There are many words for purpose: dreams, goals, vision. Fundamentally, to find our way, we need to know where we are going. As an educator, I understand that fostering purpose empowers students to become autonomous learner. And more importantly, it helps kids grow into well-rounded adults.

Many confuse fostering a child’s sense of purpose with making that child feel special. Unfortunately, being labeled the “chosen one” can have a negative effect on developing functional goals. When free of such pernicious myths, kids don’t care if they’re special—instead they naturally seek out how they can be useful, how they can be truly helpful.

Babies need to see themselves as the center of attention in order to survive: feed me, shelter me, me, me, me. That’s healthy, because infants cannot take care of themselves. Yet, as they grow, kids are hardwired to progressively break out of parental dependency and do more for themselves. Unfortunately, the overzealous comforts our culture demands can stifle a child’s natural inclination toward independence.

Autonomy by itself does not provide purpose, however. Different forms of independence can still prove selfish. Self-reliance is just the doorway to being truly helpful to your family and community.

We’ve all met “driven” people who act completely self-centered. A selfish visionary is never healthy. On the other hand, purpose with the right balance of humility, thoughtfulness and self-assurance not only leads to individual genius, but also contributes to collective brilliance.

This takes us back to evolution. We evolved to find purpose with the survival of our tribe. Once we understand that, we can understand what truly motivates our kids—and ourselves.

This is one challenge with conventional schooling. There’s no innate sense of greater purpose in getting good grades. You could argue that good grades lead to college, which could eventually lead to a job that does help people. But such far-reaching goals are too abstract to be good motivation for the average seven-year-old.

Grades do not build a chain of wisdom one link at time, nor do they appeal to the natural instincts of a child. But when you tell a kid, “Go catch a fish and bring it home to the family for dinner,” they instantly understand. When that fish is frying in the skillet, while everyone’s waiting to eat, the kid who caught it beams with pride. It’s like our bodies and minds function optimally with a life attuned to natural environments. Go figure!

As kids grow older, their purpose naturally abstracts to encompass more than the everyday. Ideally, it extends beyond their lifetime and for many generations into the future. A vision where they care for more than just people, they also tend to nature and the more-than-human world. In order to reach so far, we must allow our kids to cultivate the foundations that come from finding purpose in simple moments. Let them know: the family needs a fish for dinner.

-By Tony Deis

MISSION – Purpose Debrief
The Trackers Earth community lives by three purposes. If your child has been to our camps (or if they are a kindred adventurer), it might be useful to discuss these and see how they fit into their understanding of the world.

Purpose beyond self-centeredness. For family and village.
Purpose beyond human-centeredness. For diversity and the more-than-human world.
Purpose beyond our lifetime. For many generations into the future.