What’s the Purpose?

May 16, 2018 in Inside SWS

Anxious and competitive. Constantly searching for new information. Striving to do their best and fearful of failure. All-in and willing to do whatever it takes.

No, I am not describing high school students although a parallel could be made. This is a depiction of today’s parents, shared by Michael Thompson, clinical psychologist, school consultant, and international speaker on children, schools, and parenting. I recently heard Thompson speak at a Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS) conference for heads of school, and I concur with his characterization of many parents in independent schools. Added to his list of descriptors were: protective, loving, and willing to make significant sacrifices on behalf of their children. It is clear that parents today feel a greater responsibility than ever before for their children’s physical and emotional well-being, as well as their academic achievement and positive social experience. This pressure can strain the parent/teacher/school partnership, which led Thompson to write a book specifically offering guidance on supporting successful relationships in this realm.

On a long run in the Mother’s Day sunshine, I found myself thinking more about Thompson’s remarks. Did I fit his mold? What stresses weighed on me as a parent and an educator? Reflecting on my 31 years (and counting!) of motherhood, I realized that my worries and concerns evolved in sync with my children’s development. In the early years it was all about health and safety — bike helmets, seat belts, and no talking to strangers. Middle school brought social drama — birthday party invites, sports team tryouts, and a curfew that was “so not fair.” Sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll captured the high school era. My fervent hope was to shelter my children from harm, shield them from disappointment, and basically keep them from doing stupid things.

Now as I watch my adult children wrestle with decisions about college, career, and civic involvement, I realize what I really want more than anything else is for my children to find purpose and meaning in their lives. I want them to be passionate about their pursuits and to love what they do each day. I have been fortunate to find joy and fulfillment in my work, and I wish the same for them.

In his book The Path to Purpose, Stanford professor William Damon writes, “To have purpose is to be engaged in something larger than the self; it’s often sparked by the observation that something’s missing in the world that you might provide. Having a sense of purpose is the long-term, number one motivator in life.” Yet, according to his research, “only about 20 percent of high school students report being purposeful and dedicated to something besides themselves. The majority are either adrift, frenetic with work but purposeless, or full of big dreams but lacking a deliberate plan.”

As a result of these findings, schools are now offering programs geared toward nurturing a sense of purpose in students — Future Project, The QUESTion Project, Project Wayfinder, and more. I applaud these efforts to move education away from content-driven curriculum and traditional measurements, which are tied to external benchmarks and not internal motivators. In fact, Seattle Waldorf School is part of an international movement of schools (the Mastery Transcript Consortium) that is leading the way toward developing a new model of assessing and representing students’ mastery of skills and capacities, replacing the one-dimensional transcript and grade point average (GPA). However, at the same time I cannot help but smile. In Waldorf Education, helping students find purpose in their lives is is not a separate curriculum or an add-on class. It is what we do. As Rudolf Steiner wrote, “Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility — these three forces are the very nerve of education.”

Circling back to Michael Thompson’s observations and my Mother’s Day musings, I don’t know that we can allay the concerns of loving parents for their most precious children. But I hope that in those difficult and challenging moments, we can take a minute to remember the long view. We will suffer through the broken arm, the heart-wrenching breakup, and the college rejection letter, knowing the endgame is giving them the opportunity, capacity, and confidence to search for their own sense of purpose and meaning in the world. Our greatest hope is that our children and students find purpose in their life pursuits and joy in their endeavors. And that is what Waldorf Education can offer.

Blessings on us as we share in this journey,


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Published in the Chalkboard on 5.16.18.