How to help your kids find their calling in life: 4 secrets from research

You knew where you were gonna live for the rest of your life, what you were gonna do and had a pretty good idea who you might marry. Meaning and purpose in life were handed to you like the forms a new employee gets on their first day at work. This lack of options was utterly stifling — but clear. There’s just a lot less existential questioning when you know from birth you were honor bound to destroy the clan on the other side of the river, and anything else was gravy. Far from “the good old days,” but you know what I mean.These days kids have limitless options — and no clear answers. A world with a stifling lack of opportunities has become a paralyzing flood of possibility. (Be careful what you wish for, eh?) We don’t want to go back to the old way but we did create a void that we need to fill. It’s hardly surprising that levels of anxiety and depression are far higher among young people these days. They have no idea what they want.In our interviews and surveys, only about one in five young people in the 12–22-year age range express a clear vision of where they want to go, what they want to accomplish in life, and why. The largest portion of those we interviewed—almost 60 percent—may have engaged in some potentially purposeful activities, or they may have developed some vague aspirations; but they do not have any real commitment to such activities or any realistic plans for pursuing their aspirations. The remaining portion of today’s youth population—almost a quarter of those we interviewed in the first of our studies—express no aspirations at all. In some cases, they claim that they see no point in acquiring any.Parents try to help but their suggestions are all relatively short term solutions, usually just further increasing the dizzying number of opportunities. All tactics, no strategy.

Get good grades. Why? To get into a good college. Why? To get a good job. Why? Uh… so you don’t starve?

Everything leads to “don’t starve.” Your purpose in life is to “not be poor.” All defense, no offense. We push kids to do so many things to get into college but give them no idea what they should do once they’re there. We act like purpose is the easy part. Like limitless options make things simpler. And it takes about 0.2 seconds of reflection on our own lives to realize how untrue that is.

But what if a kid had a goal and then went to college with that purpose in mind, taking classes to prepare themselves for achieving it, saying, “Here’s what I need to do in order to fulfill my dream.” That sounds like a much better plan. Instead, we say “Get the degree and you’ll figure out why later.”

But they don’t. And now we’re seeing that in the data. They’re not joining adult life. They’re delaying being a spouse, a parent, a citizen or a worker. And often after graduating from college, they just return home, better educated but no more certain about what they want to do with their life.

Hira cites a survey of American college students from 2000 through 2006 showing that almost two thirds of the graduates moved home after college and over half of these stayed for more than a year.

Others drop out, jump from career to career or end up notably underemployed. This is tough on the world, but more importantly, it’s tough on kids, making happiness and success far harder to achieve.

We push kids to answer, “What do you want to major in?” but not “What kind of person do you want to become?” It’s the latter question that forges an identity, that produces the kind of forward momentum that leads to lasting life satisfaction.

Improving the world. Serving others. Patriotism. Justice. Building a community. Or simply having a happy family. A true purpose. Something to run toward, versus just things to run away from. A vision for the future instead of “don’t starve.”

Many young people today are drifting, full of self-doubt and anxiety. And, ironically, it’s often the kids with straight A’s who are the most gravely afflicted. This is not the happy life their parents wished for them; it’s a countdown clock to a midlife crisis. Or a midlife crisis that starts early – and never ends.

They need our help. So what do we do?

William Damon is a professor at Stanford University and Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. His book is The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life. The man has some simple answers to big questions.

Let’s get to it…

“Purpose” Is A Big Scary Word

Everybody loves words like “purpose” but nobody can tell you what they mean. Let’s start there.

Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.

No, every kid does not have to devote their lives to preventing the spread of malaria. We don’t all need to make it our destiny to cure cancer. Purpose can come from things simple and familiar to us — like raising great kids. And one’s purpose can change over time. You can have more than one. It doesn’t have to be some monolithic myth of epic conquest. It’s an organizing, energizing, uniting principle for life that gives us meaning and motivation. Purpose does not need to be at the level of returning The One Ring to Mordor and saving the world — it just has to mean that much to you.

And when young people have a destination, the right decisions along the journey become clearer. Without purpose, being a good kid can feel like an arbitrary laundry list of things to do and not to do. With purpose, doing the right thing is clear because it’s in service of a greater goal.

Once a young person has taken on a purposeful quest, his or her personality begins to be transformed by the activities and events of the quest. Out of necessity, the youngster acquires such capacities as resourcefulness, persistence, know-how, and a tolerance of risk and temporary setbacks… Character virtues such as diligence, responsibility, confidence, and humility get a boost from the experience of making a commitment to a challenging purpose and seeing it through. What’s more, literacies of all kinds (verbal, mathematical, cultural) develop in ways that extend well beyond anything previously learned in the youngster’s home or classroom.

Purpose develops traits and qualities that can benefit them in all areas of life as they struggle to get where they want to go. Devotion becomes resourcefulness. Resourcefulness becomes achievement. Achievement becomes self-confidence. Self-confidence becomes resilience.

Kids get exposed to tons of methods to get ahead. But what they need now are reasons. And when you have a reason, methods are the easy part.

(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)

That’s all a very big picture. Some parents are now thinking, “Great, now how do I use this to get my kid into law school?”

That’s the wrong perspective. You’re doing a great job of leading. Congrats on that. The problem is you’re not the leader here…

You’re the follower. And once you realize that, it gets much easier…

Fan The Flames

There are pretty much two rules in the universe, one involves entropy in the realm of physics and the other is it’s nearly impossible to get kids to do what you tell them to do. Getting them to do chores is hard enough. But getting them to follow through on your vision of their life’s purpose? Oh, good luck on that one. Let me know how it works out for you — I love comedy.

You’re not the leader. You’re the follower. You don’t create passion in your kids as a parent. You expose them to new stuff. You notice where the Venn diagram of what they respond to and what you approve of overlaps. And then you feed that.

…one of the most important things for parents to appreciate is that they should not seek to directly create a child’s purpose. A parent cannot accomplish the task of identifying a purpose for a child, any more than the parent can choose the child’s personality or write a script for the child’s life. But a parent can introduce options. A parent can also guide a child in reflecting on the personal and social value of these options, and on how to formulate realistic plans for pursuing them. And a parent can do a world of good by supporting the choices that the child has made.

Every kid has interests. Start noticing. Be open-minded and supportive. Listen. Be a sounding board. Don’t judge. Encourage. Fan the flame.

It is very very not-hard to get young people to talk about what they love. Be a Socratic coach, drawing out their thoughts and helping to slowly weave them into next steps and plans.

Take advantage of organic opportunities to open a dialogue. When the news is on, ask kids what they think about issues, about what is right and what is wrong, about what is important and what is not. Start slowly at first but you can circle closer and closer over time toward:

  • What’s most important to you in life?
  • Why do you care about those things?
  • What does it mean to have a good life?
  • What does it mean to be a good person?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to help them explore possibilities and derive goals from the instincts they already feel. Yeah, some will turn out to be dead ends. Some will fade out or change. That’s kids. They’re still learning. But this is a mucho excellent start.

And there’s a bonus here for you. Parents say they want to be closer to their kids but generally have no idea how to actually accomplish that. I’d say making them feel safe when talking to you about their dreams is a pretty amazing starting point for a deeper relationship.

(To learn the 10 steps to raising happy kids, click here.)

Okay, you’re presenting possibilities, listening and encouraging. That’s huge. But none of us learn all that well from the abstract discussion. We usually learn from the models and context around us…

Convey The Meaning You Get From Your Work

Most parents inadvertently do an excellent job of conveying that work is necessary but painful drudgery. We all complain about our jobs. (Have I mentioned how hard writing this is for me?)

If jobs are “the awful thing you must do so you can do the things you want to do” young people won’t even look for meaning there, they’ll just move into your garage after college and find fulfillment in Call of Duty on Xbox.

Talk to your kids about the purpose and meaning you get from your job. Children need to understand what it is you do and that it fulfills a personal sense of purpose — not just pays the bills. What makes you feel good about your job? What gives you pride in what you do? Again, you don’t have to be curing cancer. How does what you do in some very small way make the world a better place, contribute to the common good or just make someone else happy?

Taking the time to think this through won’t just give your children a model for the purpose. It may make getting up for work tomorrow a lot easier.

(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)

So we’ve looked at getting the idea of purpose and calling into their heads, and fanning the flames of their parentally-approved passions. But how do we help them get on the path? How does momma bird help those baby birds spread their wings and fly?

Introduce Them To Mentors

School doesn’t prepare kids for the practicalities of life. History class might teach them about what political leaders have accomplished but it’s not going to teach them about the ins and outs of plausibly denial graft or leading an effective coup d’etat — that’s what parents are for.

Once kids have an inkling of what they’re passionate about, they need your help in navigating the world to learn more about it and seeing how to get from here to there. And, very likely, their area of interest is not necessarily something you’re an expert in. But you can still offer practical support by connecting them with mentors.

You might not be able to explain to them what it’s like to be a surgeon — but your friend the doctor can.

This might sound like a simple “good idea” but it’s more than that. In Damon’s study of young people, he found a number of kids that were highly purposeful. Most of them didn’t have mentors outside the home. Nope… They all did.

Every single one of them.

(To learn how to deal with out-of-control kids — from hostage negotiators, click here.)

So far we’ve given kids tons of outside input and encouragement. But what about internally? What perspective do they need to have?

Encourage An Entrepreneurial Attitude

Entrepreneurial does not mean “business” here. We’re talking about resourcefulness and industriousness, what Damon calls a “general orientation in life that promotes every sort of accomplishment, ranging from charity to business.”

Surprisingly few of the highly purposeful kids from Damon’s study were valedictorians or straight-A students but all of them scored highly in terms of entrepreneurial resourcefulness and drive.

From The Path to Purpose:

Cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit means encouraging the following attitudes or dispositions: (1) The ability to set clear goals and make realistic plans to accomplish them; (2) an optimistic, can-do attitude; (3) persistence in the face of obstacles and difficulties; (4) a tolerance—or more, even an appetite– for risk; (5) resilience in the face of failure; (6) determination to achieve measurable results; and (7) resourcefulness and inventiveness in devising the means to achieve those results.

That’s a tall order but it starts with encouraging kids to take on challenges and health risks. So much of school is following a script and checking established boxes. Here we want to switch the default from “defense” to “offense.”

Much as you the parent must be the follower when it comes to purpose, your child must be the leader. It’s about slowly and prudently encouraging an attitude of:  Go do it and see what happens. Learn from the results. Iterate. Try again.

This teaches kids to problem-solve and to thrive on the challenge instead of running from it. To be a self-starter versus someone who waits for permission. Permission that often never comes.

Most of parenting is saying “no” — and for good reason. Young children are quite inventive about finding new and interesting methods by which to put themselves in harm’s way. But eventually they will need to take the reins of their life, so this is an essential transition that needs parental guidance.

Kids must develop a sense of agency, but it must be linked to responsibility. “I do have power but I must use it wisely because it is in service of something greater.”

We teach kids to be responsible and hope they will find purpose. But by instilling purpose, we often end up with responsible kids as a side effect.

(To learn the 3 simple rules that will make you a fantastic parent, click here.)

Okay, my purpose is fulfilled here. We’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up — and learn the best way to get our kids started on the path to purpose…

Sum Up

This is how to help your kids find their calling in life:

  • Fan the flames: You’re the follower, not the leader. The cheerleader, not the quarterback. Present possibilities, listen and encourage.
  • Convey the meaning you get from your work: You don’t want the only thing they hear to be “Daddy and mommy live lives of Sisyphean torment in exchange for green rectangles.”
  • Introduce them to mentors: You don’t have to be Yoda. You just have to help them find their Yoda.
  • Encourage an entrepreneurial attitude: As long as they have parental supervision, nudge them closer to a default of “Let’s test it and see what happens.

So what’s the best place to start?

Let kids know that what they do matters.

Children feel powerless. You think you get told what to do a lot at the office? That’s nothing compared to what children experience. They get told what to do 24/7. They can start to feel they have no control and what they do doesn’t matter.

They need to know this will change. They will be able to make a difference. In fact, they will be called on to make a difference. And if they don’t make a difference somewhere to someone, life isn’t going to feel very meaningful. Their actions matter and they will matter more and more with each passing year.

If you and your child work in the garden together, let them know that when the flowers bloom, they accomplished that. When they pick out a gift for grandma and she loved it, they did that. The choices they make, the actions they take, they matter.

A feeling of agency is essential for a feeling of purpose. Why have big goals if you don’t think you have big abilities?

It’s an understatement to say that it helps to know where you’re going before you head out into the world to begin an epic journey.

And your kids are going to write about their big plans for an epic journey. It’s called a college application essay. And most kids will write what they know they are supposed to write, a bunch of boilerplate drivel about following their passion, giving back to their community, yadda yadda.

But wouldn’t it be so much better for them and for the world, if what they wrote in that essay about their desire to take on big challenges and make the world a better place…

Was actually true?

This article originally appeared on Barking Up The Wrong Tree.

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