Helping Children Be the Authors of Their Own Story

Much of the writing I’ve done on parenting is based on bringing together my professional work and my internal work as a parent. I love the synergy between my work in higher education and my work as a parent. Often the theories and research I use in my work with universities are directly applicable to what I advocate for in changes our dominant parenting paradigm.

I want to explore two of these theories and the research that has gone into them as a way of helping us to understand how the use of parental power to control children is harmful to their development and growth.

Constructive-development and self-authorship are two theories that have expanded on the work of the Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist who studied and wrote about children’s reasoning and cognitive growth during the 1950’s and 60’s. Both of these theories reaffirm my own personal and professional experiences about how we learn about ourselves and the world around us.

Constructive development puts forth that “…people create knowledge through interpreting their experience, rather than knowledge being an objective truth that exists outside the individual….” To go even further, “(t)he activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making.” Developmental theories posit that growth and change occur in human beings over time and learning is a developmental process. In the theory of constructive development, the person is “an active change-agent in growth and development.”

As adults, “learning and growth are the products of the transformation of the underlying meaning-making structure rather than just an accumulation of knowledge, skills, and information.” Self-authorship expands on this idea of constructive development and is characterized as the ability to holistically make meaning of your experiences. It is the ability to listen to, cultivate, and trust your internal voice to guide your life. We transition from a dependence on external authority to internal authority from late adolescence and well into adulthood.

Why would these theories be important to parenting, and in particular to parenting that affirms the dignity and respects the rights of children?

Our dominant parenting and educational paradigms are built on an expectation that children will be obedient to external authority. As students move from high school age to college age, they must move from a dependence on external authority to a greater connection to and cultivation of their internal authority. When students transition to college, there is a much greater expectation of independence and internal motivation. Baxter-Magolda found over a 22-year long-term study that much of what happens from our late teens and into our 30s is the development of this internal voice and internal authority (self-authorship).

Within the dominant parenting and educational paradigms we effectively disconnect children from their inner authority and voice that was present at birth. In order to receive approval, love and praise, children must do what adults want them to do. If they follow their own internal voice or authority they are labeled as defiant and disobedient and they are punished.

The more that children are forced to push down what they know about themselves in order to please the external authorities whom they depend upon, the more disconnected they become from their internal voice. As they move into adulthood, they must then work to redevelop this connection to their internal voice and authority.

Rather than support their learning and growth in ways that maintain a connection to their internal voice and authority, we have accepted a larger cultural message that children must be controlled if they are to make the right decisions and develop appropriately.

Our challenge as parents is to engage in our own process of transformative learning. We must look critically at our own socialization so that we are able to find ways that support the internal motivation and internal voice that is present in children from birth. Rather than accept that a natural part of moving into adulthood is moving from a dependence on external authority toward one of internal authority, we could challenge the ways in which our cultural assumptions create this dependence in the first place.

If the children who share our lives maintain this connection, perhaps they would not face the challenges we have as adults who have lost that connection. The internal voice would not have to be rediscovered. Perhaps they wouldn’t have to relearn what it means to live a life that is consistent with their internal values. Living a life of integrity would be second nature, not the challenge that many of us, as adults, now face because we have been disconnected from our inner voice and authority.

Lisa M. Boes, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, and Jennifer Buckley, “Foundational Assumptions and Constructive-Development Theory” in Baxter Magolda, Creamer, and Meszaros, eds., Development and Assessment of Self-Authorship (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing 2010), 3-5.

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