It's a call every parent dreads: your child has misbehaved in school and the principal's office is phoning you to come in for a little chat. Now you have to go and discuss how to nudge your little rule breaker back onto the straight and narrow, worrying all the while that maybe their unruliness will lead to a life of legal trouble and unemployment. 

If your kid is literally burning down the computer lab or continually brawling with other children, there may indeed be cause for concern. But if your child is just bad at following arbitrary rules or containing their boredom, then I have some good news for you. 

A handful of studies actually suggest that a little rebelliousness as a kid is actually a great sign for your child's future happiness and success. 

Rebels end up happier... 

The latest evidence along these lines comes from a new survey of more than 1,000 American office workers done by Office Depot and reported by our sister publication Fast Company. This admittedly isn't the most scientific study ever, but nonetheless a few surprising conclusions of the poll are worth noting. 

First, those who claimed to be rule breakers as kids "reported higher levels of overall satisfaction as adults. According to the survey, those who 'hardly ever' followed the rules landed among the top 61st percentile for overall life satisfaction, ahead of those who sometimes or always followed the rules," Jared Lindzon writes. 

An office supply company poll can't definitively say why that might be so (and by polling only office workers it clearly screens out those whose misbehavior led to dire life outcomes like jail or joblessness), but Office Depot spokesperson Claire Cole was willing to speculate.

"If you're a rule breaker, maybe that means you're marching to the beat of your own drum a bit more and having a bit more self-determination, so maybe that's what leads people to greater life satisfaction," she said. 

There are reasons beyond this survey to think she might be onto something. Both a hospice nurse who spent decades talking to the dying about their biggest regrets and research out of Cornell University concluded that one of the most common and stinging regrets is following others' expectations for your life rather than your own inner voice. This suggests that being enough of a rebel to ignore expectations that don't line up with your own truth could indeed help you live a more fulfilled, less regret-filled life.  

Finally, another strand of research on parenting suggests that the happiest adults don't come from households that stressed strict adherence to rules. Rather it is kids from warm homes where parents encouraged their children to follow the beat of their own drum (within reasonable boundaries, of course) that end up both happiest and most creative

... and also more successful. 

All of this suggests an independent streak might serve your child's soul well as she grows into adulthood, but how about her bank account? Parents are most concerned about their children's happiness, but it's pretty hard to be happy when you're constantly broke. Does being a free spirit interfere with the more material side of success? 

Here too the evidence is on the side of that kid sitting outside of the principals office. While your little rebel might never make it as a bureaucrat or pencil pusher, there's no reason his hardheadedness will keep him from success in life. In fact, it might even help him. 

One recent study that tracked kids for decades actually found that stubborn children end up outearning their more agreeable peers. Meanwhile, the Office Depot survey found "those who were regularly sent to the principal's office as children were almost twice as likely to become business owners as adults."

That lines up nicely with research into the "entrepreneurial personality" which shows entrepreneurs, on average, score slightly lower on the "Big 5" personality trait known as agreeableness. In short, not giving a hoot about what others think tends to be linked with certain types of career success, notably as an entrepreneur. Or to be even more blunt: your wild child isn't doomed. 

So while you're sitting slightly shame faced waiting for the principal to complain that your kid just won't sit still in class, remember these studies. Being a free spirit is a drag in middle school, but there's plenty of evidence it's not at all a bad thing to grow up to be a bit of a rebel.

Published on: Oct 9, 2019
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