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Parenting activity
To address issues concerning parenting activity a personal construct psychologist would first carefully work out the theoretical structure underlying constructivist approaches to explanations of psychological functioning. George Kelly’s (1991/1955) psychology of personal constructs and his explanations of the implications of his fundamental postulate and the corollaries to his theory can provide the base from which to discuss the psychological processes involved in parenting activity.

After having acquired the necessary theoretical base, a personal construct theorist would endorse the following claim: Every aspect of parenting involves considerations of the construct systems of both the parent and of the person toward whom the parenting activity is directed.

Following Kelly’s (1991/1955) theory, a personal construct theorist would work from the postulate that "a person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he[/she] anticipates events" (p. 32). Theorists, elaborating that postulate, have found it useful to discuss anticipations in terms of how a person builds, moment by moment, anticipatory narratives. Those anticipatory narratives, built from the person’s personal construct systems, channelize the person’s activity toward achieving the expected outcomes defined by the narrative.

Parenting activity, like all of a person’s activity, depends on the construct system that parents use to build the self role definitions that they insert into their anticipatory narratives (See Mancuso, 1996). From their construct systems, persons build constructions to fill every slot in their anticipatory narratives: the initiating event, the role to be played by the self as protagonist in the narrative, the outcomes of the actions of the self as protagonist, and so forth. Each time that a parent carries out any overt action that will in some way affect his/her child, for example, he/she builds an anticipatory narrative in which each object and event in the narrative is represented by a construction (a psychollage1) that the parent builds from the system of hierarchically arranged two-poled constructs that he/she can retrieve from his/her psychological system. Though all the elements of an anticipatory narrative must be construed in ways that then adequately direct conduct toward the outcome that is specified in the anticipatory narrative, the two most crucial elements in the narrative are the psychollage that represents the protagonist (the self as actor) in the self-directing narrative, and the psychollage that represents the outcome that is set in the anticipatory narrative.

In parenting narratives, the setting of the psychollage that defines the self in parenting activity depends on the self-defining constructs that the parent-as-actor uses to build self-defining psychollages. For example, consider those parents who cannot retrieve and locate their selves on a construct such as rejecting/accepting. A theorist would expect that their narrative-guided conduct will produce changes in a child's construct system that will differ extensively from the changes that will be produced by those parents who can use a construct such as rejecting/accepting. Parents who cannot frame their psychollages of their selves in terms of rejecting/accepting would be unlikely to consider that the outcomes of their conduct will depend on their children’s perception of whether or not their parents’ activity signals their parents’ rejection.

The status of the child's developed personal construct system – the ultimate outcome of all parenting anticipatory narratives – invariably stands as a ultimate criterion of success or failure of parenting activity. All parenting activity can be seen as having an effect on the child's personal construct system. Any outcome that parents build into their self-guiding narratives, as they interact with their children, will depend on the extent to which the parent successfully construes the construction processes of the child. Such successful construing of the child’s construction processes will facilitate efforts to prompt changes in the child’s construct system.

Most of the innumerable articles on parenting activity discuss parent disciplinary actions. It is useful to think of disciplinary actions in terms of parent/child interactions that involve the construct systems of both the child and the parent. To shift focus to those construct systems, it is advisable to drop the term disciplinary action and to speak of the parent/child interactions as reprimand (Mancuso & Lehrer, 1986) scenarios. A reprimand scenario occurs whenever the child engages in behaviors that invalidate the parent's psychollages of the child in the parent’s charge as a child that is behaving appropriately. A discussion of effective reprimand, from a personal construct the perspective, would involve a focus on the ways in which the child's behavior would invalidate the caretakers' psychollage of an "appropriately behaving" child. To frame a personal construct view of the ensuing reprimand action of the parent, one would direct attention to the ways in which the reprimand would alter the child's construct systems. The outcome of the reprimander’s actions would, ideally, prompt the child to build self-defining psychollages that would lead him/her to engage in behaviors that the parent would regard as appropriate. For example, if a child engages in behavior that physically hurts its sibling, that behavior would disconfirm the reprimanding parent's psychollage of the his/her child as a "good" child – a child who behaves appropriately. The goal of the parent who would reprimand the aggressive child would be to effect a change in the child’s construct system – a change that it would make it unlikely that the child would define his/her self as aggressive in order to achieve the outcomes of his/her anticipatory narratives.

While observing parents, a personal construct psychologist would expect that it would be the rare parent who would think of his/her reprimanding activity in terms of construct change. Nevertheless, a personal construct psychologist would claim that a parent's enactments of his/her role, as specified in reprimand narrative that he/she will create, will bring about a change in the child's construct system; and it is only through such changes that the child will drop the undesirable behaviors and then engage in those behaviors regarded as desirable. The desired change in the construct system of the reprimanded child will make it impossible for that child to construe his/her self as "good" at the same time that he/she construes his/her self as a person who hurts his/her sibling.

One who adopts a personal construct approach to parenting activity can comfortably state a desired overall result of parenting activity. The desired overall result of parenting activity would be the development of a person who can fully take into account the construct systems of others while engaging in actions that will affect other persons. Though this overall result might appear to be specific to the formulations of a personal construct psychologists, careful analysis of this goal would indicate that this goal coincides with or overlaps the kind of goals that other child development specialists have specified as the desired end results of parenting activity.

For example, many child development specialists have worked from the theoretical position set out by Piaget (1932). From that position developmental specialists would recommend that parents prompt their children to take into account the varied ways in which people construe the situations in which a rule would be applied. Being able to take into account the constructions of others, the person will be able to assess the sources of social conflict in terms of the ways in which the interactors construe the situation in which the conflict had arisen.

The personal construct psychologist's goal also would be compatible with the goal recommended by those psychologists who desire the development of "compassionate" persons. More specifically, parenting activity should lead to the development of a person who would understand that rules derive from social agreement on the ways in which events should be construed. Thus, the effective person will know that some people might find it difficult to construe the events under consideration by using psychollages that coincide with the psychollages that receive social endorsement. Further, realizing that rules are socially agreed-upon ways of construing events and objects, an effective person will also know that he/she may make efforts to alter the psychollages that do receive social endorsement.

The use of personal construct psychology to discuss parenting activity, then, directs theorists to consider personal construct change as the central aspect of parenting activity. The use of personal construct psychology prompts theorists and change agents to take into account the construct systems from which parents builds their self-defining roles as they engage in parenting activity. Personal construct psychologists would define behavior change activity in terms of the ways in which caretakers create their self defining narratives from their personal construct systems. Reprimand processes would be discussed in terms of the ways in which reprimand activity is directed toward the existing construct system of the child and the changes in that system that are to be produced by the reprimand. A personal construct psychologist would think of the ultimate outcomes of parenting activity in terms of the development of a person who can take into account the construct systems and psychollages used by other persons in his/her social ecology. A crucial element in a person's understanding of other persons' construct systems relates to the understanding that rules represent socially agreed-upon ways of construing events.

1See Mancuso (2000), for the advisability of using the term psychollage, rather than the term construction to signify an internal representation of an object or event.


  • Kelly, G. A. (1991/1955). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Routledge (Original work published 1955).
  • Mancuso, J. C. (2000). Key signifiers of a constructivist psychological theory.
  • Mancuso, J. C. (1996). Constructionism, personal construct psychology, and narrative psychology. Theory and Psychology, 6, 47-70.
  • Mancuso, J. C. & Lehrer, R.  (1986).  Cognitive processes during reactions to rule violation.  In R. Ashmore, & D. Brodzinsky (Eds.).  Thinking about the family:  Views of parents and children (pp. 67-93).  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Piaget, J. (1932). The moral judgment of the child (M. Gabain, trans.). London: Kegan Paul. (Original work published 1932).

James C. Mancuso

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004