Parent Space

Welcome to The Parent Space where I will periodically post some of my thoughts and practices around parenting and my work with children. My writings will be part of a future publication about parenting and working with children from a Process-oriented perspective.

Parenting A Life of Meaning

With all of the material emphasis in our culture, the increase in technology and the endless forms of entertainment, how can we raise our children to live a life of meaning?

What is a meaningful life? We often wait until middle age or when we are close to death that we even contemplate the meaning of our lives. Yet, young children make meaning of everything, often surprising us by their profound and fascinating view of the world. Their lives are full of meaning and learning.

As children grow into their school years, their focus shifts to mastering the demands of school and life around them, and they often lose connection to their own essential nature. The pressure to fit in and meet external standards becomes consuming. By the time they reach middle school many children have sacrificed their individuality for the one-dimensional shell of popularity. There is certainly meaning in popularity. It is meaningful to find our place in the world and have the experience of belonging. But popularity is often a proxy for belonging: all too often belonging to a peer group means adapting to what others want and leaving out your deepest self.

Some might accuse me of being too intense for bringing up such issues for youth. Yet if we look at the culture in middle schools and the bullying behavior that is often accepted as a normal rite of passage, we might think otherwise. When schools are drudgery and children don't enjoy learning, we must reflect on what we teach our children and how we interact with them. Is it really "normal" that children should hate school? Should we as parents and society tolerate that children spend 6-8 hours a day bored, uninterested, and uninspired? What a shame to waste such valuable years!

This is very different for children in cultures and countries where public education is not readily available. There we see children who walk miles to school, relish every book and love to learn. School is a meaningful experience, a clear ticket to survival and access to a world otherwise unknown. Meaning often comes from great life challenge, from poverty, adversity and the sense of one's mortality. However, not necessarily, these same ingredients can also create depression, hopelessness and poverty of the soul.

I am reminded of a story from the Yaqui Indian shaman, Don Juan, in the books of anthropologist Carlos Castaneda. Carlos asks Don Juan what a friend of his should do with his son who is misbehaving. Don Juan tells Carlos that his friend should take his son to see a dead child*. While some readers might find this abhorrent, the moral of that teaching is that the son was cut off from what is most meaningful in life.

The tragedies of teen suicide, school killings, drug overdoses, death by drunk driving, just to name a few, are awful experiences for anyone to go through. But when they happen, we awaken to essential questions about what makes life meaningful. Kids begin to see the ramifications of their actions; they feel remorse for the teen who had been bullied and took his life. They question the core of who they are, what kind of a person they want to be, and what meaning life has. I am upset that it often has to get this bad in order for kids to ask these deep questions. It can and should happen sooner.

From a young age we need to ask children the big questions of life, we need to cultivate a life of meaning. As Don Juan says kids needn't be protected from death. Our mortality awakens us all to essential questions and presses us to make our life meaningful.

What is a meaningful life? Each has his or her own answer. For me a life of meaning is a life inspired by learning, and engaged with the questions of life purpose. A spirit of learning can transform even the most painful of life experience. As parents we can model that with our children. Pain, difficulty and challenge are a part of life. We will all grieve, hurt and suffer as our life unfolds, but can we move on by learning and opening ourselves up instead of closing ourselves off? If we model this as adults, we support our children in meeting life's most challenging moments.

And one last thing, but certainly not least, a life of meaning is a life touched by love that emphasizes the deep connections that we make with others and the sense of community that inspires and supports us all.

* Castaneda, Carlos, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972).



Check out Dawn's op-ed piece, Bullying: Whose kids do such cruel things? Ours, published in the Oregonian.

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