When was the last time you saw your kid’s eyes light up with inspiration? What sparked that excitement? In those moments when your kid gets jazzed about something, you have the opportunity to engage them in ways that could change the course of their life. It’s a time to dig deeper with your kid to find answers that may point to some of the core interests that give your kid direction, drive and purpose.
“People with a Sense of Purpose know who they are,” says Diane Tavenner, author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life and co-founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools. “They know what their values are. They know what motivates them. They understand what society has to offer them, and they take advantage of opportunities to make choices that are aligned with who they are.”
“Purpose gives you a long-term compass that keeps you on track,” says Bill Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. “Purpose is associated with lots of benefits, ranging from health to energy, to a sense that I’m satisfied with my life, and I’m finding fulfillment in my everyday actions.”
Since purpose is central to our kids’ fulfillment—including their physical and mental well-being—it’s something we should nurture as early as possible. But it can be tough for kids, let alone adults, to figure out exactly what their purpose is. As a parent, you play a central role in asking important questions that challenge your child to uncover and explore their interests.
Here’s how you can help your kid child define what they care about and start pursuing it.
Be the Chief Interest Spotter
Purpose starts with interest. Our kids give us hints every day about what they’re truly interested in. They ask questions, they get energized, and they even work it into their play time. Be the Chief Interest Spotter in the family—keep an eye out for those moments when your kid is expressing an interest.
Spotting interest could be as easy as seeing your kids eyes light up when they talk about swimming—or it could be realizing your kid has a lot of questions about technology and devices. Or maybe they spend all of their free time making art or building things. Collect all of the clues your kid drops like bread crumbs, then use them to spark a conversation.
Get to the heart of it
When you witness a spark of energy, excitement, or wonder in your kid—no matter where you are—engage them to help them to understand why they feel how they do, what it means about them, what they like doing, and how this self-awareness can fuel their future choices.
Your kid may ask ‘why, why, why’ all the time, and now is your chance to do the same. Brush up on your own inquiry skills and dig deep into what specifically your kid enjoys about their interests. You may find, for example, that your kid likes ballet not for the dance routines or tutus, but more for the teamwork and feeling of group accomplishment. That insight could help you and your kid understand other activities that involve teamwork and collaboration that could spark their interest, such as other sports, extracurriculars, or family activities.
You can also engage your kid in an exercise we call ‘finding their INGs.’ INGs are interests that spark a passion your kid can pursue. Download our INGs discovery tool to help your kid verbalize all the things they like doing and how those could lead to meaningful contributions.
Use these same concepts in real-time when you notice that spark in your child’s eyes—or perhaps when it’s not there. It is now your role to talk with your kid about your observations—this is where the exploration comes in. Ask open-ended questions like:
- You seem really excited about [insert moment]. What is it that you like about it?
- Ah, so you enjoy [specific “ing”] about [specific moment]? Tell me more about that.
- What about [specific “ing”] did you like most?
- I just heard you say you enjoyed [specific “ing”]. Is that because you enjoy [insert exploration of another “ing”].
- Is there anything you didn’t like about [insert moment]? (Understanding what your child doesn’t like to do is just as important as understanding what they like to do.)
- Can I share back with you what I heard you say you liked and didn’t like?
Remember to ask, listen, and synthesize. Your role is to give feedback and guidance without giving answers—this will empower your kid to build their skills of self-direction. With the new knowledge of what your kid likes and dislikes, you can both actively seek new purpose-driven activities or keep an eye open as opportunities arise.
Put your kid’s purpose to work
Encourage your kid to take a tally of their interests, or INGs. They can write them on a whiteboard, in a journal, or on a poster board that’s proudly posted in their room. Together, you and your kid can start applying their interests to activities. This can be around extracurriculars, free time, or independent projects at home.
Use purpose to get through conflict
Purpose doesn’t have to always be about the exciting things in life—it can also be about getting through the tough times. In fact, having a sense of purpose is linked to greater resilience and emotional recovery from negative life events.
Help your kid reframe tough times by linking the situation to their purpose. For example, homework. The purpose of homework can be a fraught conversation, but it’s one worth having if your child continues to miss deadlines or assignments. Help them explore the relevance of the homework to their life—is the subject matter related to other interests or goals? Or does the course work lead to an important milestone for them? When your child finds a purpose in the work they do, they’re more likely to find value in it and complete it. For example, the anatomy vocabulary worksheet your kid has been assigned might not be that engaging, but if they see the connection between understanding anatomical vocabulary and their interest in potentially following a path to becoming a medical doctor, the value of the work becomes much more apparent. (And if you both collectively are unable to find a purpose for this homework assignment, it could be an opportunity for you to help your kid learn how to advocate effectively for themselves.)
Likewise, you can point to purpose when social conflicts arise. That’s when it’s easy to fall into the trap of the blame game, and relationships can get lost in the mix. Help your child understand the importance of their relationships and how they connect to personal values. Are their friendships linked to their purpose? How do those important details factor into the situation? Could they inform future behavior?
Purpose is at the heart of human motivation—we all want to feel a sense of purpose and a connection to something bigger than ourselves. Developing purpose in our kids is a part of helping them become whole people.