How to Get a 9th Grader to Start Thinking About His Life’s Purpose

Character Building: Teens 4 min read

Today, in a private tutoring session with Tim*, a 9th grader living in Thailand, he brought up some life insights worth reflecting on and sharing.

It Has to Start with Respect and Listening

First, Meet Them Where They Are

We started with our ‘gratitude sip’. This is our casual ‘check-in’ ritual where we say what we’re thankful before sipping our beverages of choice.

Today was heavy for Tim and he wasted no time to expressed his strong dislike for school...and that’s putting it mildly.

One sentence in, and I empathized immediately.

I knew where he was coming from.

In his words, “Why do I have to sit for 8 hours to listen to someone lecture me about something I’m not even going to use in the future?”

I said, “You have a point there.”

And he does.

However, being the ‘psychologically wise adult’ in the room (...or on the Zoom call), we couldn’t leave it there. I helped him with perspective on other meaningful outlooks of his ‘school situation’.

Bring New Perspective Rather than Offering Advice

Next, Bring Perspective and Don’t Force It

While I acknowledged his literature teacher’s approach to Shakespeare was a bit irrelevant and dry (I had to tutor several of his assignments), I said there’s a reason I like studying stories and classics written by ‘dead people’.

They teach us what it means to be human.

I then got hype for the next 3 minutes sharing a flurry of why I loved Hamlet; ‘to be and not to be’ and how ‘indecisiveness creates craziness’.

Tim was pulled into the enthusiasm as I brought in elements relevant to him and decisions I knew he had to make. And of course, as a former literature teacher myself, I loved analyzing characters and breaking down text.

Then, Make It Relevant to Where They Are

I then said to Tim, “You know...everything isn’t for everybody, so you don’t have to like the class...but how do you feel when we talk about stories and stuff in our sessions?”

He gave a casual teen reply of, “I’s cool.”

“Tell me more about that. What do you mean, ‘It’s cool’?”

“I’s just not the same. You’s more interesting here.”

“You know why Tim?”

“I dunno...why?” (I love how Tim starts every phrase with...‘I dunno’.)

I put it plainly, “When we talk about the characters in the stories, I always bring it back to you and how you’re living life.”

He couldn’t put it into words, but I knew a truth as an educator:

  • Make the material relevant and
  • Let the focus be on their personal understanding, not just facts from the text.
Knowing your self worth is essential for finding life's purpose. This book can help your child know they are worthy.

If They Don’t Define Their Purpose, It’ll Feel Worthless

Take a Second with Teens to Talking about Life Purpose

After letting him process those thoughts, we made a smooth segue into our session discussion. We talked about one’s ‘life purpose’ and how it can greatly impact motivation and overall satisfaction.

To guide our discussion, we referred to the article "Talk with Teens about Purpose" from the website Greater Good in Action: Science-Based Practices for a Meaningful Life.

First, we listened to a snippet of the podcast “The Science of Happiness” where Adrian Michael Green interviewed another 9th grader he previously taught.

Adrian Michael Green asks big questions designed to help teens — and adults — find more meaning and purpose in their lives.

To any educator out there who wants to bring more science-based meaning into the classroom, I highly recommend the site Greater Good in Action.

Tim and I went through a few of our own “Life’s Big Questions”:

  • What’s most important to you in your life?
  • Why do you care about those things?
  • Do you have any long-term goals?
  • Why are these goals important to you?
  • What does it mean to have a good life and be a good person?
  • If you were looking back on your life, how would you want to be remembered?

Afterward, again at the end of the session I asked Tim how he feels generally about our conversations.

He said, “I dunno...(there it is again)
...I like’em. They make me think.”

That was encouraging to hear.

Where to Begin to Help Teens Open Up?

It’s simple.

Allowing a Teen to Express is the First Step to Helping Them Open Up

First, give them the space to express with no judgment.

But for most adults in their life it’s hard, because our ego’s get in the way to tell’em why they’re wrong or don’t see it right.

Honestly, Tim’s not really a kid who opens up, however in today's session we were allowed to explore deeper aspects of our life’s purpose.

I feel that’s a seed planted.

On deeper reflection, we got there because I gave Tim the opportunity to vent with no judgment at the beginning.

It brings to mind Angela Duckworth’s idea, even just one ‘psychologically wise adult’ in a child’s life can make a difference.

I come back to that phrase again and again because it’s so true.

All the best and encouraging you on your journey as
the ‘psychologically wise adult’ in the room.

Discovering your life's purpose starts with recognizing and valuing yourself.

*not his real name

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