When does purpose begin? This is a question purpose researchers often hear. Some can’t believe we would expect to find purpose in children or ‘tweens, while others argue that a life of purpose begins at birth.
In our research, we talked with children as young as 11 years old who described having purpose in life. Children this age can have a strong sense of empathy and are perceptive about the suffering they see around them. They feel for the homeless people they see in their town or the bullied students at their school. Often, they want to do something to alleviate that suffering, and when they do it is likely that they get a sense purpose from doing so.
Unfortunately, most of the preteens we talked with were not acting on their feelings of empathy because they felt inhibited by their age. Some said they weren’t allowed to volunteer or weren’t given opportunities to help because they were too young. Others felt they lacked the experience or expertise they would need to take action. Still others didn’t know how they could act on their concerns and lacked role models or mentors who could show them the way.
Despite these obstacles, some preteens do act on their concerns and find purpose in doing so. We consistently find that about 20% of preteens and young teens are driven by a goal to contribute to the world beyond themselves and find ways to act on that goal. They might volunteer at a food bank with their parents, commit to being friendly every day to a student who is excluded at school, start a recycling campaign at school, or donate their allowance to an animal shelter.
Of course, preadolescence is a volatile time in terms of development and identity, and most of those who found purpose in 6th grade were no longer purposeful when we interviewed them again two years later. The most common change for those who were no longer purposeful by 8th grade was a shift in priorities. No longer prioritizing their concern for the suffering of others, they focused instead on spending time with friends and pursuing activities they enjoyed for fun. For most, the lure of the peer group eventually overpowered their empathic concerns.
Those who sustained their purpose throughout middle school were usually influenced by adult role models who showed them how to act on their empathy, or by mentors who recognized their concerns and pointed them to opportunities to take action. Adults who act as role models or mentors are tremendous resources for early purpose development.
So, when does purpose begin? The research suggests that it can emerge in childhood, but that doesn’t mean it stays forever once it appears. Purpose comes and goes and evolves throughout adolescence and even across the lifespan. A child who finds purpose helping animals may lose her sense of purpose then regain it again as an adult, perhaps in providing for her family or creating art, or in several areas of life.
Why does it matter to educators? Adults play an important role in supporting early purpose development by acting as role models and mentors. By showing young people what kinds of opportunities are available to act on their empathic concerns or other prosocial interests, by inviting young people to participate in these activities, or by creating opportunities for young people to take meaningful action to help others, adults show children the possibility of a purposeful life. When children and young teens have these opportunities, they probably won’t lock in to a life-long purpose, but they will gain experience that will enable them to find purpose throughout their life.
Malin, H., Reilly, T. S., Quinn, B., & Moran, S. (2014). Adolescent purpose development: Exploring empathy, discovering roles, shifting priorities, and creating pathways. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 24(1), 186–199
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