My daughter is a very well-behaved child and that worries me.
I was too, for that matter. So was my wife. Generally speaking, we didn’t get in trouble. We followed the rules. We aggravated our parents from time to time, but that was about the extent of our rebellion.
We heard, over and over again, “you’re so well-behaved.”
“You’re so polite.”
“What a good kid you are.”
These affirmations aren’t the result of doing something special, but because you did nothing special. Nothing remarkable. You were no bother. And that’s the entire point.
Protection comes from pleasing our parents, guardians, teachers, camp counselors and adult authorities with our “good” behavior. We win their approval by being “good.” Our parents tell us, “you were good today.” Maybe you as a parent say that to your child. And if a little child hears that, it means she won your approval. She was pleasing to you. That’s what that means…
As children, we noticed right away that grown ups held the keys to anything we ever wanted… it was up to the grown ups, always. Because grown ups had all the power…
No wonder our primary practice and skill became how to please them. No wonder our first experience of mastery was in anticipating moods of others and learning to win their approval.Steve Chandler, Time Warrior
It’s a survival skill. We’re so deeply conditioned to seek it, most of us struggle to graduate from this need for approval, this child-like desire to elicit positive feedback from the adults around us. Even as adults ourselves, we implicitly ask colleagues, bosses, friends and even perfect strangers to act as our parents so we can feel secure.
This childhood need eventually becomes a burden. In the same way we relied on our parents for security, we rely on those around us for self-worth. For signals of acceptance. So long as we play the role correctly.
Don’t fuck up, kid.
I’ve sat in meetings full of accomplished executives– consummate Good Kids– who resent their senior leadership in private but behave exactly as they are expected to when the potential for confrontation arises. I see children around those tables. Obedient. Agreeable. None with the nerve to be a bother.
But evolution isn’t normative. Making a difference requires being different– finding ourselves uncomfortable, at risk— as we seek results, not approval.
Mahatma Ghandi, the archetype of a polite, peaceful person, was a warrior none the less. And a royal pain in the ass to the powers that be. Ghandi was imprisoned again and again because he refused to be a Good Kid. Instead, through nonviolent civil disobedience he sought to be the de facto adult in the room, even as others held all the apparent power.
It’s a pattern we see throughout history. Driven by a realization that the world as it is isn’t good enough, a rare few go about remaking it, challenging the “adults” who dutifully maintain the status quo. The rest of us meanwhile, are content to burnish our Good Kid status with clean white tennis shoes on the first day of school and straight A’s on the last.
How old do you have to be before you graduate? Chances are, you’ll be 80 and long past caring what others think merely because your frontal lobe is atrophied– worn out from a lifetime of fighting your truest inclinations.
Choosing to stop being a Good Kid may feel like a daring undertaking when you still have things to lose. Until, of course, you realize that most of the rules are policed by other Good Kids putting on their best grownup disguises.
So make trouble while you still can. If you try hard enough, maybe you’ll be a bother. Maybe your transgressions will be notable enough to go on your permanent record.