Saturday, 19 May 2012

Volitional Development in a Child

Three growth cycles can be distinguished for volitional response and creative capacity development.

• The egocentric cycle (0-5/6 years)
• The social and imitative cycle (6-18 years)
• The adult and work related cycle (post school onwards)

The Egocentric Cycle

From around 18 months of age, a child is engaged in exploratory behaviour which is absolutely critical for his volitional development. A child at this age portrays high instinctive volition for action (a positive will and motivation to act) yet is totally oblivious to the task norms and expectations for his actions. He is blissfully unaware, and without any anxiety, fools around and explores primitively with tools, materials, people and situations. He has no sense of anticipation or consciousness of the implication of his actions. This is why he thinks nothing of it when he breaks something. To the child his action simply led to a reaction which was fun! These actions sometimes lead to incidental responses that bring hours of joy and pride to the parents who think it was cleverly planned by their highly intelligent child. But in fact it was a purely coincidental result of an experimental action. In a sense he can be described as unconsciously incompetent, not having acquired skills and competencies and unconscious of its negative effects. The cause and effect, emotional connotations and boundaries or lack thereof that the child experiences during this phase of development will have
a great impact on his interaction with others.

Four Main Needs of Children

Children have four main needs namely: new experiences, praise and recognition, love and security, ownership and responsibility. Exposure to new experiences is the primary way in which a child learns about the tasks, tools, materials, people and situations in his environment. By encountering the effects of his actions, the child is able to become conscious of the universal law of cause and effect. As he is exposed to cause and effect, he becomes more consciously aware of what and why things happen around him. If a child does not positively experience cause and effect often enough, he can never develop the mindset of “I can”! He would thus grow up to believe that he has no power to influence what happens in his life. He would become a dependent adult, hands-up and giving over to whatever comes his way for good or for bad.


A child has a need to take responsibility. The act of taking full responsibility is a higher OI-trait that integrates only during the third cycle in his life. However, growing the responsibility trait starts by offering ownership challenges. As the child learns about cause and effect, it is important for him to be given appropriate challenges in such a way that he willingly buys in. Once he owns the challenge, he will be able to choose an action which will have a desired result. It is important for parents to guide and expose their young child to the alternatives that are available and the natural consequences of the alternative choices. By encouraging the child to take ownership, he is also learning about planning ahead, anticipation and delaying gratification which will all be valuable skills in later life. Pringle states that when early responsibility experiences are denied, it goes hand in hand with a lack of igniting the will, of gaining selfcontrol and in planning ahead. Such deprived youngsters tend to be impulsive, unwilling to postpone the immediate gratification of impulses, and contemptuous of the rights of others. Exploring new experiences and the surprising effects of his actions can potentially expose the child to negative or dangerous situations. It is therefore very important that parents create a safe and positive environment in which the child can explore. On the other hand, if a child learns, for instance, that the results of his exploration bring about physical pain or anger from his parent, he might come to the conclusion that exploring is bad. This is why affirmation of actions, recognition, love and security are so vitally important during this cycle of development. It provides the emotional security that is necessary to encourage and teach the child that his active engagement in exploration is good and acceptable.

It is often difficult for parents to encourage the necessary exploration during this phase of development since the exploration is perceived as destructive in nature. This usually means that it will certainly leave a mess or inferior end-product behind. During this cycle infants would drop everything they can reach to the floor, even Mom’s expensive crockery. The infant might go exploring with the permanent marker on a doll’s face or on the wall. Knowing that the destructive actions was not done with harmful intent, it is imperative for parents to look beyond the food that is splattered everywhere but in the child’s mouth and instead affirm the child’s earnest attempt to use a spoon to feed himself.

Sadly, so many parents unnecessarily inhibit their child’s actions or stunt their volitional growth during this phase because of their own insecurities. Some parents would argue that “children should be seen and not heard” while some mothers would force children to keep quiet and clean up because they “make dad mad”. Such parents who lack skills to deal with the “mess” or imperfect end-product that an exploration experience of their child leaves in its wake, might have gained their own control and minimised their own anxieties by bringing order back to the home for the moment, but unknowingly perpetrated and disabled their young wannabe- independent child’s volition for life to never be independent.

Boundary Setting

Encouraging safe exploring also necessitates the presence of clear boundaries that will ensure the physical and emotional safety and security which the child needs. The physical boundaries will ensure that the child does not hurt himself while exploring, whereas the emotional boundaries will teach him to respect the “no” of others and how to use “no” safely with others. The word “no” should be introduced and offered as a valuable, safe boundary beacon, and not a terrifying threat or a intimidating bluff. By experiencing physical and emotional boundaries and the consequences of overstepping them, the child also learns the natural consequences associated with this overstepping. This is another critical factor in learning about cause and effect. Consistent boundaries ensure the predictability that children need in order to feel secure in their own eco-system for growth. Not only are boundaries set by parents, but children should also be encouraged to set their own boundaries and learn that saying “no” is OK. Healthy boundaries are not a fixed one-way affair. By over-protective parents doing everything for their children they send the message: “You cannot make clever plans and I believe that you cannot do things for yourself.” It also teaches a child that he is not trusted with decisions, thus unable to be trustworthy or form trust relationships. In other cases where the child gets regimented every time he ventures into explorative action, his creative potential could cease as he expects physical or emotional pain which result in disabled or warped initiative-taking ability.

Not only is it imperative that children are helped to experience the value of the boundaries set for them, but also to continuously experience the positive results when setting their own boundaries. There are several stories of children who escaped sexual abuse because they learnt that they are allowed to say “NO!” and are confident that their “NO”! is respected and there are also many stories to the

When a child is exposed to different experiences in a safe environment, he will internalise positive messages about his exploring and also learn the law of cause and effect. His brain grows, not only in task consciousness, but also in conscience. Later in life this would serve him well as he would be able to tackle new challenges, be able to distinguish between right and wrong without confusion or immobilising levels of anxiety and to take ownership and responsibility over the effects of his actions.

Boundary setting in a non-punitive developmental way is a critical ingredient of volition development in childhood.

When this Phase is Not Appropriately Negotiated

A lack of constant opportunities for exploration will deprive a child of the competencies needed to engage in life challenges with tools, materials, information, people, situations and environments. As an adult he will be at a severe disadvantage when engaging with life and entering the formal job market. New or unfamiliar tasks or challenges could also create immobilising anxiety for him, because as he gets older he will also become more conscious of the fact that he cannot meet the requirements of the challenge and he will subsequently experience the added shame of not measuring up. Where there was a lack of recognition and encouragement, overprotection, or unfair discipline in response to exploratory efforts, a child will grow up to fear challenges and the negative emotional consequences of engaging in them.

The lack of boundaries during the egocentric cycle results in a child who has grown up oblivious and unconscious of the effect of his actions. As this child develops into an adolescent and later an adult, the lack of awareness of how his actions impact others, can translate into destructive behaviour towards others and the environment and a lack of concern for the harm caused. Evidence of this lack of awareness can be seen in the litter that lines the streets in areas in which people with low volition reside. A lack of awareness of the negative effect of littering means that people can discard a bottle along the side of the road, without batting an eye. A lack of boundaries also teaches children that there are no consequences for their actions towards people and planet. Such children will grow up feeling invincible and not mindful of rules and ethics.

Research: The relationship between boundaries and corruption

During 2001-2003 we conducted a survey relating to boundaries and corruption with 50 youths between the ages of 20 and 25 years living in semi-urban communities in North West and Gauteng provinces. Seventy percent of the interviewees had insignificant parent raising involvement and were raised by disengaged grandmothers who generally set minimal boundaries other than food and shelter. The interviewees’ first encounters with boundaries were when they were put in a crèche or school where regimented rules existed and secondly, they were exposed to the rules of street life.

The result of the survey showed that only 1 out of the 50 interviewees consciously defined corruption as a type of theft and gave a conscious interpretation stating firmly that “corruption is wrong”. The remaining 49 were vague, undefined and responded with “maybe” or, “maybe not”. Some notable comments were:

  • “If the corrupt government officials can get away with it, it is OK for them - there’s lots of money in government, there is not much wrong with it.” “Something is called stealing only when you get caught; clever bra’s (brothers) are those who do not get caught. They become leaders.” 
  • “I suppose he (the corrupt person in the survey case study) needed the money for something serious.”
  • “How will we blacks ever get anything, unless we take it when others don’t look? It’s the only way. We do not believe corruption is serious, like the whites
  • do. This is why we support leaders who are corrupt but why whites do not support those leaders. The one loses and the other wins. “
  • “They are clever, they take the money from the whites over to the blacks by doing corruption. This is what I support, because we blacks are poor and this helps us blacks.”

Douglas Racionzer, an Ashoka Fellow, designed a term for the adjusted way of consciousness and behaviour in South Africa calling it “normal form” versus the “formal norm”. People behave oblivious to the norms of the work place and practise their own local warped values e.g. it’s their rightful perk to help themselves to the teabags, towels & toilet rolls at the workplace. It becomes the new norm and no one blinks and eye or reports the growing bribery and sleaze. Corrupt practices are normal. This living by the “normal form” rather than by the “formal norm” is ascribed to, amongst others, a lack of boundary development in the first development cycle. 

Furthermore as a child experiences success in his exploratory behaviour, is exposed to boundaries, and learns that setting boundaries himself is great, he develops a sense of pride, protection and self respect. This creates a strong foundation that is essential for the development of respect for others in the next cycle of volitional development. Children that are stunted in the egocentric cycle of volitional development fail to develop a good sense of others. This provides a developmental explanation for why certain people have no qualms about abusing woman and leaving them to suffer with raising children, raping, committing murder, or ransacking another person’s property. Adults who are still stuck on the explorative phase will respond to a task exploratively, ignorantly, obliviously, or in a “who cares!” attitude, not knowing nor caring about the intended outcome of the task, or what the future implications of their actions would be. They also tend to be apathetic and reluctant to attempt anything without constant assistance, failing to believe in their own capacity to make a unique difference. Some adults’ responses are inward and others respond outward (callous).

A disempowered adult from a rural community confronted with life demands is often stuck in this explorative phase on tasks. It might often take a great deal of time before he is able to move to the next developmental level, due to the lack of exploratory opportunities with tasks and situations. This results in an insecure adult with deficient volitional levels, responding to life demands in dependent Alevels of the A2B scale. This has a negative impact on all spheres of his life: his work, marriage, parenting abilities, friendships, career, etc.

The Social and Imitative Cycle

The more the child experiences by engaging in challenges, the more his general awareness and task consciousness develops. During the social and imitative cycle a child grows a consciousness of people dynamics, social norms, values and expectations of his society. The successful navigation of this phase is important if a child is to develop into a morally conscious person. It is during these years that a child learns how to appropriately relate to people and situations, according to their cultural norms. Due to a fear of insignificance that is mobilised by social consciousness, the child in this cycle is extremely open to external influences. To fit in becomes very important and peer pressure starts to play a big role in the life of the teenager. This is therefore an opportune time to utilise positive peer pressure and to lead by example rather than by dictation. The teen in this cycle is looking for role models to emulate.

Parents fit best in a mentoring role because their teenager is able to analyse the results of his actions and explore alternative ways of doing things. In this way the teenager not only learns to take responsibility for his own actions but starts evolving from an external locus of control (“By myself I have no power over my environment”, “I am because we are”) to an internal locus of control (“I am the master of my own destiny”). It is also a good time for parents or mentors to step back a little and allow the consequences of inappropriate actions to be the teacher, even if it hurts. As the teenager learns through experience what is acceptable or not, and what his own likes and dislikes are, his identity takes shape. Given his high levels of insecurity and inadequate self-esteem, it is imperative for parents or mentors during this stage to apply criticism carefully and constructively, to give a lot of positive feedback on growth actions and to celebrate failures as lessons.

As the teen’s identity is successfully integrated during this phase he becomes ready to enter the world on his own and stamp his unique mark on it. When this Phase is Not Appropriately Negotiated If a person’s volitional development is wounded during this cycle he will go into adult life unable to appropriately handle certain tasks, tools, materials, situations, and people according to societal norms. This volitionally stunted person will have developed an unhealthy identity and will often respond inappropriately to situations around him.

Such a disempowered person’s behaviour can also be described as consciously incompetent which means that he lacks the ability to be competent in appropriately handling life demands but he is also acutely aware of, and insecure about it. Due to deep-seated insecurity, he is likely to employ destructive or defeatist behaviour as response to the demands of life. This is because he thinks that he is not competent to stand up to the challenge. These destructive coping skills will take one of two forms: 

Victim Form
Due to the absence of hope in imagining positive alternative options and futures, they are immobilised by their insecurities and perceived inability to change their situation. They remain bound in their belief that they are a victim and not an over-comer. They behave reactively, take external responses personally and could even aggressively defend why it’s right for things to be wrong in their lives. They believe that life (or others) owes them for the bad hand it dealt them. They end up being dependent on and subject to the discretion of others. They often resort to blaming everything else but themselves for the state they are in.
Arrogant and Demanding Form
The other alternative behavioural option is to cover up for the insecurity by acting arrogantly and embracing a sense of entitlement. Some individuals, who are dependently competent, participate successfully and deal well with life demands within structures but who are stuck in this cycle, can still perform well as long as they can imitate others or follow wellworked out instructions. Yet, due to the fact that they are still egocentric and have to constantly cover their great insecurities, they easily become jealous and often dominate, bully and intimidate weaker participants. A person who has not been allowed to learn and develop fully or who has resisted development and learning is unlikely to reach their full potential and live a self-sustaining life. Fear of insignificance blocks the volition in their minds which in turn blocks their potential for greatness!

This is what differentiates between the adult who will forever wish to, or simply moan about getting ahead in life, and the person Volitional development in a child who succeeds in doing so. It’s the difference between scratching like a chicken and flying like and eagle!

The Adult and Work Related Cycle

This cycle usually starts when an adolescent leaves home and starts his life as a working person in the open labour market. During this cycle the young adult puts to use all the skills and experiences gained in handling tasks, tools, materials, people and situations in society. At the start of this phase the young adult is not yet able to compete with his skills, but he is able to use his skills in a creative and independent manner as long as the job environment is available to him. Many people are completely happy to remain on this level of functioning for the rest of their working lives doing exactly what is expected of them, NOTHING more and NOTHING less. Yet, if this same worker was appropriately challenged to develop his volition, he could become someone who acts responsibly, competitively or with originality.

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