New year, new goals — how are your teenagers doing in this area? Perhaps it’s time to nudge them into thinking about what they want to do with their lives, i.e. finding their purpose. Do they want to be professional athletes? Social media influencers? Or do they simply want to raise a good family? Or spend their lives volunteering? Whatever the scale, it is important for people to have a life purpose because studies have shown that it will make their lives meaningful and — by extension– happier.
There is no rule that says teenagers need to find their life’s calling at this age. Some do, but others find it only upon reaching young adulthood. “The adolescent stage is all about exploring and experimenting with one’s identity and eventually reaching a commitment to that identity,” points out Dr. Cara Fernandez, the Executive Director of the Ateneo Bulatao Center (www.ateneobulataocenter.com).
But while we should not expect young people to identify their passion right away, adolescence is the perfect time to help them examine their options and guide their choices. below are some ways:
- Open a dialogue. How do you know what your child is interested in? What does he or she want to do with their lives? Some questions that you can ask to get your young adult reflecting on purpose:
— What’s most important to you in your life?
— Why do you care about those things?
— Do you have any long-term goals?
— Why are these goals important to you?
— What does it mean to have a good life?
— What does it mean to be a good person?
— If you were looking back on your life, how would you want to be remembered?
“During such conversations, [parents are reminded to be] good listeners as well as good interviewers, probing children to elaborate on their views, frequently asking the ‘Why’ question, and encouraging them to think more deeply about the things they find noteworthy and interesting,” writes Prof. William Damon of Stanford University in his book ‘The Path To Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling In Life.’ “[W]e become better able to hear their first murmurs of purpose; and in this way we provide the nurturing conditions for further exploration.”
- Let them explore. Because teens do not yet have the experience to know what excites them, it is the job of the adults around them (parents, extended family, and educators) to create opportunities for them to be exposed to new things. “Introduce them to different areas — the arts, music, reading, writing, religion, politics, sports, etc,” advises Dr. Fernandez. Let them talk to relatives or friends whose careers they find interesting. “If they show an interest in something, deepen it with positive reinforcement and encourage them to look further into it,” she adds.
- Mind your biases. “If your teen says he or she likes to do X or Y, but you want them to consider Z because you think it’s better, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dr. Fernandez says. “But be aware of your tone and the kind of encouragement you give. Be upfront and tell them that ‘I am biased for Z but it’s up to you, tell me if you think I am pushing.” This assures your child that he or she is free to tell you if they are feeling pressured into doing something that they do not like.
- Be encouraging but offer realistic expectations. What if your teen’s passions are headed towards a path that you have reservations about? For example, “I want to teach underprivileged children” is a noble purpose in life but not a financially secure one. In this case, Dr. Fernandez advises parents to counter not with rejection but with information. “Explain to your child that certain life paths will result in certain lifestyles,” she suggests. “If they want to devote their lives to teaching, show them data about how much money a teacher makes, what the job will entail, and what lifestyle they will most likely follow. Then show them how different the situation is if they follow another life path. The purpose of doing this is not to discourage them, but to make sure that they go into the situation with their eyes open.” And if your child insists on his or her first choice, then accept it (as long as the goal is not criminal or destructive). “Ultimately, I know that parents value their child’s happiness,” Dr. Fernandez says. “If you tell them that this is going to be their life, and they are okay with that, then just be supportive.”
The purpose of [setting realistic expectations] is not to discourage them, but to make sure that they go into the situation with their eyes open.Dr. Cara Fernandez PhD
- Convey your own sense of purpose and the meaning you derive from your work. “Parents should share their own goals and sense of purpose with children,” writes Prof. Damon. Discuss as a family how what you are doing is meaningful to you, whether it be as a company manager or as a homemaker. You can share that what you are doing helps others, contributes to society, is your means of self-expression and personal growth, or even because it provides jobs to others. “It is motivating and inspiring for children to hear why their parents find their daily efforts significant,” he adds.
Despite the above efforts, there is always the possibility that your child might end up not having any passions at all. Dr. Fernandez assures that this is also okay. “There are people who are not really strongly inclined towards anything,” she points out. “They are the ones who graduate from college and apply for work anywhere and everywhere, and wherever they land is okay. These are people who are simply accepting of life, who are spontaneous, and open to different opportunities — and that’s fine. We need people like them in society too.”
Ultimately, our teen’s life choices are theirs to make. As parents and educators, all we can do is cultivate a nurturing and supportive environment that will allow our children to choose the better options. It’s more important that we inspire rather than demoralize them, so that we provide them with a lifelong sense of wellbeing that will translate into confidence, security, and happiness.
— Written by Jaclyn Lutanco-Chua of MindNation