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November 10, 2015 8:30 AM EST

Quick, what’s the meaning of life?
Many of us may not be able to answer that off the top of our heads. But that doesn’t mean our kids don’t have questions—or need answers.
“The sense that your personal life is meaningful to you is a cornerstone of psychological well-being,” says Michael F. Steger, director of the laboratory for Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University. Not only that, it is “tightly tied to being happier, more positive, more confident, more caring, more helpful, more resilient, and more satisfied in your life, relationships, and work.”
But helping your kids find meaning doesn’t mean parents have to crack all life’s ancient mysteries, Steger says. The trick is to understand the difference between the meaning of life and the meaning in life.
“We do not have to start with the biggest and most troubling questions about our lives,” Steger says. “We can start with trying to figure out how, today, right now, we are going to do one thing that makes the story of our lives more positive, or makes a positive difference to someone else.”
With elementary age kids, Steger says, “at the most basic level, our best hopes for our children are that they feel their lives matter and that they make a difference.” To start conversations along those lines, says Steger, “You can ask questions about what they think their best qualities or strengths are, whether they have good relationships with other people, whether they care about others. You can ask them about times when they have made a difference, made someone feel better, felt appreciated for doing something, or helped someone out. All of these kinds of questions can start a conversation about your kid’s unique way of being in and contributing to the world.”
In middle school, says Steger, “kids are being exposed to ideas, behaviors, assumptions, and priorities that might be completely different from the ones they have always assumed were true.” So for kids this age, parents can “start conversations focusing on how your children’s sense of who they are, how they relate to others and what life is” have been changing.
By high school, according to Steger, “we hope our children see how much their lives matter, see that they are at the beginning of a compelling and strengthening life story, and have some inklings about purpose.” But the question of “What do you want to do with your life?” is too big for a single conversation, says Steger. Instead, he encourages parents to have “frequent, smaller conversations with their kids about how they view themselves and their lives, and what kind of impact they would like to make.”

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