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Teaching Kids to Challenge Authority

Published on: October 26, 2010

Have you ever heard of the Silent Generation? Perhaps your grandparents are members. Born around the Great Depression, that generation was known for its, well, silence. “Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on is shoulders, meanwhile working hard and saying almost nothing,” proclaimed a 1951 Time magazine article.

Ah, how times have changed. That “seen and not heard” maxim has indeed left the building. Today, we encourage, no, make that implore our children to speak up, be heard and, if possible, do so in front of large gatherings.

We aspire to raise inquisitive, involved kids — citizens who promise to be engaged in their world. They’re coached to question ideas, politics and, at times, their own parents. Leaders, after all, ooze confidence and curiosity.

Yet we also get that kids can abuse that freer free-speech privilege other generations didn’t enjoy. Who hasn’t met a wisecracking 10-year-old with attitude? We all know kids (our own?) who sass their teachers, bully their peers and tell their coaches a thing or two about how to run the team.

That’s why parents find themselves in a strange quandary. How do we make sure our kids respect authority, yet have the know-how, the courage and the critical-thinking skills to occasionally challenge it?

Rob Prufer, a Bellevue social studies teacher, tries to foster a balance of respect and inquiry in his classes at Newport High School. He values analytical, interpretive learning while infusing his lessons with plenty of sheer facts. He demands — and generally gets — respect from his students. “In my classes, we have rich exchanges going on,” he says.

Prufer loves those exchanges. And he loves those out-of-the-box inquisitive kids — the ones who put the teacher on the spot and point out the holes in his reasoning.

One day in class, he told his students that the most significant turning point in history happened when humans created agriculture. A ninth-grader asked, “Isn’t it really a matter of opinion what the most significant turning point was?” It’s this kind of thinking — and questioning — that makes Prufer happy.

What he doesn’t encourage are “note takers.” Too many students — especially ambitious, savvy ones — know how to play the system, he says. “They do the bare minimum to get their A. That means they’ll take notes, not really reflect on them, then figure out how to get the grade.”

And every year, he encounters a student or two he calls “overempowered”; the kind of kid who comes across as entitled or combative, with more than a dollop of disrespect. “Yes, they are annoying,” says Prufer. “But for every one of these kids, I see 100 who won’t dare ask questions or challenge the instructor in any way. It’s very clear which is the bigger problem.”

Why does Prufer long for spirited opinions, even if they become challenging or contentious? “I don’t believe that democracy is the natural state of humans,” he says. “If it’s going to work, we need a citizenry that can contribute to a public dialogue, deal with the press and make decisions.”

Speaking out

We also need our kids to be safe. That’s one reason David Bilides, head counselor at Seattle’s Washington Middle School, wants kids to speak up to authority, especially when their personal safety is at risk.

Bilides, who worked at Harborview Medical Center as a therapist in the Sexual Assault and Trauma Services Unit, is particularly sensitive to these issues. “It’s surprising how often kids are told that if an adult tells you something, do it.”

That’s the way Seattle editor Jen Betterley’s parents were raised. “They were never allowed to have an opinion or question things, since it could turn into ‘back talk,’” says Betterley, who is ParentMap’s editorial assistant. Her parents chose to raise their own children differently.

“They wanted me to feel comfortable speaking my mind,” she says. “Most of all, they wanted me to be able to think critically about the world around me so I could form my own opinions, see things on a deeper level and become a level-headed adult who could make good choices.”

Bilides knows that in some cultures, it’s taboo to challenge any adult for any reason. “A few generations back in my family, if you challenged your father, you faced exile. There are kids in this school dealing with that right now.”

He realizes he can’t tell these students how to approach adults outside the classroom. “I say, ‘This is what I think, but I don’t have to go back to your house. Here at school, here’s how I suggest you express a difference of opinion with an adult.’”

Along with safety issues, Bilides wants his students to be able to confront injustice and unfairness. “You don’t want to raise a generation of people who will let racist comments go unchallenged, or watch people being beaten up and just walk away,” he says. “We want our kids to grow up and not tolerate what other generations tolerated.”

How do we impart that lesson to our children?

Offer them choices and let them make decisions, says Jamila Reid, Ph.D., codirector of the parenting clinic at the University of Washington. For preschoolers, that might mean asking, “Do you want to go to the playground or the zoo?” “This empowers them to realize they have some power in what goes on in the world, and that their opinions are valued,” says Reid.

Very young children think in black-and-white terms when it comes to rules, she says. But even preschoolers can be taught to question authority if their safety is threatened. As they get older, they get better at figuring out when it’s appropriate to challenge adults and other power figures, says Reid.

“Explain to children that questioning doesn’t have to mean you are not respectful,” says Reid. “We’d like them to be able to politely express a different opinion — to authority, to a peer, to anybody.” This is a skill that, ideally, will transfer to social situations. “Helping your kids learn how to confront the ‘queen bee’ kind of authority would be good,” she says.

What else can we do? Model decision-making, and admit when we’ve made a poor one, says Reid. “Kids need to learn that even authority figures can make mistakes; that absolute authority doesn’t mean everything is always right.”

Linda Morgan is ParentMap’s education editor and the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Success.

Great books for kids of all ages

Teens — Fiction
Deadline by Chris Crutcher.  When Ben Wolf learns his senior year of high school will be his last year, period, he is determined to go out in a blaze of glory.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. After being interrogated for days by the Department of Homeland Security in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco, Calif., 17-year-old Marcus, released into what is now a police state, decides to use his expertise in computer hacking to set things right.

King of the Screwups by K.L. Going. After getting in trouble yet again, popular high school senior Liam, who never seems to live up to his wealthy father's expectations, is sent to live in a trailer park with his gay "glam rocker" uncle.

Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature by Robin Brande. Following her conscience leads high school freshman Mena to clash with her parents and former friends from their conservative Christian church, but this might result in better things when she stands up for a teacher who refuses to include "intelligent design" in lessons on evolution.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. Marcelo Sandoval, a 17-year-old boy on the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum, faces new challenges, including romance and injustice, when he goes to work for his father in the mailroom of a corporate law firm.

Teens — Nonfiction
The Courage to Be Yourself: True Stories by Teens About Cliques, Conflict, and Overcoming Peer Pressure by Al Desetta. Twenty-six first-person stories written by teens will inspire young readers to reflect on their own lives, work through their problems, and learn who they really are.

Be Confident in Who You Are by Annie Fox. Six middle school students work to meet new challenges and survive the social scene — without losing sight of who they are.

What Do You Stand For? For Teens: A Guide to Building Character by Barbara A. Lewis.  This book invites children and teens to explore and practice honesty, kindness, empathy, integrity, tolerance, patience, respect and more.

Respect: A Girl’s Guide to Getting Respect and Dealing When Your Line Is Crossed by Courtney Macavinta. This book helps teen girls get respect and hold on to it no matter what is happening at home, at school, with their friends and in the world.

Children — Nonfiction
Speak Up and Get Along!: Learn the Mighty Might, Thought Chop, and More Tools to Make Friends, Stop Teasing, and Feel Good About Yourself by Scott Cooper. If getting along were easy, everyone would do it. No one would fight, argue, bully or tease. We'd all know how to make and keep friends, and we'd feel a lot better about ourselves.

Stick Up for Yourself! Every Kid’s Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem by Gershen Kaufman. Discusses problems facing young people such as making choices, learning about and liking yourself, and solving problems.

What Do You Stand For? For Kids: A Guide to Building Character by Barbara A. Lewis. The true stories, inspiring quotations, thought-provoking dilemmas and activities in this book help kids grow into capable, moral teens and adults.

The Mouse, the Monster and Me: Assertiveness for Young People by Pat Palmer. Teaches children, tweens and teens how to assert themselves appropriately, gain self-esteem and have good relationships with adults, teachers and peers.

Children — Fiction (Upper Grades)
The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman. In 1949, 13-year-old Francine goes to a Catholic school where her best friend frequently questions authority, causing Francine to question her own silence.

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. Eighth-grade football hero Wallace Wallace is sentenced to detention for which he must attend rehearsals of the school play. During the rehearsals, in spite of himself, he becomes wrapped up in the production and begins to suggest changes that improve not only the play but his life as well.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and his friends must stand up to some teachers and government officials who are part of Voldemort’s evil group.

Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan. When Naomi's absent mother resurfaces to claim her, Naomi runs away to Mexico with her great-grandmother and younger brother in search of her father.

Children — Fiction (Middle Grades)
Emmaline and the Bunny by Katherine Hannigan. Everyone and everything in the town of Neatasapin is tidy, except Emmaline, who likes to dig in the dirt and jump in puddles. And now she wants to adopt an untidy bunny.

Children — Fiction (Lower Grades)
The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School by Laurie Halse Anderson. Zoe’s hair is uncontrollable with a mind of its own. It’s a fun adventure until she reaches first grade, where her new, strict teacher is intent on controlling her hair.

The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein. Elmer the duck is teased because he is different, but he proves himself by not only surviving the winter, but also saving his papa.

Woolbur by Leslie Helakowski. Woolbur, a sheep with a mind of his own, never seems to follow the flock, despite his parents’ reminders about how he should behave.

Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems. As the pigeon pleads, wheedles and begs his way through the book, children will love being able to answer back and decide his fate.


Source: Seattle Public Library

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