Breaking the rules and parental defiance can actually lead to positive futures.

By Liz Steelman
Updated July 29, 2015
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Is bedtime always a nightmare? Do you have a standing appointment with the elementary school principal? Have you ever had your child’s hearing checked because you believe there is no way he or she’s just always not listening to you? Well, it might help to know that you could be compensated in the future for your troubles. A new study suggests that students who break rules and defy their parents in childhood tend to have higher incomes in adulthood.

For a study to be published in Developmental Psychology, researchers from the University of Luxembourg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Free University and Berlin-Brandenburg Institute for School Qualith and the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education, looked at the MAGRIP Study, a 1968 national survey of 2,800 Luxembourgish sixth graders. Students rated themselves on characteristics and behaviors such as responsibility, inattentiveness, and studiousness. Teachers, too, were asked to rate students on their observable traits in class. Forty years later, researchers followed up with participants to measure their occupational success, income, and educational attainment.

Surprisingly, they found that rule breaking and defiance of parenting authority best predicted higher income levels in adulthood, even when they controlled for parental socioeconomic status and the student’s IQ. Researchers suspect those who scored high on this scale are more willing to be aggressive during salary or raise negotiations. They might also value competition more than relationships or be more willing to stand up for their own interests.

It could also be that the bad behavior itself actually leads to higher compensation later in life. “We cannot rule out the individuals who are more likely or willing to break rules get higher pay for unethical reasons,” lead author Marion Spengler, from the University of Luxembourg, wrote in the study.

They also found that a child’s unrealistic demands of their school and teachers, sense of inferiority to other students, and pessimistic world view was associated with lower educational attainment, occupational success, and individual income later in life. They reasoned that these attitudes created a self-fulfilling prophecy that linked low self-esteem to lower school achievement.

But what if your child is more of a goody-two-shoes? You’re in luck, too. Good habits can also predict greater success. Teacher-rated studiousness, based on observing how hard students worked and their willingness to learn, greatly predicted educational and occupational success. Researchers posit that those who work harder are more effective at accomplishing daily tasks and sticking to routines. They might be recruited at more challenging and complex jobs because of their personality traits.