Authenticity (Part 1): A Human Right

by Kevin Jennings and Alexander Kopelman

Original Student Artwork, Children's Arts Guild, 2016

Original Student Artwork, Children's Arts Guild, 2016

This is the first part of a two-part post that explores the role of authenticity in children’s development and education, written by Kevin Jennings of GLSEN and Alexander Kopelman of Children’s Art Guild. This post was first published via New Profits blog 'Amplify.'

“There can be no love without justice,” bell hooks writes in All About Love: New Visions. “Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children, most children will not know love.” Sadly, there is stark evidence that the majority of our children are growing up in a culture that denies them the most basic human right of being themselves.

According to a 2016 report from GLSEN, nearly three-quarters (73.9%) of secondary-school students report having experienced some form of peer victimization during the previous school year. The majority experienced verbal harassment based on appearance or body size/type (50.9%) and actual or perceived race/ethnicity (30.3%). More than one-fifth of students report verbal harassment based on gender expression (21.9%) or actual or perceived sexual orientation (19.4%). Nearly one-fifth of students report verbal harassment based on gender (18.1%) and actual or perceived religion (18.0%). And more than one in ten students report harassment based on actual or perceived disability (12.7%).*

Bullying is, we believe, despair turned outward. “Self-acceptance is hard for many of us. There is a voice inside that is constantly judging, first ourselves and then others,” bell hooks writes.

In its creativity-education programs for students in K-8 schools in New York City, the Children’s Arts Guild has seen this voice of self-rejection and judgement express itself in younger and younger children. Invited to make work from their own experiences, all too often children say that they see nothing of value in their lives.

Where does the voice of self-rejection come from? And how do we support children in valuing their experiences and building and sustaining relationships with their authentic selves throughout their lives? These were the questions that inspired the Children & Authenticity Conference convened by the Children’s Arts Guild in October 2016.

The consequence of socialization for a majority of children is that they cut off from their authentic selves in favor of an idealized self that they hope conforms to societal expectations.

“We don’t take children seriously as authorities regarding their own experiences,” explained Dr. Megan Laverty, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, in her remarks at the conference. Thus adultism—the implicit belief that adults have more value in society—pervades our culture. By denying children ownership of their experiences, we deprive them of access to their authentic selves. As Dr. Laverty put it, “adultism presents an obstacle to truth.”

“Authenticity is the unimpeded operation of one’s core or true self in one’s daily experience,” elucidated Dr. Brian Goldman, Associate Professor of Psychology at Clayton State University, in his presentation at the Children & Authenticity Conference. “It is not something you have, it’s something you do.”

Developmental psychologists describe identity as an ongoing process of exploration and commitment to possible selves.* The consequence of socialization for a majority of children is that they cut off from their authentic selves in favor of an idealized self that they hope conforms to societal expectations.

Dr. Michael Kernis, a social psychologist who pioneered the study of authenticity, explained how this process works: “…we each acquire a mixed set of shoulds, oughts, and have-to’s while still too young to process them. They are neither fully conscious nor deeply considered but are acquired through convention and the expectations of others. Getting beyond these arbitrary strictures often demands the kind of soul-searching that most of us put off or avoid entirely. In fact, much of the work that people do in cognitive and behavioral therapy is to hold such beliefs up to the light and examine where they came from, a necessary step to resolving the anxiety or depression they typically create and that drive people to seek help.”*

Authenticity is correlated with many aspects of psychological well-being, including vitality, self-esteem, and coping skills. In their study of authenticity, Dr. Kernis and Dr. Goldman found that a sense of authenticity is accompanied by a multitude of benefits. People who score high on the authenticity index are also more likely to respond to difficulties with effective coping strategies, rather than resorting to drugs, alcohol, or self-destructive habits. They often report having satisfying relationships. They enjoy a strong sense of self-worth and purpose, confidence in mastering challenges, and the ability to follow through in pursuing goals.

The role of authenticity in children’s development and education has not received much attention to date. Amid ever-growing concern about bullying in schools and the recognition of the importance of social-emotional education, we believe that this is an area that deserves attention and investment.

Kevin Jennings, Founder, GLSEN Alexander Kopelman, President & CEO, Children’s Arts Guild

About the Authors

Kevin Jennings is an educator, social justice activist, teacher, and author. He served as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration. Kevin began his career as a high school history teacher and coach in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. During this time he served as faculty advisor to the nation’s first Gay-Straight Alliance, leading him in 1990 to found the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Under Jennings’ eighteen-year leadership, GLSEN grew from an all-volunteer local organization in Massachusetts to a national nonprofit whose programs–including Gay-Straight Alliances, No Name-Calling Week, and the Day of Silence–became commonplace in America’s K-12 schools.

Kevin’s seventh book, One Teacher in Ten in the 21st Century, was published in 2015. He is currently working on a book about first-generation college students.

Alexander Kopelman is a writer and advocate devoted to advancing social justice and personal empowerment. In 2010, Alex’s passion for supporting young people in overcoming outmoded societal stereotypes led him to co-found the Children’s Arts Guild, a nonprofit organization that helps children transcend limiting expectations and explore and develop their authentic selves through creativity education. Alex brought to this work a wealth of experience in gender-specific youth development, having served as the Director of Marketing of Girls Inc., the premier girls’ empowerment organization in the US and Canada, for over twelve years.

Alex has authored and co-authored ten books and is a member of the Authors’ Guild.


  • Greytak, E.A., Kosciw, J.G., Villenas, C. & Giga, N.M. (2016). From Teasing to Torment: School Climate Revisited, A Survey of U.S. Secondary School Students and Teachers. New York: GLSEN.
  • “Identity, the identity statuses, and identity status development: A contemporary statement,” Waterman, A. S. Developmental Review, 19, 591−621, 1999.
  • “Dare to Be Yourself: Being true to oneself is not for the faint of heart,” Karen Wright. Psychology Today. May 1, 2008.