Kids who have more conflict with their mothers while in the early years of elementary school may find it more difficult to find a sense of purpose as adults, a new study suggests.
“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,” says Patrick Hill, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.
“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.”
According to the study, a “sense of purpose” involves having a stable, far-reaching aim that organizes and stimulates behaviors and goals to promote progress toward that objective.
While having a sense of purpose is important to setting goals and picking careers, it also plays a key role in motivating children to develop the life skills necessary for independence—learning how to cook, stick to a budget, buy insurance, and a host of other day-to-day survival skills.
What do kids say?
The study is one of the first to show long-term associations between a child’s reports of early life experiences and whether that child feels purposeful later in life.
Experiences of conflict in early relationships with fathers negatively affected a child’s sense of purpose, but it was not nearly as strong as those with mothers. Conflicts with dads also predicted less life satisfaction in emerging adulthood.
Again, only the child’s perspective seemed to matter. Parental reports of troubled relations with their young kids were poor predictors of a child’s later sense of purpose.
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The study, which appears in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, used data from a long-running Oregon study of 1,074 students (50 percent female) and their parents, all of whom self-reported on levels of parent-child conflict in their families during grades 1-5.
“…having a sense of purpose is clearly something beyond just being satisfied with your life or not feeling stressed.”
Children and parents responded to true-or-false statements about their interactions, such as “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, which included questions on life satisfaction and perceived stress, repeated until the students reached early adulthood (ages 21-23 years).
To score sense of purpose, researchers used responses to statements such as “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.”
Other questions focused on life satisfaction and perceived stress: In the past month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life, confident about your ability to handle your personal problems, that things were going your way, or that difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?
Path with purpose
The researchers used the data set to link what children thought of their relationships with their parents to their attitudes about purpose in life as they were starting to enter adulthood.
“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,” says coauthor Leah Schultz, a psychological and brain sciences doctoral student.
“With our design, we were able to disentangle these outcomes and see the direct relationship between parent conflict 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.
“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.”
Additional coauthors are from Washington University in St. Louis and the Oregon Research Institute.