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Talk With Kids About Life's Biggest Questions

We can help children develop a sense of purpose that makes life worthwhile.

Key points

  • Many young people today lack a sense of purpose. Seventeen percent say they have considered suicide in the past year.
  • Adults can help kids by talking about life's biggest questions and sharing what gives them meaning in their own lives.
  • Teens who practice a religious faith show greater altruism and lower risk-taking and anti-social behavior.

One night, at the end of my graduate course on character education, a student stayed to talk. He said he lifted weights competitively but that it was increasingly difficult to compete because so many people in the sport were using steroids.

“I don’t use steroids and never will,” he said. “But most do, and they get away with it.”

I asked how athletes could continue to use steroids when everything we read says that steroids can make you sterile, deform your body, cause cancer, and make you depressed and even suicidal.

He said, "They know all that, but they don't care." The professor in one of his physical education courses had recently shown a video that reported the results of a survey of amateur weightlifters, collegiate and post-collegiate. It posed this question:

If you could take a drug that would guarantee you'd win every competition for the next five years, but at the end of the five years it would be certain to kill you, would you take that drug?

A majority of the weightlifters answered, “Yes.”

Another survey of amateur athletes found that more than half said they would take a drug that would kill them within a year if it would guarantee they'd win an Olympic gold medal.

We might ask, how is it that many young people in our society would trade their very lives for short-lived, drug-dependent success?

The answer comes back: They are spiritually adrift. They lack an ennobling vision of human dignity, human destiny, and the ultimate meaning of life.

One mother, on hearing the results of the weightlifter survey, said, "Those young men don't know why they're here."

The Centers for Disease Control’s 2019 “Youth Risk Behavior Survey” found that 17 percent of high school students said they had seriously considered suicide in the past year. More than 30 percent report feeling "sad or hopeless" for 2 or more weeks in a row. One reason for these findings is the absence of a sense of purpose that makes life worth living.

Life's Biggest Questions

To help our children develop a sense of purpose, we should help them reflect on life's largest questions. These include questions about:

  • Our origins: Where did I come from?
  • Our destiny: Where am I going? Is this life all there is?
  • Morality: How can I decide what is right?
  • Values: What matters most to me?
  • Purpose: What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose or significance of my life?
  • Gifts: What are my gifts or talents? How can I develop and use them to make a positive difference in the world?
  • Vocation: What state in life do I feel called to? Do I feel a calling to a particular kind of work or service?

There are different ways to answer existential questions like these. We can all find meaning and purpose by trying to live with integrity and compassion—doing our work well, caring for the people in our families, helping the less fortunate, and being honest, fair, and kind in our dealings with others. We might discover and pursue a passion.

For many people, young and old, religion adds a central reason for leading a good life and contributing to others’ happiness: God expects it. We have been created for goodness, and we are accountable to God for what we do with our lives.

Research confirms that religious belief and practice can motivate kids to do good and stay on the straight and narrow. “Religious Involvement and Children’s Well-Being,” a research report, found that young people who frequently attend religious services and say their faith is important to them exhibit higher levels of altruism and lower levels of drug and alcohol use.

There are similar trends for teen sexual activity, single parenthood, and delinquent behavior. Youth who most often attend religious services have the lowest rates of these problems. One way religion deters adolescents’ self-harming or anti-social behaviors is by influencing them to choose friends who do not engage in those activities. Religious faith also makes them accountable to a higher authority. As one rabbi put it, “It’s not so much that children take orders from parents as that we all take orders from God.”

A worldview, whether religious or secular, that prioritizes loving others can help us love people even when they don’t love us back. Here is one expression of such a philosophy, penned by the writer Kent Keith:

Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

It should go without saying that any worldview that places a high value on loving others and doing good, has a better chance of taking root in a child’s conscience and character if it is visibly central to our own. Mary, a mother of a large family, speaks of the example her father has set:

Dad always closes his letters with, "Work hard and pray a lot." This never sounds phony because it's what he does. He has worked hard all his life. He built the two homes we lived in and did all the repairs. And he prays throughout the day. My most powerful image of my father is seeing him late at night, kneeling at the foot of his bed, saying his personal prayers.

Whatever our worldview, we can encourage our children to craft a life of noble purpose. We should share our own philosophy of life—our sources of meaning and strength, what gets us out of bed in the morning, what helps us put our beliefs into practice, and what helps us deal with suffering.

A sense of purpose will give our children a spiritual rudder in their quest for character. They’ll need a life vision that addresses the big questions. They’ll have to make that vision their own as they mature, but we can give them a start.

More from Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
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