University of Sussex
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Meaning in life through children's eyes: the views and experiences of eight year old children in Israel

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posted on 2023-06-08, 17:31 authored by Yael Sharon
The study reported here originated in my therapeutic work with children at risk and my search for a therapeutic approach which would help them develop the inner strength to cope with their difficulties. The concept of ‘meaning in life’ as a source of strength has been extensively and richly studied among older age groups, both with respect to the different personal meanings which everyone finds in their life and with respect to the effect on one's life of possessing a sense of 'meaning in life', but it has been neglected almost entirely among children. As a result, the aim of this research was to further knowledge about the concept of 'meaning in life' for children. Due to the paucity of research with children regarding this issue, it was needed to first establish that meaning in life was at all a relevant and researchable concept for children. Consequently, the primary research questions were as follows: Does the concept of ‘meaning in life’ have relevance for children? Relatedly, what are the (dis)connections between children’s understandings of their own lives, and what matters to them, and, the adult concept of ‘meaning in life? To examine these over-arching questions, the following four sub-questions were devised: - What do children think are the most important and meaningful things in their lives? - What do children think is the best way to live life? - What nature of goals and purpose do children have for their lives and do they believe that they have character traits and strengths which would help them to fulfil their goals/purpose? - How do children's individuality and the differences between them show themselves in their perspectives on meaning in life? To what extent is gender associated with variations in response? The research adopted a Constructivist-Phenomenological approach, with the aim of getting as close as possible to the children's own perceptions and experience of their world. Thirty eight-year-old children in their third year at two primary schools in different neighbourhoods of the same central Israeli city were interviewed using semi-structured interviews. This data collection approach was complemented by two creative elements: a short semi-humorous story told at the start to set the tone of the interview, and a picture drawn at the end of the interview by the children to illustrate what was important in their life. Some interviews were carried out individually and some as a group. The data analysis method chosen was Smith's (1996) and Smith and Osborn's (2008) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). This thesis makes two original contributions to knowledge. The first is the discovery that meaning in life is as pertinent a concept among children as it is among adults. Children may not understand the concept of 'meaning in life' in as full a way as an adult might, but they do have clear and well-shaped opinions about the most important things in their lives (e.g. family and friends) and how they should best live (e.g. by helping others and living in peace). They have goals and plans for the future (e.g. Ambitions to become a pilot or teacher) and they believe that they have traits and strengths that will help them in reaching their goals (e.g. that being wise, kind or curious will help them in life). The second important contribution is methodological: the research technics developed in this study (the semi-structured interview enriched by story-telling and picture-drawing) has provided what appears to be a reliable way of generating valid responses from the participants. It could be used by researchers in the future to further understanding about how children perceive the notion of meaning in life.


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