I recently had the opportunity to talk about teaching for purpose in afterschool and community-based youth programs in an interview for the Learning In Afterschool & Summer blog by Sam Piha. This is such a great topic, and although I wrote Teaching for Purpose specifically for school-based educators, there is no doubt that out-of-school programs are essential resources for supporting youth purpose development.
That interview had me reflecting back on what we have learned about supports for youth purpose development. A couple of findings are worth a deeper look.
As we analyzed interviews with 11-23 year-olds, several types of support were found to shape purpose: cognitive (information for pursuing a goal), emotional (encouragement), social (networks, role models), and opportunities (to take action). There were no strong differences between purposeful and nonpurposeful adolescents in how much of these supports they received. Purposeful youth described more opportunities to act on their important goals, but other than that nonpurposeful youth were as likely as purposeful youth to report getting each of these types of support.
So, how did they differ? What did purposeful adolescents find in their social environment that might have enabled them to find purpose when many of their peers didn’t? We’re not sure, and a lot more research is needed to fully understand this, but two things jumped out in this study: nets and webs.
Nets: Opportunities to act on goals were important for developing purpose, but most young people with purpose took initiative and created opportunity when they didn’t find one. In doing so, they described the value of another social resource: they had a safety net—a place to land if they took risks and failed. As one young person said, “My family is never going to leave me for my whole life. It’s my roots, gives me something to fall back on.” Others found their safety net in a community organization or group. Doing something that is personally meaningful and makes a difference in the world is vulnerable and risky. A safety net makes it possible to take such a risk.
Webs: Aside from opportunities, no single source of social support was more prevalent among purposeful than nonpurposeful youth. What we did see among purposeful youth; however, were webs made up of several different types of support. These webs were provided by social institutions or structures, such as faith groups, schools, and community centers. A typical web of support includes emotional resources, social networks, access to information, and opportunities to take action. A church youth group, for example, might support young members by integrating moral values, a caring peer group, adult mentors, and structured opportunities to do community service, providing a web of support that is ideal for finding or creating purpose.
There is still more research needed to understand how and why some young people develop purpose, but it seems clear that the answer will not be found in a single source of support. The findings about nets and webs suggest that supporting youth purpose development is a complex process that integrates multiple resources.
Moran, S., Bundick, M., Malin, H., & Reilly, T. (2013). How supportive of their specific purposes do youth believe their family and friends are? Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(3), 348-377