We all want the best for our children. This starts early. We research the best crib mattress, the best preschool, the best enrichment opportunities. The pressure intensifies as we talk with other parents about their plans, and while we nod and smile, we secretly start to doubt ourselves. Wait, what if I made the wrong choice about “X”? The words should, could, and would enter our thinking and we start to spin into unproductive spaces that leaves us AND our child out of the process. Instead, we are left with our anxieties taking control.
No wonder you feel overwhelmed. In your effort to love and care for your child, you may have made the biggest mistake of all, forgetting to connect with your child and what really matters.
It’s not your fault. We live in an era of professionalized parenting. The word “parenting” didn’t even enter into our lexicon until the 1970’s when the act of being a parent was studied and analyzed in a whole new way. We unconsciously moved from child rearing being an intuitive to a scientific endeavor and in that shift, we’ve lost an important connection to our instincts about what is best for our child. On top of that, our culture can be characterized by one guided by anxiety. Some of this anxiety is grounded in real worries about the state of the world, the economy, and our climate, but many of our anxieties are self-imposed and waste our precious time and energy that could be spent elsewhere. What our kids need the most from us as caregivers is not more coaching and guidance of how to sharpen their edge, what they need instead is your wisdom, your presence, and your love. A deep and unwavering sense of connection is what grows brains and what will set your child up for what you want most of all: lasting happiness and fulfillment
As parents overly focus on what they are doing with their kids, and how, given their busy lives, they can make that happen, a critical question is often not addressed: Why are you doing this? Why are you working so hard to provide these resources and opportunities to your children?
More specifically: What is your purpose as a parent? This question seems simple in theory, but can be incredibly difficult to accurately and genuinely articulate. Many parents say that they want their kids to be “successful” but defining success is challenging. Is success determined by their GPA, their academic rank or the college they get accepted into? Is it defined by how much money a student earns in their career? Is it defined by how happy they are?
If so, what happens after your kids get a 4.0 GPA, become first in their class, or get into their dream school? Your role as a parent doesn’t end when your students achieve these milestones, so they can’t be the ultimate goal of parenting. How do you define “success” once they have accomplished these goals? While academic and career success is incredibly important for parents, it isn’t the end all be all “purpose” as parents.
Other parents might not care so much about this definition of success but “just want their kids to be happy”. However, defining success as making sure your child is “happy” is equally as challenging. If “happiness” is your ultimate objective as a parent, you can easily achieve this by allowing your students to forego their homework, spend inordinate amounts of time playing Fortnite while staying up late texting and Snapchatting with their friends. Surely, these things would make your children “happy”, right? Our guess, is that by this definition, “happiness” may not be the ultimate goal for most parents either.
When we give ourselves the space and time to reflect on these big questions, we find ourselves wanting both academic and career success AND emotional happiness and well-being. As a parent, the challenge is in finding balance between the two.
Luckily, new and emerging research into youth purpose can help parents clarify what they truly want for their students. Over the past 15 years, researchers out of Stanford University have found that students who have a sense of purpose have higher levels of psychological well-being, are physically healthier, and do better in high school and college. In short, purposeful students thrive. Purpose appears to be the silver bullet needed for students to live meaningful and fulfilling lives.
Unfortunately, as powerful as purpose is, attaining it seems rare. Research suggests that only 1 in 5 high school students are actively pursuing their sense of purpose. There is also little research into how to intentionally cultivate a sense of purpose in students. Thankfully, schools and youth development organizations are starting to tap into this new and emerging field to help cultivate purpose in students.
However, research from Dr. Belle Liang, a youth purpose and mentoring expert out of Boston College has identified one important way students find purpose in their lives: they have adults in their lives who have purpose in their own lives. Purpose appears to be contagious: when we interact with purposeful people, we become more likely to value and seek purpose for ourselves.
So, as a parent the best thing you can do to help your child find purpose in their lives is to find purpose in your own life.
This can be easier said than done, unfortunately.
Here is a helpful exercise you can do to articulate your purpose as a parent.
First, think about your child’s schedule for this week. Consider what they are doing in school, their extracurricular activities, and any plans that they have for the weekend. Now imagine you could only select one of these activities for your student to participate in. That could be a particular class, a sports lesson, or a social event with their friends. However, you can only pick one.
Write down the activity on a piece of paper.
Now, ask yourself this question: Why is this activity important? If this activity is important, because it leads to a bigger, more important goal, it is called a means goal. We are motivated to achieve means goals primarily because they lead to bigger, more important goals. Write down that bigger, more important, goal next to the original activity.
Now consider this, bigger, more important goal. Why is it important? Does it lead to a bigger, more important goal? If so, write down that goal as well.
Repeat this process until there is no bigger, more important goal to achieve. This last goal is called an end goal - it’s important to achieve in and of itself. This “ultimate why” is directly connected to your sense of purpose - what you wrote down in some way represents what you most care about as a parent.
Typically, when people go through this exercise, their “ultimate why” is abstract. That’s a good thing - it means you have an opportunity to pursue this “why” in a myriad of different ways. If your ultimate why was to “empower my student to take bold and healthy risks”, you could do that by encouraging them to join a new sports team, go abroad over the summer, or by volunteering at the local animal shelter - each one of these activities aligns with that definition of purpose but pursues it very differently. Get creative in thinking about how you could pursue your purpose as a parent, today, next week, next month or next year. Being a purposeful parent isn’t all about big, ambitious goals. Just as often we find purpose with our children by enjoying the small, daily routines of life.
As you try and become more intentional with your purpose as a parent, also consider how well you have messaged your purpose to your children. Do they know why you do what you do? Do they know why you push them to try new things and take on new challenges? Are they aware of the ultimate goals you have for them, or why you feel those goals are important? If not, think of the lived experiences and stories in your life that helped develop your sense of purpose. What are the challenges you have faced, the adversity you have overcome, and the wisdom you have gained that has informed your sense of purpose? Telling these stories to your children will help them understand your motivations as a parent, while also modeling purpose to them.
Finally, take a moment to consider all the obligations and responsibilities you take on as a parent. Are there activities that don’t align with your sense of purpose? If so, are they really worth pursuing? As both parents and children become more and more busy, finding time to pursue what’s really meaningful is harder than ever. Being intentional and purposeful in childrearing can help parenting not only feel more rewarding and meaningful, but it can also help model to your children how to be the adult you hope they become.