How Dads Can Help Their Kids Develop a Sense of Purpose in Life

In Fatherhood 101 by Engagement

What is a sense of purpose?

Daddy M and his wacky duo

A sense of purpose is a quality that is essential for children to live a full life and encompasses both self and other orientation. It can be defined as a passion and deeper motivation for something that brings children joy and satisfaction, and makes their life worth living. Purpose is about the child’s intention to accomplish something that is at once personally meaningful and of consequence to the world beyond the individual self (Damon et al, 2003).

Why is a sense of purpose important?

A sense of purpose allows the child to feel important and that he or she has a role to play in society. It gives children direction in life, motivates them, as well as helps them to cope with difficulties that they may encounter. Research suggests that cultivating a sense of purpose can protect against early personal difficulties such as selfishness, lack of enthusiasm, depression, as well as social difficulties such as antisocial behaviour and unstable close relationships. Purpose is also a deterrent against risky behaviours such as drug-taking and driving under the influence of alcohol (Sayles, 1995). When children are able to find fulfillment from other sources, they reduce their likelihood of succumbing to peer pressure to validate their self-worth.

The role of community impact in cultivating a sense of purpose cannot be understated as well. Contribution to the community allows the child to see a common humanity: something larger than himself or herself out there that he or she is a part of. Children can often feel alone and alienated when experiencing personal struggles in life, and giving to others can allow the child to focus on a cause greater than him or herself. Living and acting with others’ interests at heart fosters a connection and a sense of belonging, letting the child know that he or she is not really alone.

How to help your child develop a sense of purpose

Here are some tips for dads:
1. Expose your child to various activities in an attempt to identify his or her strengths and passions. Once a child has discovered what they are good at or enjoy doing, they will then be more inclined to pursue it further. As a child grows more competent in a certain activity, he or she will feel a sense of achievement that will fuel him or her gain mastery over the activity, reinforcing their passion for it.

2. Take time to talk to your children about the issues that are important in your life. Explain why these things really matter to you and give you a sense of purpose. Since young children often wish to emulate their fathers, this may be a good time to inspire them to discover a passion that they can derive meaning from. At the same time, remember not to use your child as a proxy to realize your own failed dreams. A child should be allowed to find his or her own niche, and not have one forced upon him or her.

3. Be encouraging towards your child. Beginning an activity is always the hardest part. At this point, the child knows nothing about the activity, and will inevitably make many mistakes or be less competent than others with more experience. It may then be very easy for the child to become de-motivated and give up. This is the time for you to be generous with encouragement and positive reinforcement. Doing so can help your child stick with an activity that may seem daunting at first, but grow to become something that will provide a sense of purpose for them.

4. Instill certain traits such as resilience, discipline, and self-confidence. Resilience allows the child to bounce back from failure, accept negative emotions, and renew their optimism about the future. Discipline allows the child to continue putting effort into the activity without shirking from his or her duties. Self-confidence allows children to try an activity with their best foot forward and seek out opportunities for growth and learning, thereby maximizing their chances of success.

5. Educate your child on the broader effects of his or her actions. As much as it is important for the child to experience personal satisfaction and growth, it is also important that his or her actions benefit the community. Communicate to your child that no man is an island. We live interdependently in a community with others, and our actions may have an effect on others around us. Encourage your child to participate in activities that draw on his or her passions in ways that can benefit the community. For example, a child who has a passion for baking may share the fruits of his or her labour with neighbours.

A sense of purpose goes to the heart of what children value, what kind of person they want to be and how they can contribute to others. These questions about a children’s purpose in life may be difficult for them to answer on their own, especially at a young age. However, fathers who provide guidance to their children during this process of self-discovery will help children move closer to their reasons for being, which in turn has powerful effects on their health, wellbeing and quality of life.

Damon, W., Menon, J., & Bronk, K.C. (2003). The Development of Purpose During Adolescence. Applied Developmental Science, 7(3): 119-128.

Sayles, M.L. (1995). Adolescents’ purpose in life and engagement in risky behaviours: Differences by gender and ethnicity. Dissertation Abstracts International, 55: 2727.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.