Like all of us, I was a kid before I had a kid. And, like many of us, I was a pain in the ass. I wasn’t the most rebellious teen, but as a kid, I was no good at holding my tongue, and I was forced to deal with deep tensions between who I thought I should be, who I wanted to be, and who I was.
What I did know was that I loved music, and music – through my childhood and adulthood – introduced me to parts of the world, and ways of the world, that were foreign to a white midwestern suburban kid. The music I listened to taught me some of life’s most important lessons and defined my key inflection points.
So, as a father of a young toddler, the idea to write a children’s book about Punk Rock made perfect sense to me. Later, as a father of two kids, following up What Is Punk? with What Is Hip-Hop? made even more. After all, these were songs, artists, and cultures I loved, and I wanted to share them with my kids.
But over and over, I got the same question, in interviews, at readings, and from fellow parents: Sex Pistols? NWA? Are you sure you want your kids to know about – or, worse, admire – these people?
The answer, without hesitation, is an emphatic yes. Here’s why.
Rebels are true to themselves
We preach to our kids to “be yourself.” In my aging-hipster suburb of New York City, you can practically hear the precocious kids saying “I’m being myself… because my dad told me to!” We also encourage initiative and creativity in art and problem-solving, etc. I’m sure it’s as obvious to you as it is to my kids that coloring within someone else’s lines doesn’t afford a person much creative exploration. What defines a rebel – from Van Gogh to Muhammad Ali to AOC – is that they did it their way.
The trick is to work with kids to help them reason out why existing rules or protocols exist and enable them to make their own decisions as to when to take the road less traveled. To be sure, there are pros and cons of both, and by giving them agency in their decisions, we also instill an innate sense of responsibility.
Rebels move society forward
We all remember the old ‘90s bumper sticker: Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History. I’m sure it’s still driving around on some old Subarus and vintage Volvos. It’s no secret that the forces of fear, inertia, and entrenched power structures resist change. Making positive progress in any arena necessarily and by definition means rebelling against the status quo.
The trick is to discuss with our kids what made these people’s actions worthwhile and beneficial, versus which part of their personalities were detrimental. If I’ve learned anything from my four kids, ages six to 11, it’s that kids are capable of separating a person’s accomplishments from their personality, and they can also distinguish between “good” disobedience and the other kind.
Rebels can also be cautionary tales
Alright, I’m not going to sugarcoat it (not all of it, anyway). Many of these rebels’ stories don’t end well. And here’s why most people ask the question, “why rebels?” Hey, makes sense, but if one of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids is the ability to make good decisions, what better “teachable moment” than this?
Now, you might not want to get into the nitty-gritty of those decisions – not sure your toddler needs to hear about heroin addiction – but I don’t find it objectionable or detrimental at all to say something to the effect of, “Sid Vicious (or Eazy-E) made music that captured the energy and anger of his time, but he also lived a really dangerous life, and that’s why he’s not around today.”
The trick is to be prepared for the conversation. Talk frankly and in plain language. We all know kids have a ton of questions and uncanny bullshit detectors, so anticipate their reactions and be prepared with appropriate language and terminology before the conversation starts.
What it all boils down to is, like all parents, I want to share the things I’m passionate about with my kids. I also want them to grow into open-minded, curious, creative, and unique individuals. Do I wish they had mohawks and wore Ramones shirts? Nah. That’s not particularly rebellious anyway.
But first and foremost, I trust them, and beyond that, exposing them to the some of the most dynamic and vital cultural movements of our time, warts and all, can only expand their grasp on the world they will grow to inhabit.