Why Children Rebel

“One son, gathering all together, went abroad into a far country: and there wasted his substance, living riotously.” (Luke 15)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my children tell me they wish they could run away. Hearing that, of course, is upsetting, but if we’re honest, it makes a lot of sense and I blame myself.  The life of a child usually stinks, especially when they are stuck in that miserable early teenage period of life and have adult desires that have no outlet in their lives. We, the parents, counting the cost of feeding, clothing, housing and educating them, think that they have a pretty good deal: do your studies, help around the house and don’t be a jerk and everything is provided for you. Our adult values, though, have developed after decades of living that our children haven’t known yet. We encourage frugality because we have wasted lots of money. We discourage dating because we’ve dated. We don’t promote sports because we’ve exhausted years of our lives playing sports and wish (in unrealistic hindsight) that we’d have spent that time differently. We discourage TV watching, because we’ve watched it all. So, our “virtue” is often not really what we pretend it to be, and our children cannot be expected to share our opinions when they are looking out at an unknown world they are sheltered from, and we despise it after having experienced it all. It’s not fair. Nevertheless, that’s what parents are for and why God orders human society the way he does. 

Here on the farm, we have runaways. Sheep get out, goats get out, pigs get out, cows get out, even giant draft horses get out. When they get out, we never think to call the animals “bad” or “rebellious”. We’ve established pens or pastures or stables for them and they want to “run away”. The reason is usually because we didn’t give them enough food or remember to fill their water tanks. They’re busting loose not because they’re bad, but because they’re hungry. It’s our fault and prevention of that hunger is the only reasonable remedy. 

Yes, of course, if our children were like St. Aloysius Gonzaga, or St. Dominic Savio, they would obey for nothing other than the glory of God and their own salvation. Yes, that’s true. However, do you know why we spend time reading and talking about Sts. Aloysius and Dominic Savio because they are extremely rare boys. In fact, in all of Church history, there are no, or few, other boys like them–period. Therefore, expecting that our children should act like them is true–theoretically–but unreasonable in reality. A wise parent would never expect his children to act like saints who stand out as unique in Church history, but would expect normal human behavior and praying to God that they may receive grace to do better–but that’s between them and God. We have to mind our own business, and that based on reality.


So, why do so many children rebel against their parents? The answer is pretty simple: they’re not being raised with realistic expectations from their parents. The parents dishonestly imagine that all the good they do–going to work every day, keeping their clothes clean, going to Church, getting an education, etc., was and is all done for purely heavenly reasons. Every man explains that his current business is God’s will “for him” and pretends that in going to the office with 10 unbelievers, he is following Christ. Come on, Dad. You’re going to work because there’s money there. You have big boy toys and pleasures and you work because you want to have them–and more. You’d like a bigger house, a better car, a longer vacation, a nicer lawn, more visits to that Italian restaurant in town, money for tickets to a baseball game, etc.. You’re a human being and you like sensual pleasures. I say that highly doubting that most Christian parents living in America are fasting and studying Scripture and praying the Divine Office and going door-to-door evangelizing their neighbors. Most Christian parents are doing what their children want to do, but on a more mature scale and with a lot of privacy that the children don’t have. When Tommy sits down at the computer, for example, he has content blockers requiring passwords, and/or Mom and Dad keeping an eye on him. When Tommy and his siblings go to bed, Mom and Dad are free to do what they please. The kids don’t get that freedom, and we, as parents know it. 

Now, I’m not laughing this off and saying “Nobody’s perfect…so let’s continue doing these things, laughing it off.” because that’s not true. There are people who voluntarily live holy lives in the presence of all of the same pleasures and privileges and we have no excuse for not doing the same. Our double standard is hypocrisy, and that’s one of the things that inspires children to want to rebel and leave home. They want to have a place where they can be like Mom and Dad–secretly indulging their own pleasures. No, imitating hypocrites is not justifiable, but it’s a real temptation and, obviously, Mom and Dad often seem to like it very well. That’s problem #1 and it’s a real mess in America.


While I certainly am not free from hypocrisy, that doesn’t tend to be the problem with my children.  When we’ve had problems with our children, it’s been due to something different, and, thankfully, easier to fix.  This second problem is, again, not justifiable, but nevertheless real. Let’s be honest, the world is full of really cool stuff. In a fantasy world, I would love to have a fleet of cars and trucks at my disposal, a luxurious home, servants and stewards, three delicious sit-down meals each day, vacations around the world, and all the rest.  Everyone would…in a fantasy world.  As we mature, however, we learn that just because the catalog contains all of the stuff we want, our lives can’t. We realize that the fantasy world is really that, a fantasy world, and the gathering of treasures is not blessed and is not pleasant. The cars and trucks need maintenance. The home is lived in and cannot be kept new. The servants and stewards all need to serve us willingly and be fed, clothed and housed. The delicious meals become ugly fat cells. The vacations leave us with more work to do and no real relief. It sounds good in the advertisement, but the wiser we get, the more we realize–no–real life doesn’t work like that. Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of people never learn that.

Our children, however, don’t yet understand that the fantasy world is a fantasy world. We, if we’re wise parents, need to slowly reveal that truth to them. We can strictly deny them everything not allowed by St. Benedict, or even better the desert hermits, but that won’t convince them and, more likely, will make them even more eager for their imagines world of delight. 

Many parents, on the other hand, “spoil” (i.e., ruin) their children by supplying their demands and encouraging them to imagine that this desire-get-desire-get routine can go on forever. There are a few key reasons why parents do this, most of all, to avoid being embarrassed by an “unhappy” child in front of other families, business clients, etc.. We see, therefore, many “happy” children in our society who are happy because they are spoiled. The fruits of that terrible treatment will be seen in due time. (Hint: Look at the divorce rate.)

To reveal the fantasy to our children we have to allow them to learn the hard way–but not the worst way, which is as the prodigal son learned. We have to prevent them from learning that way by taking a middle road. Parents must give their children the opportunity to do real-world work for real-world rewards. Food, clothing and shelter should not be considered a child’s pay because, remember, that child is the fruit of Mom and Dad’s own bodily pleasure. Food, clothing and shelter are a right of children, not a reward for work done by children. Give the kid a break and honor the Golden Rule: do unto him/her as you would want done unto you. 

Your kids will zealously work if you offer them rewards. Let them work for the good of your family, business, etc.. Offer them $10 to cut the lawn on Saturday so you can work on finances. Offer $2 for a bucket full of weeds from the vegetable garden, which allows you to get Saturday evening baths started with the babies rather than spending an hour in the garden. Offer $10 for babysitting so you can have a night to talk and plan with your wife, etc.. Set a higher price on harder jobs: “I’ll give you $50 if you do all the laundry for a month.” Your kids will work, work, work if you offer them a satisfying reward.

However, when you hand them that $25, they will want to take it and invest it in fantasy land–and you need to let them. Let them buy an iPod for $200. Let them buy that bike at Wal-Mart for $90. Let them buy that goofy pair of basketball sneakers for $125. Don’t worry, you’re not handing them over to the devil. You’re revealing the fantasy world to them. They are going to quickly, and painfully, learn that all that work they did to earn that $100 vanished in a moment and the little gadget they got for it needs batteries, can’t get wet, can’t get dropped, etc.. They’re going to learn that the $200 iPod comes with no music, but that songs need to be purchased for $1 each. They will learn that 3 bottles of Yoo-Hoo and 4 lbs of gummy worms (I’m kidding, but you know what I mean.) really aren’t that good. They will be disappointed by what the fantasy world delivers, and they will begin to lose faith in it–one purchase at a time.

The next time around, they’ll say, “I’m not going to buy any junk this time. I’m going to save up for something good.” Hear that? Wiser, no? Not so eager to buy what fantasy world is selling. Yes, if that experience continues for a few years, they might get it, no? Yes, they generally will get it because what the world offers is empty. It really is empty. However, it is made by marketing and salespeople, along with the assistance of our flesh and the devil, to appear to be something more than it is, something real. We have to uncover to our children the malice of the devil, the selfish dishonesty of salesmen and the deceitfulness of their own desires–and the best way to do this is by letting them work, paying them, and then letting them see what their labor gets them. 


I learned this lesson when I was 12 years old. I delivered newspapers every day on my bike after school and saved up $200. Then, I asked my mother if I could by a Hosoi Hammerhead skateboard. Man, my happiness was completely dependent on getting that skateboard. If I had one, it would have been the last thing I needed in life. So I thought. My mother took me one Saturday morning to the skate shop and I got that skateboard. I held onto that thing in the car like it was my life’s savings. We got home, I jumped out of the car and started riding. It was awesome–for about 30 minutes. Then, reality started to dawn on me: I spent all the money I made on this thing. It’s all gone. 

Somehow, we imagine, that we will get the possession, and still have money to use with it, but no, the possession takes away the money. We are left to play in poverty. I should have learned my lesson, but I didn’t. When I was 17 years old, I got my driver’s license and I lived in central New Jersey. I hung out at the local parks where I played basketball, or went running–and I loved going to the beach. I had a used car that was fine, but I wanted a Jeep. So, I started working and working, saving everything I could and best of all, I discovered the world of FINANCING–which wasn’t known to me when I was 12. With a signature from a relative and proof that I could–potentially–steadily make $250 each month, they gave me the keys to a shiny black ’92 Wrangler. Again, it was awesome–and this time for more than 30 minutes. This was really it. I was a cool dude in my black Jeep-top down, music cranked up. Look out world.

However, one Wednesday night, our friends (Dania and I were already together at that time) were hanging out and, uh, I needed to go to work. “See you later, guys, I have to get to work.” Another Saturday morning, I got a call from one of my buddies saying he and a few others were going to the park to play basketball and wanted to know if I’d come play with them. “No, not today. I have to work.” Off they went, in the kids’ parents BROWN STATION WAGON, while I drove my shiny black Jeep…to work. Again. That became an increasingly common experience and it started to dawn on me: this is a bigger, fancier, more expensive Hosoi Hammerhead. I’d much rather be with my friends (especially the one with the long brown hair!), than with my Jeep.

Anyway, I’m sure you have the same stories and I want you to reflect on them and realize how significant they were in leading you to think the way you do today–which, I hope, is responsibly and simply. No matter what we say, our children need to experience these lessons. They need to see that what we’re telling them isn’t ignorant kill-joy nonsense from old, grumpy parents. You’ll get the question, “Didn’t you want to ______ when you were my age?” and you’ll respond, “Yes, BUT I wasn’t raised with the values I should have been raised with, blah, blah, blah.” That’s correct, but what you’re ignoring is that those values you have today are the result of what you did, saw, had and learned then. 


Now, don’t you dare imagine that I’m suggesting that Christian parents allow their children to sit online with the world of internet pornography streaming into their faces, or to drop their daughters off at night clubs for “teen night”. I’m not recommending some sort of Catholic Rumspringa. My cows would love for me to leave them alone with a few hundred pounds of sweet grains…but they’d be dead the next day if I did. Likewise, letting our children go can and likely will destroy the grace in their souls and fill them with bad habits that are much more dificult to climb out from than to avoid. I’m not, in any way, suggesting that parents lower the moral bar and start letting their children do what they want. NO WAY.

What I’m saying is that parents need to find a Golden Mean where the children’s desire to “see for themselves” and the parent’s duty to “train up a child in the way he should go” may come together. This, when successfully done, is where the diseases of the world are immunized and the children learn (a) that Mom and Dad aren’t lying to them and (b) there’s no place like home (spiritually speaking). 

Reflect on two important passages:

1. What led the prodigal son back?

“Returning to himself, he said: ‘How many hired servants in my father’ s house abound with bread, and I here perish with hunger?”. 
(Luke 15:17)

It was the realization that his father’s morally upright life and generous provision was BETTER than what the world actually had to offer.

2. How Jesus Himself teaches us simplicity:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where rust corrupts [them], moths destroy [them] and thieves break in and steal [them]. Rather, store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where” there are no rust, moths or thieves.”

For all this apparently “heavenly” talk, does Jesus not tell us to store up treasure in heaven simply because it’s a better investment than treasure stored up on earth? Isn’t Our Lord just practical with us, telling us, “Why are you buying all this junk here on earth when it’s just going to get ruined or stolen? This is a pretty dumb investment, no?”. Yes, it is a dumb investment…and that’s why we shouldn’t do it.

Anyway, I hope that helps.

God bless,
William Michael 

P.S. I know that as soon as I publish this, parents will begin asking, “What, specifically, do you do with your children?”. First of all, know this: I have undertaken most of the projects I have undertaken for the sake of my children’s salvation. I live on a farm not because I love farming or because I believe grocery store food is poisoned, but because I knew that my children would grow up and need healthy work to do. I nearly killed and impoverished myself preparing the farm for them, so I’m not going to pretend that I have some cheap Dr. Phil answer for you. My deal with my children is simple: “Any work that you do that either (a) helps me do my work better, (b) allows me to do more of my work, or (c) allows me to save money I would have paid to someone else, I will pay you for, minus whatever I invest in it.” I am a professional adult who, when given time, can make lots of money doing what I do. I would make much less money–and do much less good–cutting grass, milking cows, grooming horses, spreading mulch, weeding gardens, etc.. Therefore, inasmuch as I have greater work to do, my children are given an open ticket to money–they simply need to do any work that allows me to do more work, or do what work I do better. My 14yo son milks our family’s cows and gets $0.50 per gallon, and handles all of our landscaping (which is a big job) for rewards (e.g., he’s working now for a mountain bike at the end of the summer). My 11yo son takes care of a henhouse that bring 4-5 doz eggs per day and gets $0.25 per dozen. My 13 yo daughter takes care of the kitchen garden weeding and watering and is paid for its produce. My 6 and 8 yo sons yesterday earned $2 each for weeding the school flower gardens (Samuel, the 8yo, just walked in from the grocery store with a bag of potato chips and a box of Jujyfruits…I told you.). They can do as much work as they want, so long as (a) it’s real work and (b) it’s done well. They determine how much they make, not me, and it’s always a good deal for me. I’ve been through the rebellious, runaway discussions, though, and this–with endless prayer, teaching, good example (I hope) and patience–is the remedy.

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5 Responses to Why Children Rebel

  1. popcaskey@netzero.net says:

    Makes a lot of sense. Thanks

  2. Devin Rose says:

    A lot of wisdom here. Thanks for sharing it. I particularly liked the P.S.

  3. Amie says:

    A practicality question – do you keep a lot of small change and small bills at your home to pay up right away or do you have the children keep a paysheet?

    • wmclaa says:

      We just keep a mental tab and then, when either (a) my wife goes to town or (b) one of the kids wants to order something online, we knock it off their current saved up amount. I really hate having cash/coins around and I never use cash, so we definitely don’t go that route, and I don’t want to go through the savings book hassle at the bank. Just keep it simple.

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