Advice is never hard to find. Good advice? Well, that may take a little more looking.
Consider, for example, the many suggestions to simply “live in the here and now” and to “do what makes YOU happy”. There are certainly times and circumstances when these little gems are just what the doctor ordered. But as pervasive, overriding guiding principles, we may be well on our way to missing the mark.
For as much wisdom as there is in the zen-like suggestion to live in the moment, there is something powerful — and necessary — in teaching our children to see beyond that. The term used in academic literature to describe this ability to imagine and value life beyond the hear and now is future orientation. In one study, the review of data from 850 at-risk teens showed a direct correlation between positive future orientation and lower levels of violence in the teenage years.
But future orientation is more than being able to answer the ubiquitous question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s recognizing the fact that there is a future and that the choices we make now will influence that future and our place in it.
In the book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them*, Dr. James Garbarino shares a perfect illustration of the power of future orientation. He describes the experience a colleague had as she learned her friend had been diagnosed with a fast-acting and terminal cancer. The friend said she was planning to drain her bank accounts and buy a fancy car and expensive clothes, because honestly, why should she save her money now? That same colleague relating the story was also working at the time as a therapist with a drug dealer. As her patient arrived she noticed he also had the fancy car and expensive clothes. And the same pointless view of the future. Unfortunately, he too was living with a terminal perspective, seeing no point in planning or preparing for the future, one he didn’t expect nor care to see.
Lacking future orientation doesn’t just lead to a materialistic lifestyle, but it makes it easy to rationalize bad decisions. Who cares if you speak unkindly or hurt other people if you don’t plan on dealing with it tomorrow? What’s the point in working hard in school if you can’t see yourself ever having a meaningful job?
Lacking future orientation can be, as in the examples above, a case of terminal thinking; not expecting to survive. But it can also be simply a myopic view of life and the world, whether it is due to apathy or a result of it, the two seem to come in tandem.
As a juxtaposition, Garbarino describes young men with a strong, positive orientation, saying: “Anchored in the future, these boys live in the present in a responsible way.” Being positively oriented toward the future doesn’t mean that they know with certainty where they’re going and what they’ll do, but it generally means that they do know what they’re about. They have purpose.
So how do we build future orientation?
Talk about the future. Not in a way that creates pressure or unfair expectations. Simply think together about the future. Dream out loud. What gets your kids excited? What do they hope for? What kinds of opportunities would be a dream come true? Dreams can’t come true unless they become dreams first!
But dreams only go so far. Help your kids to learn about what it would take to make their dreams reality. Support them as they decide which dreams they want to turn into goals. Even the goals they abandon when reality sets in (like my 3rd grade dream to become a Harlem Globetrotter) will serve them for a time to focus them on the future and the possibilities that are theirs.
In addition to viewing life beyond the here and now, kids benefit from seeing beyond themselves as well. Kids who build empathy for others, have opportunities to give service, and feel they belong to a meaningful group (family, community, church, etc.) are driven by a purpose that goes beyond themselves.
In a time when many sources try to tell our children that who they are is about what they have — the right clothes, the right phones, the right toys — kids who learn to see the world beyond their own wants, needs, and experiences realize that it’s what they give that matters more than what they have. As Garbarino goes on to say, “Materialism cannot anchor boys, but a sense of meaningfulness rooted in higher purpose and a more enduring reality can.”
Anchored in purpose. That’s what our boys stand to gain when we give them the opportunities to serve, to join with others in meaningful work, or to do what it takes to accomplish a goal. When we help them to know that they have power and purpose, they will rise as the hero in Henley’s poem, Invictus, with the conviction that “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul”.
What do you do to anchor your children in purpose and positively orient them toward the future?
Follow the Building Strong Boys Series, starting here.