Whether or not your child has purpose in their lives as an adult is on you, mom. (Figures)
According to new research from Washington University in St. Louis, children who have more conflict with their mothers in their early elementary school lives may find it more difficult to find a sense of purpose in life as adults. It is the first study to show long-term associations between a person’s early life experiences and adulthood purpose.
“This research shows that it’s the child’s perspective of conflict that has the greatest effect on later sense of purpose and what matters most in this equation is the child’s relationship with his or her mother,” said Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences and co-author of the study.
The study defines a “sense of purpose” as having the belief that they have a stable, far-reaching aim that organizes and stimulates behaviors and goals to promote progress towards an objective. This can impact setting goals and picking careers, but it also plays a key role in motivating children to develop life skills that adults need to be independent such as learning to cook, budgeting their money and more.
“One of the biggest takeaway messages from these findings is that the path to a purposeful life starts very early, well before we start to consider different goals for life,” Hill said.
The study was published in January 2019 print issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence and is based on a long-term study of 1,074 students and their parents in Oregon. They were all asked to self-report on the levels of parent-child conflict in their families during grades 1-5.
The respondents were asked true or false statements about their interactions together. Statements included: “We joke around often,” “We never have fun together,” or “We enjoy the talks we have.” Other questions asked whether “We get angry at each other” at least once a day, three times a week, or “a lot.”
Follow-up surveys were repeated until children reached 21-23-years-old. The surveys included questions on life satisfaction, perceived amounts of stress, how well they believed they could handle personal problems and the sense of control they felt over their lives.
To determine “sense of purpose” those follow-up questions included statements including: “There is a direction in my life,” “My plans for the future match with my true interests and values,” “I know which direction I am going to follow in my life,” and “My life is guided by a set of clear commitments.”
“A growing body of literature shows that having a sense of purpose is clearly something beyond just being satisfied with your life or not feeling stressed,” said Leah Schultz, doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. “With our design, we were able to disentangle these outcomes and see the direct relationship between parent conflict and sense of purpose.”
However, a big take away from the study was that only the children’s perspective of these early life incidents seemed to matter. Parents that reported issues with their children at an early elementary school age seemed to be a poor predictor of a child’s later sense of purpose.
Additionally, children who reported early, conflicted and negative relationships with their fathers were negatively impacted by those experiences, but the study didn’t find a strong correlation between those negative experiences and sense of purpose.
“In this study, we were able to look at factors of the parent-child relationship, like how much parents and children experience conflict,” Schultz said. “But it will be important for researchers to understand, specifically, how are parents demonstrating the value of a purposeful life? How are they helping children to define and pursue their own purposeful paths? Understanding the content of those conversations can help us all understand how conversations matter to the children in our lives.”
To see the abstract and learn more about the study, click here.
For more news and research, click here.