Are My Kids On Track: Helping Kids Discover Meaning

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Teenagers are always up for an adventure. In fact, being a teenager is all about adventure . . . risk-taking, thrill-seeking, pushing the edges of the envelope. At least it is, in their minds . . . and maybe even literally in the wiring of their brains. But, we’ll come back to idea that a little later.

It’s the adventure first . . . or it’s what they think of as adventure. One teenager told me that she struggled with her life because it wasn’t what high school was “supposed” to look like. According to today’s media, teenagers are “supposed” to be sitting in hotel bars, drinking underage, trying to find out which friend murdered another and deciding which zombie or vampire is most attractive (as is evidenced by the movies and shows I hear teenagers discuss the most these days). We’ve taken adventure and living on the edge—to the way too extreme edge.

Teenagers are drawn to adventure. But we believe that kids settle for adventure when what they really want is something different.

In addition to the kids in the identity stage of later childhood, teenagers are also trying to define themselves. They want to make their mark . . . to be seen . . . noticed. And, in lieu of making their mark in a positive way, they’ll take any way they can get. Or, at least any way that feels adventurous. They want to feel alive. Driving too fast. Illicit drugs. Pornography. Dating a “bad boy” or girl. Sneaking out. Going too far sexually can make them feel alive. Destructive decisions often feel profoundly adventurous in the life of a teenager. We want them to find adventure somewhere else. Actually, we want them to find more than adventure. We want them to find meaning.

You may have read the book or seen the movie The Hobbit. It was a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien. In it, the main character is a small hobbit named Bilbo who lived in a lovely place called The Shire.

Bilbo loved the Shire. He lived there his whole life. In fact, his family had lived there for generations. In the very same shire. His own family in the very same hole. That was the thing about hobbits. They were actually the opposite of teenagers. They did not like adventure in any way. Bilbo included. He loved food, drink, security, and his cozy little hideaway of a hole.

But one day someone wandered up to that hole who changed everything for Bilbo: a wise old wizard by the name of Gandalf. Gandalf invited Bilbo to accompany him on an adventure. “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” (He should have looked for teenagers, rather than hobbits.)

“I should think so—in these parts!” (Bilbo talking here). “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!”

Somehow, after much hemming and hawing around, Bilbo decided to go. But somewhere along their adventure, it became more than that. The adventure transformed into what is known as a quest.

“What’s the difference between a quest and an adventure?” you may be asking. An adventure is filled with thrills. It’s fun and exciting and often daring, all at the same time. It is, however, a there and back again kind of idea. A quest, however, is more. It can be all of those things, but it’s not simply there and back again. When you embark on a quest, you come back again, but you come back changed. You’re different . . . not the same as you were before. A quest is moving toward a goal. It’s seeking, searching, pursuing. It’s not just a journey, but a journey with purpose.

By the time they get to 15 or 16 years of age, your kids have already had plenty of adventures . . . hopefully, more of the exciting kind than the destructive kind. But they’ve been there. Done that. They’re ready for more. The eleventh and twelfth graders talk at Hopetown about how they don’t want to just experience the “camp high” you may remember from going to summer camp when you were a kid. They want to carry what they’ve learned with them into their school year. They want to come home changed.

Gandalf chose Bilbo purposefully for his quest. He knew that Bilbo was ready. He said, “There is a lot more in Bilbo than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.” You could probably say the same about your teenager. You know it, instinctively, before they even do. Your child is ready in their high school years. They may be pushing for adventure, but what they’re longing for is a quest. They want meaning. They want to move out of their comfort and complacency and use their innate drive for adventure not just to experience more, but to be more.

Pick up a copy of Are My Kids on Track for more help on helping your child discover their sense of purpose.