I didn’t grow up with any beliefs, or so I thought. From a religious or spiritual perspective, our family didn’t align with them. We weren’t overly patriotic; we didn’t study philosophy, and there was no family motto besides a few funny phrases my grandpa would say.
When I got to college, I was dating a girl who went to a devout Christian university down the road from where I was studying. I spent time with her friends, who were mandated to attend chapel services three times a week. They would talk about the chapel topics, usually stories and characters from the Bible when we'd hang out. I had no idea what they were talking about, having never cracked open a Bible once in my life. Suddenly, I felt insecure about my family’s lack of religious certitude or affiliation.
We didn’t have any stated creeds or theology- but we had clearly formed beliefs. We believed in putting our family first. We believed in service to others. We believed in hard work paying off, trying our hardest in every situation, and that we could fix any problem given enough determination. It took me years to realize that not only did I come from a firm foundation of beliefs, but they continued to propel my life and undergird everything I did.
What you believe shapes who you become. Your beliefs shape how you see the world and how you interact with it. They form the foundation of your identity, how you understand your purpose and interact with the world, and the quality of relationships you build.
Not only do we all have foundational beliefs about how the world works, but we also have the opportunity as we grow up to find and align ourselves with a larger story. This overarching belief can both organize our lives and fuel us to grow, learn, and contribute. Whether you find that story through a religious framework or not, the benefits are the same- you implicitly know that your life matters, you have something to contribute, and the world needs you. In other words, life is not about you. It’s not about your comfort or preferences; it’s about giving yourself to a more significant cause.
When students (or anyone) lose sight of something big to believe in- it affects everything. It impacts their mental health, motivation to work hard in school, ability to make healthy choices, and hope for the future. Schools work so hard to promote self-directed learning and motivation through instructional practices, but they forget the greater human need to find an overarching worldview.
Parents, families, and communities do their best to pass on their beliefs to the next generation. Through wisdom that comes with age and life experience, they want the next generation to see the world in similar ways. But the question is: how do you effectively pass on your beliefs?
It starts with knowing which questions to ask. It can feel counterintuitive, though. Most parents and teachers will default to a lecture format. They feel anxious about kids getting beliefs ‘wrong’, so they lecture, cajole, and sometimes threaten. However, in my experience, teenagers need a safe environment to explore views independently. They need an opportunity to test out ‘wrong beliefs’ for themselves, without fear of the adults in their life getting mad at them.
It’s almost as though any attempt to force your beliefs on the next generation guarantees the opposite: rebellion.
Here are a few prompts to help students (and you) clarify your core beliefs:
If you work with students or are a parent, it's critical for you to share with them what your core beliefs are and where they come from. Students need challenging opportunities to define their own beliefs and what they mean. These are questions we CAN expect them to answer by the time they graduate and move into the world on their own if we expect them to.
Eventually, I did find a religious framework that resonated with me. For the past twenty years, it’s informed my decisions and shaped my work in the world. I’ve also learned to integrate that system with the foundation I grew up with. In times of uncertainty or crisis, my beliefs have given me clarity and strength to make wise choices. That’s something we want for every kid growing up.
Summary: everyone has beliefs, even if they don’t consider themselves religious. Beliefs are formed unconsciously through our family of origin and life experiences. Sometimes, we have beliefs that won’t lead us to a flourishing life. Sometimes, we have beliefs that are inconsistent with our values. Everyone needs to reflect on their own beliefs, to scrutinize and examine them. If they don’t work for you or are incongruent with your values, look for different beliefs. Can you imagine what someone would miss out on if they didn’t have clearly defined fundamental beliefs?
For years we’ve been studying what a young person needs in order to transition into a healthy, thriving adulthood.
They're uncommon sense ideas, really.
Download this checklist and use it with your students (or kids).