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Why Your Kids Don't Tell You What Really Matters to Them

And what you can do about it.

Key points

  • Adults are often uncertain of how to encourage, guide, or incentivize young people to reflect on what really matters to them. 
  • It’s important for young people to know themselves and what really matters to them.
  • An adult who understands what really matters to a student can wisely guide that student toward their goals. 
Joshbot/Mighty House of Pictures
Source: Joshbot/Mighty House of Pictures

Here’s a question: How much did your parents know about what really mattered to you when you were a kid? And if you’re a parent (or aunt, uncle, grandparent, or teacher), how much do you know about what really matters to the kids in your life?

For most of us, time with family is fleeting. We’re all busy, right? And once a kid hits 12 or 13, when you’re together, say, for that family meal or vacation, your kid’s mind can seem as unknowable as the contents of a black box.

What if there was a way to know what really matters to your kids—their innermost hopes, dreams, goals, and ambitions?

Helping kids identify—and express—what really matters to them is the first thing we do with students in our career guidance workshop. Why? Because the only way to help young people envision their future is to first help them understand what really matters to them. The unfortunate truth is that many young people aren’t really sure what matters to them. Growing up in a social-media-ized, free-for-all consumer society can overwhelm young people’s sense of self. But the problem is even deeper than that. Since all of us exist in this same hyper-info, opinion-blaring society, we adults are uncertain of how to encourage, guide, or incentivize young people to reflect on what really matters to them.

This is why we were curious about what would happen when we recently did something we’d never done before: Bring our workshop not into a classroom or youth development group but straight into a family’s dining room.

As we beamed in through Zoom, with the family of four—mother, father, adolescent son, and daughter—arranged around their wooden dining room table in their cozy midwestern college-town home with art on the walls, pet paraphernalia scattered on the rug, and a vegetable garden visible out through the back window, we asked them the same eight questions we ask students in our workshops. Questions such as: What are you curious about? What are you good at? What are your values? Who are your heroes?

The eight questions represent what we call the "Eight Great Motivators." As we found in our research into thousands of people who have work they love that supports them, these eight great motivators are the forces that inspire, motivate, and excite people, and give them direction about the vocational paths that might be right for them. The eight questions are, in a sense, portals through which people gain insights into what really matters to them.

As the family wrote down their answers to the eight questions and then read them answers aloud, the parents listened, getting to know their kids, and the kids listened, getting to know their parents, sharing the things that really mattered to them.

Some of what mattered to them were familiar and familial, like a shared love of drawing, creativity, and indie rock music. And some was unique to each family member—the daughter’s fascination with student government political campaigns, the son’s interest in how languages work, the father’s love of visual storytelling, and the mother’s dual interest in interpersonal relationships and the way people talk to each other. And, of course, there were a dozen or more unique interests for each one of them.

“We all surprised each other,” Emily, the mom, told us. “The questions gave us a lot to consider and sparked a really deep, fun dialogue.”

“So very interesting,” Andrew, the dad, agreed, admitting that despite the fact that they are “very close” as a family, “we’re not always seeing our kids the way they see themselves or the way the world sees them.”

“And they’re not seeing us the way we see ourselves!” added Emily.

Of course, it’s of fundamental importance for young people to know themselves—and what really matters to them. We’ve seen the power of this light-bulb moment in our workshops when a student identifies what really matters to them and connects those interests discovered through self-inquiry to a future they might pursue. When this happens, it kicks off a network effect. Why? Because an adult—whether a teacher, youth group counselor, or workshop leader—who understands what really matters to a student can then wisely guide that student toward their goals.

This network effect of knowing and showing what really matters to each other is just as important in a family when each family member is able to say: This is me. This is you. This is us.

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