves in that same conflicted position when we're sitting in our living room opposite a living, breathing rebel, sitting on the couch opposite us, thinking for herself independently. And we have three teenagers right now, and another three to come. In spite of that conflict and challenge, the idea that I really want to leave with you today is this: we need more rebels. We need to raise more children who are willing to think for themselves, rather than bowing down to the god of popular opinion, and getting swept up in that current that sweeps them and all of their friends down the path of least resistance. Now in the interest of empathy, I know that some of you in this room have children who have rebelled, and it has not given you cause to celebrate; rather, your hearts have broken, you've lost sleep and gone through torment and challenge and pain. So I want to describe exactly what I mean when I say we need to raise more rebels because there are two kinds of rebels. There is the "reflexive" rebel. Now, this is the typical teenage "rebel without a cause." This is what most of us have been at some point in our lives - of course, most of us were just that for a very short period in our lives - but this is the "you can't tell me anything, it's my life, I'll do what I want" kind of rebel. This is the ... "It doesn't matter what you say, I insist on my right to run my knuckles down the cheese grater of adult life" kind of rebel. And I don't know if you've noticed this, but when our children start to reflexively rebel, what do we do? We become more controlling. We say, "No no no, I'm in charge here," and our force creates resistance. Our authoritarianism actually creates reflexive rebellion. And in some cases, the cheese grater isn't enough, and they start sprinting for the airplane propeller of the adult world. And what happens is we create this foundation of ruptured relationships and mutual lack of respect. There's just this focus on self rather than other, and there's an awful lot of anger and pain for us as parents and for our children. Now we could talk about reflexive rebels for a long time, but I want to talk about the second kind of rebel, that is much more interesting to me and much more unusual, and that's what I call the "reflective" rebel. A reflective rebel is what I think that we need to be encouraging our children to be. I understand the irony, by the way, of saying, "Well, this is how you're going to rebel," because if you tell a rebel how to rebel, they'll go exactly the opposite way because force creates resistance, but a reflective rebel thinks for themselves independently. They think wisely, it's almost like they don't get caught up in the anger that a reflexive rebel possesses that leads to unwise, unhelpful thinking. The late author Haim Ginott described raising children who are strong and caring: strong, independent, willing to think for themselves, but caring, they have that empathy so their strength and independence doesn't override and trample on others. In fact, a reflective rebel chafes and bristles when they sense inequality or intolerance, or unkindness or unfairness, but instead of saying, "Well, let's torch the house," and going off half-cocked, they pause, they strategize, they plan for how they might make change that lasts for more than just a moment, and then they grab the sledgehammer, and they start knocking out walls and building new rooms to make the house bigger and better for everybody. So today I want to share with you a story about a reflective rebel. Before I share the story, I need to make a confession: I created this reflective rebel by doing something that in hindsight I shouldn't have done. So, three things before we dive into the story. Number one: I shouldn't have done what I did. Number two: I've learned from it, and I'll never do it again. And number three: I just know that somebody's going to hear this story and say, "Now there's an idea." Don't do it. It's unethical, and I made a mistake. Please learn from my mistake and just don't go there. So nowadays I mainly give talks for a living and write books, and I speak to adults about wellbeing and relationships and parenting, but some years ago, I used to give talks to a lot of kids, and an organization contacted me one day and said, "Hey. We want you to come in and do a day's worth of speaking. We've got about 1,200 kids. We're going to divide them into six groups and we'll send them to you 200 at a time. Do one session six times with each group. They're all aged between 14 and 18. Here's the brief: Help them to make good decisions and stop bowing down to peer pressure." Easy, no problem. So I was thinking about how to get 14 to 18 year olds to not be reflexive rebels, to be reflective rebels, and I remembered the Milgram experiment from the 1960s. If you know the Milgram experiment, you know why I'm saying "Don't try this at home." But if you don't, let me give you a quick bit of background. Stanley Milgram did this experiment that has become a psychology classic, and in the experiment, he is the "experimenter." You walk in to participate in the experiment, or I do - people just like us - and you meet the other participant. Milgram explains, "One of you will be the 'teacher,' the other will be the 'learner.'" We don't have time to cover the details, so I'll explain it very briefly: it's rigged. You are always going to be the "teacher," and the other person will always be the "learner." Why? Because they (Milgram and the other person) are friends. He (the other person) is a confederate. It's set up that way. And essentially, Milgram explains that this is a study of memory and learning, and we want to see how punishment affects people's memory and learning. So you watch as the learner goes into another room and is strapped into an electric chair. And then you sit down in front of a bench with a whole lot of buttons on it that represent the different voltage that you're going to administer to the learner when they get your questions wrong. You start administering the punishment; the learner starts protesting. You say to Milgram, "We can't do this," and the experimenter says, "The experiment requires that you continue. Please continue." About halfway through, the protests are so loud that you beg to stop, but he says, "Please continue." A short while later, the person stops responding. They're unconscious - or worse. And yet Milgram found that even after that, 65% of participants went all the way to the end, even after there was no more response. Now obviously, it would be unethical for me to give electric shocks to kids ... so I didn't do that, but I decided to run a modified version of this experiment because it's such a great object lesson - I know, I know. (Sigh) I know. So here's what I did: the first group of 200 kids came in, and I called for two volunteers. As they came up, I picked a couple at random. They walked up and stood there all excited because they were volunteering and they're fun kids, and I said to one of them, "You're the teacher. Here are five trivia questions. You ask the learner these questions." "You're the learner. Put these elastic bands around your wrist. Every time you get a question wrong, (Slap) you get this - short, sharp punishment for not knowing the answer. Five trivia questions, five potential punishments. Make sense?" And the teacher is the one who's administering the punishment. Much more ethical. (Laughter) Like I said, never again. Anyway - (Laughter) the first experiment went off without a hitch. They just followed my instructions to the letter. No questioning, [they] just did it. Second experiment, likewise. Third group that came through, and I'm starting to wonder if this such a good idea. The volunteers come forward - teacher, learner - and I say "Hello," and the kid who's the teacher is like 6'2" and 120 kilos - he's huge - and the learner is 5'0 and 40 kilos - she's tiny. He asked the first question. She has no idea of the answer. He reaches out, he picks up her wrist. He pulls these elastic bands back, and just before he lets go, she flinches, because she knows what's coming, and in that instant, he pauses, and then ever so slowly, he places the elastic bands gently on her wrist, and he steps back. And then he put his head down, and quite humbly and out of the corner of his mouth, he said, "I don't want to do that. It doesn't seem right." I know! Inside I was thinking, "Yes!" But of course, I couldn't say that, so I channeled my inner Milgram, and I said, "The experiment requires that you continue. Please go on." Talk about pressure. And this kid - he was amazing. He had this inner wrestle for a moment, and then he seemed to stand a little taller - and he was already up there - and he said, "No. She just doesn't know the answer. Why would I hurt her for it?" I wanted to hug him. (Laughter) But I couldn't because that would blow the experiment, and so I said, "Look, I'm with you for the next 60 minutes. If you don't do this, I've got nothing to say to you or these 200 people. We need you to do this. Please, the experiment requires that you continue. Please continue." And as I said it, the crowd started to jeer. Some of the kids started saying, "Come on, man. Just do it! You're ruining it! Stop messing it up! Just do it!" A few kids said, "I'll do it!" (Laughter) - No, shush, stop it! - Don't. He began to walk away - I got him to come back - he didn't want to - I said, "Come back," and I said, "We need to talk about this." I asked the entire crowd to please give him a round of applause. I said, "What has just happened is special. And it's unusual." His name was Teancum, he was 14 or 15 years old, and what he displayed that day was what I call reflective rebellion. He was willing to stand firm and resolute in what he knew was right even though no one else was with him. It was exceptional. I think that what Teancum demonstrated is the endgame for all of us and for our children - and if we don't have kids, the young people that we work with or that we teach or that are related to us - for them to understand what Augustine of Hippo meant when he said, "Right is right, even if no one is doing it. Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it." I don't know if you've noticed this or not, but most people say, "Well, I want to raise children who are strong and independent and caring and courageous," and yet, how many of us - and it doesn't just have to happen in our homes, this can happen at work, and it doesn't even have to be with kids, it can be with adults, or in our classrooms - how many of us use phrases like "Just do as I say," "Because they're the rules, that's why," "Because that's the company policy, we've just - that's what we do," "Because that's how we do it in this school, in this classroom, in our home," "Because I said so." We say that we want to raise independent thinkers, but what we really want to raise [are] conformists, because independence is inconvenient. Data from around the world tells us that from toddlers to teens and even for adults, we create reflective rebels not by force because force creates resistance; rather, we create reflective rebels by giving people space to think, to work things out. I asked one dad, "How did you create your reflective rebels?" He was amazing. He said, "I give my kids hypotheticals. In the car, I'll say, 'What do you think about this?' 'What would you do if this happened?' 'How would you respond?' 'What about if it was like this?'" And then he shared with me ideas about what his kids had done reflectively as a result. You see, when we use phrases like this, what we're essentially saying is, "I'll only love you" - or if it's not at home - "I'll only treat you well when you behave the way that I want you to." That's the essence of conditionality. And it doesn't create the reflective rebellion, the independent thought, the strong caring individuals that matter most. Well, we should finish the story of Teancum, because more happened that day. I ran the session three more times. Two volunteers came up, they followed the script perfectly, no one questioned it, nobody rebelled, they just hurt each other ... quite willingly. But at the end of the final session, as everybody was leaving the room, this one young man came up to me. He was about 17 or 18. He was a bit bigger than Teancum, he looked just like him, and he started asking me about Teancum. I'm like, "How many kids do you know called Teancum, that's not a common name." He said, "That's my little brother. I can't wait to go home and tell my parents what my little brother did today." (Sigh) We gulp and quiver at the idea of raising a rebel in our living room, but what parent wouldn't want that for their children, to raise children who are strong and caring and reflective, and who are willing to think about others and do what they know is right. I can't help but think that that night, Teancum's parents celebrated their courageous, strong, independent, reflective rebel sitting right there opposite them on a lounge chair in their living room. Thank you. (Applause)