Living an authentic life is linked with experiencing greater wellbeing and fulfilment, but what might the literature in this area have to say about authentic parenting? What can we do to help our children to lead authentic lives? And might we be missing small, everyday opportunities to nurture authenticity?
What is authenticity?
A sense of authenticity comes about through developing an understanding of yourself, an awareness of your inner states and the ability to be open and express these states with others. It involves things such as acting in line with your true values and interests rather than external pressures, having a sense of sense of choice and agency, avoiding self-deception, and working towards realising your inner potential.
Authenticity is all about knowing yourself, owning yourself and being yourself- whilst also balancing the art of functioning within a social world.
A recent book on the topic of authenticity by Professor Stephen Joseph summarises current thinking and research on the topic. Ultimately, it seems that being more authentic is associated with flourishing, experiencing a greater sense of meaning and purpose, recognising and using your strengths, having more grit and perseverance in the face of challenges, having better quality relationships and an increased ability to cope with stress.
Despite commonly held beliefs, authenticity is not necessarily all about the big stuff and long term plans. Psychologists now suggest that authenticity should be viewed as a process rather than an end game. That means that authenticity is very much tied up with what you do in the current moment… the small everyday decisions that you make.
As a result, those little things really do matter! Those seemingly small choices, those moments where we drop what we are doing just to fully focus on another person, those moments when we truly listen to and hear others or truly express ourselves, and those moments where we engage in the things that we truly love- they all matter that little bit more!
How can we nurture authenticity as parents?
As parents there is a lot that you can do to support a sense of authenticity in your children. To parent authentically involves focusing on helping your child to discover themselves and be true to themselves. It involves helping them to navigate life in a way that buffers against external pressures clouding out their authentic self.
In order to parent authentically Professor Joseph states that you need to continually work on understanding yourself, your fluctuating inner states and your openness and congruence in communication with others. Tricky stuff!
Fortunately, the book provides excellent guidance and exercises for anyone wanting to become more authentic or wanting to nurture authenticity in others.
Six ways to nurture authenticity in the everyday lives of children:
Based on the book and our own reading in the area, here are six top tips for nurturing authenticity via small, everyday moments and interactions with your children:
Let their natural inclination to explore and learn shine through
Children can often be observed to be in a deep sense of flow and engagement with an activity. Often this will be because an activity taps into their current interests and presents then with just the right amount of challenge. External pressures, praise and rewards can sometimes dampen this internal drive. Sometimes there’s no need to intervene- take the opportunity to grab a coffee and just sit back, relax and observe them in their inquisitive wonder!
Listen to your children and find out what truly interests them. Be sure to ask them about what they think and feel when engaged in various tasks. Help them to explore different interests without unconsciously pressuring them to like or dislike certain things.
Give unconditional love
Sometimes we can inadvertently convey the message that our children will only be loved or valued if they meet certain conditions. Within psychology these conditions are known as ‘conditions of worth’. Whilst it is unlikely that we’ll directly say to our children ‘I’ll only love you if you do x or y’ there might be times when we unintentionally say something along the lines of ‘I love you because of x or y’. Feeling loved unconditionally will give children the confidence to explore new things, tackle new challenges and follow their hearts.
With all the multitasking that we do it is easy to let our attention be distracted- particularly if they have perhaps chosen a rather inconvenient time to tell us a story or engage in a rather intricate conversation! However, it’s at these times that we might overly rely on our own likes, dislikes, and frames of reference in order to interpret what they are saying rather than truly listening. Create space for children to truly express themselves, to feel truly listened to, and to think for themselves and work out who they are, what they are good at and what they are interested in.
Support their autonomy
Support your child’s sense of autonomy and agency by ensuring that they have a sense of choice wherever possible, rationalising/justifying the things that they must do (i.e. where there is little or no choice), and recognising and acknowledging their perspective on things.
Nurture and appreciate the individuality of children by helping them to find and develop their interests. If a variety of sensory stimulation in the first year of life assists with brain and cognitive development then perhaps an introduction to various potential topics and interests early on in life can help children to find and be themselves. Through becoming aware of our children’s individual interests and preferences we can then look towards ways of embedding tasks aimed at various aspects of skill and cognitive development within areas or topics that particularly interest them.