In college I studied the history of political thought, and I found that by the end of four years, the only thing I knew for sure is that people come together because it’s human nature to come together. And people like to feel they are contributing to the good of the group.
We are always weighing the good of ourselves vs. the good of the group. (Read John Stuart Mill or Jean Jacques Rousseau if you want to pontificate on this topic at dinner parties.) But the bottom line is that we want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
So then, what does this say about kids who are not allowed to work, not allowed to be contributors, and can only sit still and do what they are told?
It’s against their nature, of course.
We know that adults are not happy if they are not contributing. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are making sure not to leave their kids so much money that they don’t need to work, because it’s actually been shown to hurt people rather than help them if they don’t have to work. This is true of both kids and adults.
1. Homework undermines meaning
It’s clear from many studies that homework does not help kids learn. In fact, homework’s biggest impact is to destroy family time which is particularly sad because we know that family is the group where kids are most likely to be able to be contributors. The huge backlash from parents against homework is a result of parents perceiving that their own time is totally wasted.
Kids, also, feel that homework wastes their time. Kids know that it feels good to be part of a family, and kids doing homework are ostracized from family activities in order to “concentrate”.
2. Mentoring is an on-ramp to larger meaning
The most important indicator of career success after the quality of one’s education is the quality of one’s mentors. Studies show that adults who have three mentors in their life advance toward their goals much faster than people without three mentors. The reason for this discrepancy is that mentors help to integrate yourself into a group by matching your skills to the needs of the group. The group could be a wide-range of social situations, but the group is, at its essence, people who value what you have to offer.
It makes sense, then, that kids who have mentors do better in their career. Because a mentor is someone who shows a kid how to be part of a group. The mentor teaches the skills the kids needs for contributing to the whole. And being valued by society is what motivates people to go farther. We are motivated by each other because contributing feels so good.
3. Kids need real summer jobs.
Kids should create jobs for themselves as early as possible. You don’t need to wait until you’re in college to get an internship. You can create your own internship. The earlier you start training to contribute, the better you’ll feel about the time you spend as a child.
The exchange that happens in a good internship is inspiring. The young person works hard to contribute to the group in a meaningful way, and the employer makes sure the young person learns a lot along the way.
I was struck by this photo of Madonna and her daughter Lourdes. It was during an internship when Lourdes was in high school. She said all her friends were getting internships so she wanted one as well. She was stuck working for her mom, which wasn’t her first choice. But she said it would have been worse not having a job than it was to work for her mom.
Even for rich kids like Lourdes, the worst thing is to not contribute.
4. Socially conscious actions feel meaningful
Kids want to make their own decisions as well. Making basic decisions about how kids spend their time and energy gives them the power to express their values to the community. Members of Gen Y, for example, are generally not earning enough money to give a lot of money to non-profits, but they try to work for socially conscious companies so they feel good about how they contribute to the group via their work.
I saw this in my son as well. We were picking out party favors for his bar mitzvah, and he saw Promotional Gifts has a list of gifts made from recycled products, and that appealed to him. There are few things as big as a bar mitzvah that kids are involved in at such a young age. My son sees an opportunity to do something that matters, and he’s not wasting that. He wants his bar mitzvah to feel like he’s giving to the community in as many ways as possible.
5. Parenting that is community focused ensures kids contribute in meaningful ways.
I find myself more and more thinking about how my kids can help the community rather than how my kids can draw benefits from the community. It’s a switch in thinking for me. I am very focused on getting my kids what they need—even at steep costs.
But I’m convinced that if I respect my kids’ need to be part of something larger than they are, and I set up lives that accommodate that need, then I, too, will feel more like I’m part of something bigger than myself. And we all need to have that feeling – not just parents, not just kids, but everyone.