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Help Your Kids Find Their Purpose in Life

Talk to your young adults to help them find their way

How to Talk to Your Kids About Purpose

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A father helps his college-age son find his purpose.

For those of us in midlife, uncovering a sense of purpose makes the difference between real reinvention and just another job change. Imagine if someone — perhaps even your parents — had convinced you of the power of purpose decades ago, when you were just tiptoeing into adulthood? Life Reimagined thought leader Christine Whelan, Ph.D., explains why conversations about values are so critical to your family.

Your new book, The Big Picture, aims to help 20-somethings find their way. Tell us why you wrote it and what it means to parents.

I geared my last book, Generation WTF, toward college kids right after the post-financial crisis. When I tested it, what resonated most was this idea of purpose, of finding the why in a career search, not the how. So I wanted to devote a book to helping people just starting out to find their purpose. As the same time, I began working with Life Reimagined, focusing on mid-lifers looking for purpose. The parallels between the two groups are just staggering. There’s room for lots of good conversation between these two generations.

I’m thinking many parents who read this will think, “No way. My kids won’t listen. I wouldn’t have listened if my parents tried to talk about purpose.”

That might be true for some families. But parenting has evolved. Parents don’t have to have all the answers like they used to. And it’s a really great example to kids to see people in midlife addressing the issue of purpose — even if they have done so before. Our purpose can change. Life changes us. A career that made sense in your 20s might not work in your 30s. In your 50s, you may find an entirely new direction.

You’ve said you tested this material with students, to make sure it was effective. What was the best performing section?

There’s a chapter where I ask people to think about what they’re afraid of, and that turns out to be very helpful to people trying to pin down what they want. A person who says, “I’m afraid of being invisible” has a different path than a person who says, “I’m afraid of not having a family.” Knowing what you don’t want isn’t enough to make a choice. But it’s a start. For example, I fear having a job that’s boring because I like to sound interesting at cocktail parties. That probably speaks to some inner insecurity and maybe is not the best thing to build a career around, but it’s important to know about myself.

When students push back against this concept, what is their resistance?

They’ll say to me, “Seriously? You want me to do another thing? Now I have to find my purpose?” They are under a lot of pressure, and they have a “Stop the world. I want to get off” feeling. This generation is challenged to be constantly self-reflective, and it’s tiring. On social media, they have to craft their own story.

So how can parents help them get past that?

Living your purpose often means saying no to more things than you say yes to. But for kids in their 20s, and to some degree, people in midlife who are still working out what their purpose is, it’s important to say yes a lot. Yes to experience and to life. Get out there, and do it. Explore. An awful lot of great things come to us just out of happenstance, and they turn out to be significant, even defining. They can be pivotal moments only if you’re open to them.

Many parents want, above all, to see their kids settled in a career. What you’re talking about is unsettling.

Yes. I’m trying to trigger some kind of inner revelation that might move someone closer to their true purpose, and that can be very unsettling. So if asking these questions triggers just one answer that makes someone uncomfortable and say something like, “Hmm. Maybe investment banking isn’t really what I want to do,” then I feel good about that.

I imagine at least some kids will say, “Are you crazy? I need a job, any job. I can’t afford to worry about purpose and values and meaning and stuff.”

That’s true. Sometimes you need a job, any job — you have to pay your bills. Especially people just starting out. But work isn’t the only place to find purpose. Some people never get it in their work, and that’s OK. They find it in their families, the community, somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be do-goody, charity stuff. It can be competing in triathlons or playing music. The point about purpose is that it's an outer focus. It positively affects people around us.

5 Things To Say to Your Kids About Purpose

1. “If you could design your ideal day, what would it look like?”

2. “If you could choose any career path, regardless of money, what would it be?”

3. “I just did this cool exercise where I chose my values and passions and put together a purpose statement. Do you want to see mine?”

4. “When I was young, I was so afraid of _____. Have you ever felt that way?”

5. “I think you are wonderful at A, B and C. What do you think your greatest talents are?

5 Things Never To Say to Your Kids About Purpose

1. “By the time I was your age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.”

2. “This stuff is important: Why aren’t you prioritizing these questions?”

3. “You should read this book because you have to figure your life out.”

4. “It seems like all your friends have a life plan. What’s yours?”

5. “The real world is hard. It’s time to grow up and act like an adult.”

Life Reimagined thought leader Christine Whelan, Ph.D. is the author of The Big Picture: A Guide To Finding Your Purpose in Life. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post.