How To Raise Kids Who Are Independent Thinkers, From A Guy Who Studies Non-Conformists

Rule #1: No dumb rules.

by Jonathan Stern
Originally Published: 
how to raise kids who are independent thinkers

It used to be that parents just wanted a doctor or a lawyer in the family — someone who knew the rules, had a good work ethic, and made enough money to leave their retirement account untouched. Now everyone thinks they can raise tiny game-changers if they just knew whether or not Mark Zuckerberg had helicopter parents or if Malala got time-outs.

Adam Grant, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World has 3 kids of his own and understands that instinct. “I’m trying to go beyond intuition, experience, and opinion, and look at evidence,” he says. “There’s some really carefully done comparative and longitudinal studies that look at if you want to raise a creative or a moral or a generous child, what do you do differently? That’s my starting point.”

Grant studied everyone from Elon Musk to Jerry Seinfeld and, as it turns out, their parents didn’t train them from birth to be groundbreaking innovators. Instead, they raised independent, empowered, responsible kids who had a better chance of doing something great. Your kid may or may not create the next Facebook, but if you raise them this way too, at the very least your retirement account should be safe.

Here are 6 things that parents who raise independent thinkers do.

Don’t Set Rules; Set Values

As Grant writes in Originals, “rules set limits that teach children to adopt a fixed view of the world. Values encourage children to internalize principles for themselves.”

This doesn’t mean your house should be a lawless Mad Max-style world. With Grant’s 5-year-old, it means talking about why it’s important to listen, rather than demanding attention. With his 7-year-old, this means helping her understand the consequences of staying up too late and trusting her to act responsibly because of it.

When your kids understand why they don’t want to live in the Thunderdome (constantly fearing for your life; dust; Tina Turner screaming a lot), as opposed to simply being forced to not live in the Thunderdome, they’re more likely to grow into adults who behave better than Mel Gibson.

Shift From Verbs To Nouns

Your father used to say that he was forced to walk three miles in a blizzard to school because it “builds character.” As it turns out, your granddad was just an asshole. What really builds character, Grant says, is praising that character instead of an action or behavior.

“Instead of saying, ‘Will you help?’ if you say, ‘Will you be a helper?’ you get a 22% to 29% increase in the number of kids who do it,” says Grant. “It’s just that little shift from a verb to a noun can be enough to give kids this intuitive reaction of, ‘Oh, that’s the kind of person I want to be.'”

Don’t Give Them Anything To Rebel Against

“When you give clear explanations for the consequences of different kinds of behavior, kids are much less likely to rebel,” says Grant, who can’t guarantee your teenager isn’t doing donuts on the front yard right now.

But that philosophy did work on him as a teenager. “My parents did a fantastic job with this. I made my own curfew. I would tell my parents what time I was going to come home, and if I wasn’t home by then, there would be consequences. It’s such a cool example, looking back. There’s nothing for me to rebel against. I got to choose the time I’m going to be back. If I’m rejecting that, then I’m rebelling against myself, not against them.”

Get Disappointed Instead Of Mad

“When you get angry, kids tend to push back. When you’re too forgiving, they don’t learn the correct behavior,” says Grant. “Disappointment is such a great emotion. It says ‘I had high expectations of you, and you really let me down, but I believe you can do a better job next time.'”

Used correctly, guilt can be a powerful motivator to get kids to internalize their behavior and make the right decisions. Used incorrectly, they’ll become a co-dependent puddle of jello in their adult years. So, plan accordingly.

Introduce Role Models Who Aren’t You

As much as you want a Mini-Me, it’s a good idea to expose your kid to other influential people. Grant started to encourage his oldest by leaving out short biographies, “Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln…people who have done really extraordinary things in society from a moral perspective.” Or you could go in the other direction and just leave a copy of The Dirt on their nightstand.

Put Them In Someone Else’s Shoes

One of the things Grant talks about in Originals is how not to fall victim to groupthink, and part of how to do that for kids is pushing them to consider other points of view. “If you do more perspective-taking, you think about different niches that are not the ones that necessarily came most naturally to you.”

So the next long drive, ask them about what a fictional or historical character would do in a certain situation? What would happen if Daniel Tiger ran into an actual tiger? Would Marie Antoinette choose to do her homework, or not? Or maybe a better example that doesn’t end in a mauling or execution.

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