Helping Your Kids Build a Meaningful Life

Take a moment to consider all the gifts you’ve given to your children. A great education; a lovely home to grow up in; exciting and life-enhancing travels; opportunities to experience sports, music, and art; toys, devices, and athletic gear — maybe even a new car or a deposit on a home. You may have taken them with you on your boat or private plane to special events or your vacation homes.

Affluent kids enjoy many privileges other kids do not. Most parents want to share their abundance with the people they love most. They feel great pleasure in being able to provide for their children not only the fundamentals of life, but also some of the luxuries. And that’s great.

You can give them money, resources, networking opportunities, benefits, ad-vantages, and freedoms. But there’s one thing you cannot give to them. You cannot give them a meaningful life.

They have to work for it. They have to build it on their own.

Ambling Through Life

Angie’s mother was concerned about her 32-year-old daughter’s unhappiness. Angie had been raised in an affluent family with all the privileges wealth can afford. But she never made the connection between work and money and the comfortable lifestyle she lived because, growing up, either someone always paid for her or she paid later. Her financial life was taken care of by others, her bills often going straight to the family administrative office.

After college, she didn’t know what to do. She decided to travel the world to experience different cultures. When she returned home, her friends all had jobs. She trained to become a massage therapist. However, she soon realized she didn’t like that type of work. So, she quit and pursued a career in modeling. But that career choice didn’t result in a lot of work, so she took on a cocktail waitress job at night to meet people and get out into the world a bit more. She met her husband in a nightclub and married him soon after.

A couple of years and a great deal of verbal abuse later, Angie mustered up the courage to divorce. Since then, she has stumbled in and out of various relationships, ambling through her life with little direction, no specific purpose, and a misdirected belief that someone else could provide her with the happiness she so desperately wanted.

Angie didn’t know who she was or where she was going. She was anxious, depressed, and very confused. Even though her material needs were satisfied, her life felt meaningless. No won-der her mother was concerned.

The Messages You Send

Like Angie’s mom, most parents would like to see their children have the social intelligence to find their way through the maze of life. They want them to have self-control, self-esteem, and self-reliance, along with the curiosity to explore new opportunities and a work ethic that advances a good career. They hope gratitude will permeate their being as well as optimism, a positive attitude, and a zest for life that promotes happiness and depth of fulfillment.

These things set the stage for your kids and grandkids to build a meaningful life. But as a parent, you can help.

Remember, your children are always watching you and absorbing how you handle situations in your life. They know your moods and your attitudes, your perspectives and your beliefs. They watch how you deal with adversity and notice how you treat people. And they imitate what you do.

So, the first thing you can do is look closely at yourself and make an honest appraisal of the messages you’re sending. Begin to change the things within yourself that you don’t want your children to repeat. You are a role model to them, so make sure you are being a good role model.

But modeling isn’t the only way to teach complicated lessons about life or impart the philosophies you’d like your children to live by. Talking with your kids is also important — real discussions in which you share your thoughts, ask for theirs, and listen to what they believe and how they see the world.

These serious conversations are not likely to take place unless you plan them. Your kids or grandkids probably won’t initiate a dialogue with you about honesty, loyalty, hard work, integrity, or what makes a meaningful life. But when you carve out time — during a car trip, a hike, dinner, or quiet time before bed — they’re likely to jump right in and participate eagerly.

Four Recommendations for Building a Meaningful Life

A meaningful life means different things to different people. But underneath all the descriptions and explanations lie four concepts that I believe make a huge difference. These are things that allow you, as well as your children, to feel that your life has value – that it matters that you have lived on this earth. That, even in a small way, the world is a better place because you were here. These are important concepts to help your children learn and absorb.

1. Living Ethically

My father-in-law had a high sense of morality and a great deal of integrity. His philosophy was to treat his employees fairly and to support them in initiating ideas that would help them rise in the company. Over his desk hung a plaque that said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have to take credit for it yourself.” This was his creed —to put others at the forefront.

Many of his employees felt like family members because he regarded them highly and respected their individual needs. Toward the end of his life, when asked what he was most proud of in his life and career, he didn’t mention the company he had built or the acclaim he had earned. Without hesitation, he said, “That I have been able to enhance the lives of my employees by providing them with good work.” He lived an ethical and meaningful life.

In contrast, a billionaire I know in Aspen sent his daughter to classes to prepare her for her bat mitzvah. The cost for the 30 sessions was $3,000, to be paid in advance to the rabbi and his wife, who would be teaching the classes. The rabbi lived on a very modest income and counted on the money from the classes to help make ends meet.

But 20 sessions later, the billionaire still had not paid one dime. After the rabbi called to ask politely for payment, the billionaire finally sent $1,000. He never paid the balance, even though his daughter completed the classes and was bat mitzvahed by the rabbi in a very elaborate and expensive ceremony.

The billionaire is successful financially. But he is disrespectful of others and has harmed people along the way by his actions and inactions. So, how successful is he really? How meaningful is his life? And what kind of legacy is he leaving behind? I shudder to think of the lessons he is teaching his daughter as she observes and absorbs his unethical behaviors.

2. Making a Contribution

My friend Steve is constantly on the lookout for ways to help people. He gives monetarily to charities, to causes he believes in, and to groups whose philosophies he believes are worthy. He also contributes his time and efforts. He’s a generous man.

Recently, when Steve was riding his adult trike around town, he bumped into a man he barely knew. The man had been thinking about buying one of these trikes, but couldn’t decide if he wanted to spend the money without really knowing if he would enjoy riding it. Instantly, Steve jumped off his trike and insisted the man try it out for a week — Steve was going out of town, and so wouldn’t need it anyway.

No, Steve’s generosity didn’t exactly make the world spin differently, but that’s not the point. It was a small gesture, one that cost Steve nothing. But it made a difference to the man to whom he loaned his trike. And it felt very satisfying to Steve.

Contributing is a kind of service to others that begins with empathy — a sense of recognizing a need and then reaching out to provide what is needed to an individual, an organization, or a community.

On a small scale, your contribution can help a single person; on a larger scale, your philanthropy can help an entire country or culture. The size of your contribution is not the import-ant part because, whether it is large or small, the result is a feeling of being appreciated and valued, of knowing that your actions have benefitted someone else.

Making contributions to others — be it financially, in good deeds, or in personal time and energy — makes a significant impact on the world. It begins with an increased awareness and thoughtfulness of others and leads to a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and meaning in your life.

Once again, your children — both young and adult — will learn from watching you. But you can do more than model. You can begin to teach even your young children to develop an attitude of contributing by talking with them about the infinite ways they can contribute something of value.

And talk with them about how their lives can make a difference in the world, about the contribution they can make.

You can also engage them in family activities that teach the concept of contributing. My daughter displays a chart on their refrigerator entitled “Random Acts of Kindness.” Every time someone in her family notices another family member doing something kind, that person gets a gold star. Nothing more. No reward or toy — just a star. They shouldn’t expect to get paid for being kind or for their generosity of spirit or money. But they learn that contributions come in myriad versions.

There are so many ways of doing good things for others. And all of them promote the development of a valuable characteristic that enhances your own life and the lives of those around you.

3. Practicing Grit

Some people quit easily. As soon as things get tough, they lose interest, patience, and hope. But others hang in there, determined to meet their goal. These are the people who have grit – the stamina, focus, determination, and perseverance to pull themselves up from adversity or failure and to keep on going.

Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, says grit is the single most important predictor of success in life. Success doesn’t necessarily mean making millions of dollars or becoming well known. Success can come in very small packages, even packages that only you know about. But along with success comes the realization that “I did it! I accomplished what I set out to do.” And that realization brings meaning to your life.

Chris Klug is a model for grit. He grew up on the snow and became a competitive snowboard racer as a junior in high school. But tragedy hit early. Chris was diagnosed with a severe disease that would require him to have a liver transplant to survive. Nine years later, he received the call that a suitable liver was available. He underwent the surgery in 2000. Eighteen months later, he won an Olympic bronze medal.

Chris never gave up. He held on to his purpose. He kept his eye on the goal and never lost sight of his dream. This past winter, my husband and I were privileged to attend the celebration where Chris was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame. The honor was bestowed on him because of his amazing tenacity and ability to over-come adversity. He was honored for his achievement, but primarily for his grit.

In his book The Seven Stages of Money Maturity, George Kinder calls it vigor. It’s both a willow that bends to meet reality and an oak that stands tall and firm. It’s not a crazy, frantic busy-ness that actually distracts and camouflages your discomfort, but rather a calm, deeper sense of purpose. It’s a peaceful confidence that, if you move steadfastly, steadily, and intentionally, you’ll get to your goal.

You can help your children discard any tendency to rest on their trust funds and coast through life by modeling your own grit and hard work. And by talking with them about the meaning in their lives that comes from discovering their own goals and generating the energy to make them realities.

4. Starting Your Career Early

Many years ago, Taylor came to see me for therapy because his life felt meaningless. He was feeling hopeless and depressed because, at age 50, he still had no vision for his future. In his 20s, he had come to Aspen to be a ski bum. He had spent 30 years taking menial jobs so he could take off work on those spectacular powder days.

Taylor had scorned what he called the “serious guys” who put their noses to the grindstone to focus on their careers. He had laughed at those who missed all the fun in order to advance their professions. But now, he was still living in a dingy studio apartment with no family, little money, only a miniscule chance of having any luxuries of life, and scant hope for his future. Little wonder he felt down and out.

Perhaps Taylor wishes he had thought about his future sooner. But his story can be a wake-up call for other young adults. And parents can help by talking with their children about the importance of making their 20s count.

In her book, The Defining Decade, Meg Jay says our culture has demoted 20-somethings to “not-quite-adults” just when they need to engage the most. Our culture has trivialized what is actually the most defining decade of our adult lives. As a result, late bloomers are less likely to close the gap between themselves and people who started finding their careers and meaning in their lives earlier.

Young folks need time to explore. But they need to balance their exploration with making a commitment — to something they can do well enough to support the life they want — while simultaneously doing something they enjoy. It may not be where they settle, but it’s where they can start. Following a passion may be the ideal, but many have experienced that the passion comes later — derived from the meaning and fulfillment of fruitful work.

Throughout life, we hope for happiness for those we love. And at the end, we want to be able to say that our lives mattered – that we lived a meaningful life. Perhaps it is one of our jobs as parents to help our children to be able to say the same.


© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 4, Issue 6, June 2016 • www.bonnerfamilyoffice.com

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About the Author:

Joanne K. Stern, PhD, is a family consultant with an extensive background in psychology. She helps families resolve the complex people problems that often tear families apart and destroy harmony, happiness, and sustained financial success. A frequent speaker, keynote presenter, and workshop leader, she has been a guest expert on more than 200 TV and radio shows and has contributed to various newspapers, magazines, and online media.
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