Part 1: Maybe It Is Time to Rethink “Purpose” … for Our Kids’ Sake

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8 minute listen:

I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose, this hard to define, yet critical component to life, that is widely hailed as the solution. Bored? Find some purpose. Depressed? Find some purpose. Underachieving? Find some purpose. We use it in company mission statements the same way we use it in soul searching the same way we use it in coaching and therapy. It is meant to be inspiring, uplifting and motivational. It is the “why behind the why”, the reason we get off the couch. Before opining about why I believe our misuse of “purpose” is negatively affecting the mental health of our kids, it is important to acknowledge how fortunate we are to even have the luxury to explore the definition of purpose. Most of the world’s population knows exactly why they are doing what they are doing — to get through the day, put food on the table and to survive. Having the time and the safe space to discuss purpose and what it means to us is a blessing. Could it also be a curse?

Newsflash: our kids are suffering from mental health problems at greater and greater numbers. Yes, we can blame social media and a culture with some fairly questionable values, and I think these accusations are valid, but with our children spiraling downward, as uncomfortable as it may be, it is critical we look in the mirror. For better or for worse, parents have power, and continuing to throw our hands up in surrender is lazy and pointing fingers, even when warranted, isn’t moving the needle. The good news about admitting we are partly to blame is that by doing so, we can take active steps to affect change.

Let’s look specifically at purpose. What has changed for our children and does the redefining of purpose that has taken place in the last few decades matter? I believe it does. We are fearful. We worry about our children’s future more than ever before. We see high schools as arenas of competition and college acceptances as trophies. The question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” has taken on more weight. What used to be a way to connect with kids when you had nothing else to say, has now become an actual inquiry. “An astronaut? Hmmm. Really? So you must like math and science? There are some really great careers in computer engineering you can consider.” “But Dad, I’m only six.”

Happiness, peace and joy live in the moment. Anxiety lives in the future. By encouraging our children to always be thinking about the next step, to engage in activities, not for the sake of the engagement, but for one more thing to add to an impressive resume, so they can achieve that next step, are we not forcing them to constantly exist in this breeding ground for stress and anxiety? The future, the unknown, is scary. Why do we push our kids into that dark place? Because we are fearful and believe that by helping them prepare to be their “very best selves” in the future, we are protecting them from a life of failure and disappointment. Of course, we can’t guarantee this so-called protection will work, and more so, it is entirely possible we are unwittingly robbing them of a happy, fulfilling and peaceful childhood today. It is at least worth considering.

“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child.” — Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia

When sports are played only to win and not for the love of the game, when volunteerism is encouraged for college application enhancing and not for the satisfaction of helping others, when learning is not about the content but about the grades, and when earning money and hard work are undervalued as providing purpose, we are left with a childhood whose only purpose is to succeed at a later date. Can we make a dent in the mental health crisis by helping children live in the present, by encouraging them to play and work and study for the satisfaction of a life well-lived today? Can we reduce their anxiety by giving them the space to just be kids? I believe we can. And, by doing so, they will be far better prepared for the challenges they will face and far more appreciative of the small successes and joys found only in the moment.

The World Health Organization’s definition of mental health is a valuable one. “Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual is able to realize his/her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and make a contribution to his/her family and community.” Notice it doesn’t say mental wellbeing is found in the egocentric, single minded pursuit of eventual, individual success. Let’s try to get back to allowing the work of children to be that of enjoying an actual childhood, finding purpose in play, in helping others or a job well done. We can give them the space to discover who they are and what makes them feel good about themselves and their place in the world right now. Again, I can’t stress this enough, anxiety lives in the future. Let’s let our kids live in the present.

CLICK HERE FOR PART 2


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Author: Karen Latimer

Dr. Latimer is a Family Physician and Wellness & Parenting Coach. She works with parents who want to feel more confident when helping their children and coaches young adults to help them better navigate college life and transitions. Contact her at drkarenlatimer@gmail.com to learn more. She is the author of two Audible Originals, Take Back the House -- Raising Happy Parents and Worry Less, Parent Better.

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