In praise of mischief

Andrew Taylor-Troutman, a father of two young boys, wonders if there is something sacred in mischief, even as it is sometimes annoying.

Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

My two sons each have a best friend in their elementary school class. They come from awesome families and these boys are kind, funny and respectful.

And what I also love about these best friends is that, with my sons, they get into mischief.

Let me be clear — I don’t condone any behavior that puts anyone in harm’s way or seeks to hurt others, including their feelings. A good rule sets a limit on behavior for everyone’s safety and leads to an environment that can foster well-being.

But mischief can be seen in a positive light. Mischief makers are found in mythologies across the world from Chinese legends about the Monkey King to Indonesian folk tales of Kancil, a tiny deer. True enough, Loki was a troublemaking Norse god. But the spider Anansi was the hero of many Ghanaian stories. And while Jacob, the heel-grabber of the Old Testament, was outright devious, it’s also true that there was a larger good that came out of his schemes.

In terms of “good-hearted” mischief, I have in mind actions that prompt an adult’s immediate eye roll but later make a humorous story. We chuckle, “Those two are thick as thieves!” Think of Fred and George Weasley and their schemes at Hogwarts!

A little good-hearted mischief helps to seal friendships.

I didn’t have a lot of friends as a child. I was the type of kid who tried to follow all the rules all of the time. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself. As I grew up, this rule-following morphed into a desire to please people. To riff on the great Bob Marley, you can’t please all the people all the time. There are conflicting expectations in the adult world. One of the positive roles of mischief is to poke fun at rules that exist merely for the sake of rules and help us take ourselves less seriously.

What’s more, a child’s process of maturation is based, in part, on self-differentiation, meaning one needs to push boundaries for self-discovery. I am in no way advocating dangerous behaviors like alcohol or drug abuse.

But the desire to be different is not wrong — it’s holy to be who you were created to be, uniquely and wonderfully you (Psalm 139:14). A dear friend can help that process of self-discovery. There is comradery in making a little mischief, rather than always falling in line. I like to see kids wiggling room into the rules. And I suspect many wise educators would agree.

At the most recent parent-teacher conference, my younger son’s teacher made it clear that our child needed more reading practice, and so she was going to separate him from his best friend at certain points in the day when schoolwork was expected. But first, she led with appreciation: “I’m so glad that those two have each other. They make us all laugh!”

As I see my childhood rule-following tendencies in both of my sons, I’m grateful that each one has a buddy who helps him loosen up a little. Color outside the lines! They share their secrets with their friends, and that is healthy, good-hearted, even sacred mischief.