What’s my purpose? — A critical question that schools and families must help kids answer

Last school year, the rate of teenage suicide and mental illness in Palo Alto spiked again. In that one year, 4 teens kills themselves and at one high school 52 of the 1,900 students were hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. This type of suicide cluster in affluent, high-achieving communities has been found in other parts of the country as well. These are children…something needs to be done.

A Missing Link

After the shock and grief wears off, parents and other members of the community struggle to find the cause of the mental anguish that is pushing children to end their lives. They often conclude that the pressure to achieve at ridiculously high levels — in academics, sports, college acceptance, extra-curriculars — must be the root of the problem, or at least is a major contributing factor.

There is no doubt that teens are experiencing significant pressure to succeed and that this pressure can cause anxiety. (In a previous blog post, I wrote about how America’s elite colleges actually recognize their role in this problem and are making significant changes to their admissions processes to mitigate the situation. But in Hanna Rosin’s cover story for the Atlantic, “The Silicon Valley Suicides,” her thorough research finds that theory incomplete. Sometimes, teenage suicide victims were described as easy-going. One of last year’s victims, was a basketball player, had many friends, and didn’t seem to feel much academic pressure at all. His friends said that school came really easily to him. There are other similar examples. Pressure to succeed and the anxiety that comes with it does not seem to be the sole factor linking these tragedies.

The Importance of Purpose

One quote jumped out at me from Hanna’s Atlantic article by former Yale professor William Deresiewicz who argues that “elite education manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.”

This notion of “purpose” has been percolating in my psyche since its prominence in my Montessori training 2 years ago. Maria Montessori (a brilliant doctor and scientist that I will write more about later) believed that children instinctively are driven toward “purposeful work” and that an educational setting should be designed to support and to further develop this instinct. This concept is woven through the Montessori model beginning with preschool and continuing up through high school.

As I’ve thought about purpose, I’ve realized that as a teenager, I too was plagued with this sense of a lack of purpose and the resulting (relatively mild) depression. I did not go to a competitive high school and I found it easy to excel without much effort. While my parents did talk about things one could do to build a compelling college application (like participating in an overseas exchange program and taking an SAT prep course) and I willingly did those things, I did not feel under any pressure. I was happy, very social, easy-going, and enjoyed school and sports. I spent time volunteering with the Junior League and was president of a girls’ social club. But I still woke up many mornings with the sinking feeling that there was no point to my existence. I craved “purpose” and the purpose of building a great college resume that could get me into a good college didn’t cut it.

The Curse of the Luxury to be Self-Centered

This “luxury” to focus all of one’s energy on one’s own academic and extra-curricular achievement is relatively new. In the past, children’s contributions to the household (cleaning, farming, sewing, cooking, hunting/gathering, raising younger siblings, working to earn money) were critical to the survival of the family and/or the community.

Today, some children still have a sense of purpose. Many children of immigrants are self-driven to be high achievers so that they can have a better life than their parents and perhaps be able to give their parents a better life too. This gives a clear purpose to their academic achievement and college aspirations — to improve the conditions of their life and the life of their family. Children from large families are often critical to the functioning of the household, giving them a strong sense of purpose. My sister-in-law has 12 children. Every one of them spends a significant amount of time watching younger children, unloading dishwashers, putting away groceries and working to earn their own spending money. They also pursue their own interests passionately — music, ballet, basketball, etc. and of course schoolwork. But their lives do not revolve only around themselves and they are now happy, kind, well-functioning teenagers and young adults.

But most of today’s affluent teens spend the majority of their time on themselves — their grades, their friendships, their entertainment, their athletics. Even their volunteer activities are often done in part to build up their own college resumes, and they know it. Parents often believe that if a teenager spends time contributing to the household or having a part-time job to earn money, he or she will not have the time to achieve at all of the college resume-building activities that seem so important. So parents or paid help take care of the household, babysitters take care of the younger siblings, money is handed over when requested. And teens are left feeling lost and without purpose.

Note: A lack of purpose can also plague disadvantaged teens who don’t see any way out of their current situation. But this post is focusing on the “affluent, over-achieving teen” with which I’m more familiar.

Helping Kids Grow Up with a Purpose

So what can parents and schools do to help kids develop a sense of purpose?There are many simple things parents can do at home.

1. Allow your children to make real contributions to the household. Even if you have professional help, there are many things your children can do to contribute to the household. Here are some ideas of things children can do every day:

  • Do the dishes and clean up after meals
  • Help prepare meals and/or do the grocery shopping
  • Take responsibility for the yardwork and gardening
  • Be responsible for feeding and walking the dog or other family pets
  • Do the family laundry, including folding and putting away clothes

Talk to your children about what things they’d like to do to contribute to the household and work to find something that they want to do but that makes a meaningful contribution. Older children can take on even more challenging tasks like home repair or improvement projects. Children will likely complain if you haven’t done this before. But after the griping, when they get into a rhythm, these contributions will give them pride and purpose.

2. Allow your children to earn money to buy things. If you buy your children their necessities AND their luxuries (e.g. phones, expensive sports clothes, the new lego toy) they will not have any motivation to earn money. Give them the pleasure that comes with earning money and spending it on something they really want! (And in the meantime you can teach them the lessons of saving some money and giving some away.) Your children will develop a sense of pride and an understanding of the value of work.

3. Allow your children to be independent. Children are quite capable of taking care of their own needs. Allow your children to put their laundry way, make their own lunch (Montessori schools ask children to start doing this in 1st grade,) wash their own dishes, make their bed, search for online deals for things they want to buy, walk their younger siblings to summer camp, etc. Taking care of yourself independently is purposeful.

4. Provide your child with avenues to support their community. Taking action that improves the lives of others has great purpose.Community” can mean your local neighborhood or school, a nearby disadvantaged community, or even your global community. Here are just a few examples:

  • Volunteer as a family at a local foodbank.
  • Pick up trash in a local park.
  • Help your children set aside some of their earnings for charity and help them find causes that they care about for their philanthropic donations.

My April Fools Joke Gone Wrong

I love April Fools Day and I always try to “get” my children and/or my husband. In 2013, when our children were 8 and 5, I completely forgot to prepare my joke. On the way to pick my son up from school, I came up with a quick idea. I told him that it had been a busy week and the house was a mess and I really needed him and his sister to help out right after school. He was going to be responsible for cleaning the bathroom — scrubbing the sink, bathtub, toilet and floor. He was also going to need to vacuum the rugs. Our daughter needed to wash the tables and sweep all of the floors. I waited for the diatribe of complaints. Nothing. “Did you hear me?” “Yes.” Still no complaints. I went through the same thing with my daughter and again nothing. We got home and my 8 year old immediately went to up to the bathroom, closed the door, and went to work.

I was shocked! They actually craved this kind of work and I hadn’t been giving it to them! Truth be told, I haven’t harnessed their energy quite to that level since, but their drive to work to the benefit of the household has stuck with me. Often on Saturday morning we make a list of jobs and ask them to choose 2 or 3. Sometimes there are complaints; but, once they get going, we see the pride they take in their work and the sense of purpose they have through contributing. As parents, we owe it to them to provide them with these opportunities.

A Montessori Perspective

Helping your child to discover a sense of purpose is not the only antidote to fighting depression and anxiety. But, it is an essential ingredient to helping children to recognize their own value by understanding the power of their talents and actions to positively impact those around them.

Maria Montessori instinctively understood the importance of purpose and made sure that Montessori schools at all levels placed a large priority on helping children develop a sense of purpose and an understanding of what it means to contribute to their community.

Look for my next blog post where I talk about Montessori’s approach to developing a sense of purpose and how the principles can be applied to traditional schools.