|can Teenagers Find Their Life Purpose in School? [parenting]|
|My husband and I have two sons and it is striking how different they are from each other in some very fundamental ways. The younger one is driven by his own internal curiosity and passions. He loves learning and he loves school. He has never met a boring topic and his main stress in life is that there are not enough hours in the day to learn more about all that he is interested in. He is both exhilarating and exhausting to be around. His challenge in life will be to figure out how he wants to channel his energy to make a mark on the world.|
Our older son also loves school. (We never had those bleary-eyed, “do I have to go to school today?” mornings!) For him it is mostly the social life that draws. Classes are just something he does between talking to his friends. There have been glimmers of interest here and there-photography, architecture, a cool science experiment. Math, because he knows it comes easily to him. But by and large, what he lacks is passion and the relentless pursuit of, well, anything. Now that he is in high school, my husband and I are hoping that the school and all its offerings will ignite a spark that will carry him into adulthood.
The Path to Purpose
The Fall ’08 issue of Independent School had an article by William Damon, a Stanford University professor and author of The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life. He is not holding out a lot of hope for my son if schools continue as they are today. Kids, he says, are working hard and they have no idea why; that leads to boredom and apathy. Here is the bit that got me:
Students need schools that are more than test-prep training grounds. They need schools that stir their imaginations and give them a chance to discover their deepest and most enduring interests. During their crucial formative years, they need schools that help them decide what kind of person they wish to become. Ultimately, they need schools that provide knowledge, mentoring, and encouragement that will help them identify their own moral north star, a compelling purpose to guide them through their journey in life.
Yes! Can our son’s school do that? (Although if schools actually did that, I would probably have no more coaching clients left.) As luck would have it, just a few days after I finished this article I was reading Tal Ben Shahar’s book, Happier and came to this passage:
Throughout the term, drowning in work they do not enjoy, students are motivated by fear of failure. At the end of the term, liberated from their books and papers and exams, they feel an overwhelming sense of relief- which, in the moment, can feel a lot like happiness. This pattern of pain followed by relief is the model that is imprinted on us from grade school. It is easy to see how, unaware of alternative models, living as a rat racer could seem like the most normal and attractive prospect.
A rat-racer? Is that my son’s fate? Surely if the schools can’t do anything about this then our parenting can shift the tide for him. Ben Shahar continues:
They learn from their parents that grades and prizes are the measure of success, that their responsibility is to produce outstanding report cards rather than to enjoy learning for learning’s sake.
Okay, now I have to say that my husband and I have always and only wanted our kids to do their best and enjoy learning. That is what we believe, and what we tell them. We have never punished our kids for low grades or held out other children’s success as a comparative measure. But now I needed to be sure that this was the message that was coming across.
Why enjoying learning is more important than grades
“You know that your grades are not what are important to me right?” I asked my older son one night as he was doing his homework.
“Huh? Then how come you are always asking me to do my homework and every time I have a test you want to know if I studied. Isn’t it because you want me to do well?”
“Well, I do want you to do well but I also want you to enjoy the learning that is why we ask you at dinner if you learned anything interesting today…” I trailed off.
This conversation was not going in a good direction. Clearly, I have been sending the wrong messages. Have I doomed his chances for finding what he really loves? With my clients, one of the things I do is to listen for the resonance as they talk. When does my son get really excited? What lights him up? What makes him laugh?
I am on a campaign now to be alert for those moments and to nurture them. I am also increasingly aware of how I talk about my own work. At the very least I can be a role model of someone who is passionate about her own work. Every day, at dinner, my sons ask me how my day was. (I love that!) I have a daily opportunity to speak to the passionate sparks in my day rather than the drudgery or the checking off the of the to-do lists. I have three more years with my older son at home. I may not be able to help him find his life purpose in that time, but I am sure as hell going to try to light the way.