Giving Kids A Sense of Purpose
By: Ann Brown
The mistake I want to talk about this month is difficult to label in a few words. I guess I could call it thinking that I needed to entertain or engage my kids when I was home with them. I know that it’s nearly impossible to get anything done when you are home with young children; what I am trying to figure out is why. Well, I know why; what I am trying to figure out is how to get the balance back.
In class, I often refer to other cultures or other generations when attempting to get a perspective on the problems parents face today. I think that one big difference is that parents today have somehow gotten the notion that it is their job to play with their kids. I know that’s a simplistic way to put it and I certainly don’t mean to say that we should never play with our children. But we do seem to devote a lot of time to dealing with the cry of, “Mom! Dad! I’m bored” or “play with me!” Even if we aren’t playing with them, we are explaining to them why we aren’t. Either way, we aren’t getting our things done.
This is not an article about how to be more efficient at home, or how to organize your chores. This is, instead, a more philosophical look at the messages we give our kids when we allow their activities to rule our lives.
Those of you who have sat through my endless analysis of the PBS series of “Frontier House” will have to humor me one more time because I think the lessons learned from that show are worthy of considering. (Quick recap: modern families spent eight or nine months living in conditions that were as close to actual frontier families’ lives as the producers could recreate.)
The parents in those cabins didn’t waste a whole lot of time helping their kids find something to do all day. Not only did the parents have to tend to their chores; so did the kids. It was a matter of survival. I see some tremendously important messages in that: one, that life demands things of us and it isn’t ours to whine and protest and have hissy fits about it; and, two, that each of us holds an essential link in the chain. We are responsible for each other, as well as for ourselves.
In class, I call this a sense of purpose. And I do believe that it is one of the two keys (the other being a sense of belonging) to a healthy and happy life (and a healthy and happy society, in my opinion, but that’s an article for another month).
When a child has a hard time separating from Mom or Dad in preschool, I sometimes like to approach the problem from a new angle. Instead of devoting lots and lots of time to feeding the role of being sad or homesick I offer a new role to the child. I entrust the child with a task, a contribution, a sense of purpose in the class. I do this because I believe that we all rise to a higher place when people are counting on us. Someone in my class a few weeks ago made a parallel analogy. She was in an elevator that got stuck between floors. This woman was a bit claustrophobic, and when the elevator stopped she began to panic, feeling her heart starting to race. She looked to the other woman in the elevator for comfort and help. But before she could say what she had planned to say (which was, “I’m freaking out. I am going to faint”), the other woman started hyperventilating. “I’m claustrophobic,” the other woman told her, “I’ve got to get out of here.” Well, in a remarkable turn, the woman in my class immediately assumed the role of the one in control. She talked the other woman through her anxiety attack and kept her calm until the elevator started up again. It wasn’t until the woman in my class was safely back in her hotel room that she realized what had happened.
When we are necessary to others, to our family, to our community, we rise to the occasion. The mom in my class rose to the occasion. The kids living in the frontier times (or, at least the kids living in the televised recreated frontier times) quickly realized that milking the cows or chopping the wood or taking care of the things they have or even simply staying out of the way of their parents were things that were necessary to eating, staying warm, and having things. And, in the end, having purpose, being a contributor to the family, raised their sense of worth and self-esteem to heights that few modern children possess. In fact, when these kids were interviewed after returning home to their modern lives, they all expressed feelings of emptiness and depression despite their TV’s and CD players and Game Boys and action figures and full refrigerators. They felt happier, more connected when they were back in the frontier house with only one handmade toy and long hours of chores.
To begin a quest for a sense of purpose for our children we need to put our own lives under a microscope and evaluate the lifestyle we’ve created. As I’ve said many times in class, it is indeed a challenge to create a sense of survival in a world that offers pizza delivery, gas fireplaces, twenty-four hour online shopping and already-peeled onions at Zupan’s. It is indeed a challenge to find meaningful contributions our young children can make to their family and their community. But it is a quest so worthy of our time and efforts because with a sense of purpose, almost everything else falls into place.