Gretchen Rubin’s recent book The Four Tendencies spells out four inborn personality types that every parent and teacher should know when dealing with teens and kids: how do we react to expectations, both those of ourselves and those of others’.
Tendency 1: Upholders.
Upholders live up to expectations, both their own and others’. They execute on their bosses’ orders and adhere to strict exercise and diet routines for themselves. Motivation is rarely a challenge for Upholders, and they struggle to see why others have such a problem motivating themselves. In high school, an Upholder runs the school government or an after school club that they set up, gets excellent grades, already follows an exercise routine, and rarely needs to hear a word edgewise from a parent reminding them of what they need to do.
Tendency 2: Obligers.
Obligers live up to others’ expectations (teachers’, parents’, teammates’, friends’), too, but they struggle to motivate themselves toward their own goals. Obligers instinctively look to authority for guidance and are happy being told what to do; yet a personal side project is very hard for them to follow through on.
The Obliger writer who thrived at a magazine where an editor assigned them topics to write about will struggle to get things when they go off to write a book on their own. Not unless someone else depends on the outcome will an Obliger execute on an idea.
This past Fall, Raghav, an Obliger student of mine, struggled to complete his homework each week. Raghav said he wanted to complete a timed ACT Section every day. When I realized he was an Obliger, I told him to text me when he had completed a Timed Section each day, and that if he did not complete the Section, I would refuse to eat dinner the following day. Now I was dependent on Raghav.
Doing the work for himself was not enough: knowing his tutor would have to forgo a meal, however, drove him completely. For the five weeks before his December ACT, Raghav completed a Timed Section on all but two days – and on the next day, I made sure to let him know I had skipped dinner, so he knew the consequences were real. He ended up nailing his ACT, scoring a 35 and finishing his prep faster than almost any student I had worked with.
Tendency 3: Rebels.
Think Donald Trump. Rebels reject the expectations that others have for them, and they even reject their own expectations they might set for themselves! The key for rebels is to have freedom to do things their way, when they want it, how they want it, in the moment. Those who know Trump have said that one of the surest ways to get him not to do something is to tell him he has to do it, and this is true of most Rebels. This is terribly confusing for teachers and parents because the other three Tendencies all respond relatively well to directives. But Rebels rebel.
So how do you motivate a Rebel?
Two ways: first, tell them the consequences of various actions and give them the freedom to truly choose, and then live with the consequences. Second, remind them of who they want to be – for Trump, it’s being a success, a great President, etc.; for a student, it might be being a great athlete, performer, or debater – and then tell them they have the choice of how they want to show up as that person.
Rebels love to show that they can succeed in their own way.
Tendency 4: Questioners.
Like Rebels, Questioners reject outer expectations, but they do live up to their own expectations.
Questioners live according to an inner logic, and once they are convinced of the rationality of something, they live up to it with the fervor of an Upholder.
Until that point, however, they will reject any directive that seems arbitrary or authority/consensus-based – “the teacher said to do it this way,” or “this is the way it’s always been done” will NOT compel a Questioner; instead, they will quietly ignore or disobey.
Questioners ask LOTS of questions – more than any other Tendency does – because they are looking for an internal logic that they can buy into before following a rule or norm. While other Types may tire of Questioners’ questions, answering them to the Questioner’s satisfaction is absolutely essential to getting a Questioner’s buy-in.
Now, which Type are you? And how does this apply to parenting and teaching? Dealing with others of our own Tendency is usually easy enough, but chances are, the person you’re dealing with is not of your Type.
In that case, see the Tendency combinations below to see how you can interact with kids of each Tendency more effectively.
Parent/Teacher: Upholder – Student: Obliger
Upholder parents/teachers will expect others to be as disciplined as themselves when it comes to executing on projects and even personal side projects, and they will struggle to understand why an Obliger would need outer accountability to get things done. Raghav’s father was an Upholder, so he failed to see why Raghav couldn’t just motivate himself to get his work done. Yet getting creative about how to make others dependent on Obligers’ results is exactly how to motivate an Obliger.
Parent/Teacher: Upholder – Student: Rebel
Here is a match that can really go wrong. Upholders are liable to judge Rebels’ failures to execute on their own or others’ goals as failures of character and willpower. Particularly if the Rebel looks up to the teacher or parent, this can impart ruinous self-concepts, shame and frustration in the Rebel’s self-image. Instead, it’s best to see a Rebel’s tendencies, and ingenuity for improvisation and doing things their own way, as the seeds of genius that they are.
Parent/Teacher: Upholder – Student: Questioner
Upholders will appreciate Questioners’ fierce self-will when it comes to executing on their own projects, but they will find Questioners’ failure to live up to others’ expectations as either selfish, lazy, or ignorant of the consequences of life. Upholder parents and teachers will do excellently to realize that a thorough explanation is all a Questioner will need to get on board with the outer expectations that Upholders instinctively live up to, and wish their Questioner children would simply buy into, as well. For Questioners, buy-in is just a logical explanation away.
Parent/Teacher: Obliger – Student: Upholder
Obliger parents and teachers will instinctively expect their own word to be followed – that is how Obligers themselves tend to respond to authority, after all. Upholders, however, will occasionally surprise Obligers by not going to the meeting or birthday party that everyone is attending because the event conflicts with their own goals: training for a marathon, for example. This can seem course, uncaring, and selfish to Obligers, who believe deeply in living up to the expectations and norms of others.
Parent/Teacher: Obliger – Student: Rebel
Obligers will truly struggle to understand Rebels’ rejection of norms, deadlines, and authority. Obliger parents and teachers do very well to know, as stated above, how to actually motivate compliance from a Rebel: first, tell them the consequences of various actions and give them the freedom to truly choose, and then live with the consequences. Second, remind them of who they want to be – for a student, it might be being a great athlete, performer, or debater – and then tell them they have the choice of how they want to show up as that person. Rebels love to show that they can succeed in their own way.
Parent/Teacher: Obliger – Student: Questioner
Obliger parents and teachers can easily be exasperated by Questioners’ endless questioning of authority and rejection of norms and rules. Recognize Questioners’ need to hear logical explanations behind all that they expect Questioners to do, however, and Obligers can become very effective as leaders of Questioners.
Parent/Teacher: Rebel – Student: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner
Rebels as parents and teachers often encourage their students to break the rules, to relax and have fun, to live a little, as they themselves would. The other Types can surely use this influence! Meanwhile, Rebel teachers/parents do well to know that Obligers need authority and outer accountability to get done what they want to get done, that Upholders need a clear spelling-out of expectations, and that Questioners need full rational explanations.
Parent/Teacher: Questioner – Student: Upholder
A Questioner parent/teacher will consistently provide explanations behind why everything expected of others is done. Questioners do well to know, however, that the why is less important to Upholder students than the sheer clarity of what is expected so that the Upholder can in fact live up to the expectations.
Parent/Teacher: Questioner – Student: Obliger
Obligers operate on the opposite side of the spectrum as Questioners, living up to others’ expectations but not so well their own. Obligers need far less in explanation, and far more in spelling out clearly what is expected of them.
There is another key that needs mentioning regarding Obligers: Obliger Rebellion. Obligers often say “yes” to so many expectations that are asked of them that they can begin to resent all the duties and burdens placed on them – particularly when the Upholders, Rebels, and Questioners around them have stood up for their own needs and said “No” to these expectations. After one (or twenty) too many “Yesses,” an excess of inner resentment builds inside the Obliger and leads to a loud, dramatic “No” to an expectation that the Obliger had always lived up to in the past.
To avoid an Obliger Rebellion, others around the Obliger need to help them look out for themselves, to ensure they are staying within their own limits, avoiding saying “Yes” to too many expectations that will drain and embitter them.
I am particularly sensitive with my Obliger students not to give them too much homework (which can be hard because they seem so willing to do it! – but at a cost). I have run into Obliger Rebellion on the part of Obliger students, and it is not fun or pretty. Suddenly the well of goodwill and ambition in them, once so full, has run dry, and I cannot reach them anymore.
These days, I am aware of how many tasks and expectations they have probably already said “Yes” to in their lives (they are the type of student who feels they must do everything their teachers assign), and of how hard it is for an Obliger to ask me for less work even though that might be exactly what they are wanting and needing.
Parent/Teacher: Questioner – Student: Rebel
Wow! Rebels can be hard to lead as a parent or teacher. Curiously for Questioners, it isn’t an explanation of the deeper logic that a Rebel is interested in. Resorting to authoritative commands won’t work, either.
Rebels’ need to hear the consequences of different decisions, however, can align closely with Questioners’ instinct to explain things, and Rebels’ need for freedom in deciding and acting is something that Questioner parents and teachers can get easier than Upholders or Obligers will.