Route to Happiness: Fostering Initiative in Children & Adolescents
Used to describe a myriad of good things in life, including love, fleeting moments of joy, and chocolate bars, we often talk about it as a destination just down the road.
But happiness is part of a journey – and helping kids navigate the journey with courage and optimism is part of raising healthy children.
Alfred D. Souza made a great point: “For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”
Indeed, obstacles are a part of life. And often they seem endless. So wouldn’t our kids be happier adults if they learned how to overcome challenges and obstacles? These questions led me to discover the meaning and importance of youth initiative development.
What is Initiative?
The ability to propel life forward in purposeful directions, initiative directs our attention toward a challenging goal and helps us overcome obstacles. It encompasses both an inner energy and an outer action. Initiative is an important part of positive youth development.
Initiative is developed in late childhood and adolescence through mastery experiences and relationships that help kids believe in themselves. Since initiative can be used to accomplish good or evil, it also involves instilling positive values in childhood, like kindness, compassion, and empathy for others.
Initiative is developed through internal rewards, like creativity, dignity, autonomy, making a difference for others, and activities that help kids create their own futures. It is not developed through external rewards like grades, winning, awards, and money.
- Kids must choose it for themselves because it gives them “internal” rewards! Examples include music programs, service-learning, and a myriad of other after-school activities.
- The activity must take place in an environment that contains rules, challenges, and complexities inherent in the real world. They must face intellectual, interpersonal, and intrapersonal challenges that go beyond grades, winning a game, and other external rewards.
- The activity must be sustained over a period of time. Rather than doing lots of activities, it is better to focus on a few for longer periods of time so kids learn to persevere despite challenges.
- IQ accounts for less than 25% of life success. Emotional intelligence, including initiative, accounts for the rest.
- Boredom is the antithesis of initiative. Both honor students and those involved in delinquent activities report the highest levels of boredom in the U.S., many more than 50% of the time.
- Kids who lack initiative are more prone to depression.
- Children and adolescents with high levels of initiative spend twice as much time in hobbies and sports than kids with low levels and they spend more time with their families.
- Traditional classrooms and homework, activities that account for more than 30% of kids waking hours, have limited potential for experiencing initiative.
Communication Tips that Foster Initiative in Children and Adolescents
- When children blame, moan, or whine, turn it into an opportunity to find out what they care about! Uncover hidden convictions that can fuel initiative and action in the world.
- Shift from a language of “Prizes and Praising” to a language of “Ongoing Regard.” Instead of giving praise for all the things children “do,” communicate appreciation for who they are.
- Help kids learn to solve their own problems and navigate obstacles. Allow them to fail. Be a mentor in the process!
How Parents and Educators Foster Initiative through Mentoring
- Be on the sidelines to help facilitate children’s learning.
- Encourage children to get back on their feet after a fall – because you believe in them.
- Be a helpful guide as children identify challenges, reflect on their choices, arrive at decisions, adjust strategies, and plans next steps. Listen and encourage.
- Be a role model. Show them how you get things done but don’t do things for them that they can do for themselves.
I plan to spend a lot more time discussing the topic of initiative and other character strengths in future blog posts. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences as parents, educators, and mentors of young people. How have you fostered initiative in children? What kinds of activities bring the highest internal rewards? Why? How do classrooms foster initiative? Lots to discuss! Stay tuned!
Adlai-Gail, W. S. (1994). Exploring the autotelic personality. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 1-26.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life (1st ed.). New York: Basic Books.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Hekmer, J. M. (1996). Exploring optimal personality development: A longitudinal study of adolescents. Dissertation, University of Chicago.
Larson, R. W. (2000). Toward a psychology of positive youth development. American Psychologist, 55(1), 170-183.