What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Teenagers Crave Purpose

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

Job Experience Could Be A Solution

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.

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The Difference That Difference Makes

Here’s what comes with the territory of being an individual.

What’s obvious to you will seem obscure to others.

This can be a source of great irritation and inconvenience in relationships.

It can also be a source of great purpose and power.

The difference is mostly a matter of decision.

In a talk I gave called “Dreams Don’t Come True, Decisions Do,” I make the following observation:

If everyone was inspired and irked by the same things as you, there wouldn’t be much of a need for you.

You can despise the differences that exist between yourself and others OR you can embrace those differences as evidence for the existence of a unique contribution that you’re here to make.

When others say “I don’t see things the way you do,” it might be more of an affirmation than an attack.

Another way to hear such words might be “I don’t see things the way you do AND that’s exactly why we need someone like you.”

I can only imagine how terrible music, art, literature, technology, and commerce would be if everyone was turned off and turned on by the same things as me.

It’s a good thing that we live in a world where there are people like you.

I hope you see it that way too.

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Does Ideological Dystopia Await Us?

Imagine a world in which the great majority has no respect for facts or for truth of any sort, where ideological convictions rule almost everyone’s understanding of the world, where truth has become an endangered rhetorical species on the brink of extinction.

In such a world, facts would still exist, of course, and true propositions would still stand in stark contradiction of false ones, but hardly anyone would care.

The scientists would have been co-opted to support the prevailing ideological narrative, along with the news media, the schools and universities, and all the organs of respectable opinion. People who dissented from the orthodoxy, especially on such sensitive matters as global warming, abortion rights, and discrimination against various state-defined victim classes, would be convicted of hate crimes or some such thing and packed off to prison.

Too dystopian for your taste? No matter. This future is, I think, one with a substantial likelihood of coming to pass.

Some of us thought that the internet would save us from the lies and self-interested distortions of rulers and their running dogs. But experience has shown us that the internet is a powerful engine for transmitting mistakes, innocent and not-so-innocent, as well as outright lies and genuinely fake news. So cyberspace has become not a forum for sorting out truth and falsehood, but a battleground of ceaseless ideological combat where truth seekers, if any remain, stand little chance of sorting out true reports from false reports and propositions.

Some continue to maintain that truth will ultimately triumph because it conforms to reality, whereas falsehood does not. But I’m not convinced. Masses of people have often plunged over the cliff for the sake of ideological commitments, and they may well do so again, all the advanced technology notwithstanding. Indeed, that technology may be the high-speed train that takes us there.

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US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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Why We Struggle to Make Time for Solitude

How often do you take time to go out for an hourlong walk? To just sit out in nature doing nothing but contemplating and enjoying the silence?

I’m sure there are a few of you who indulge in this luxury regularly, but most of us don’t make time for solitude on a daily basis.

For some, it’s too much of a luxury: the struggle of daily existence is too close to survival level to even think about an hour alone in nature.

But for many of us, the main reason is that our brain rationalizes staying busy. We are filled with uncertainty all day long, and that drives us to try to do more, to get control of everything, to cram more into our lives, to stay addicted to technology and distraction.

The main driver of our busyness and distraction is uncertainty.

Uncertainty is woven into every hour of our lives. We are uncertain about what we should do, who we are, whether we’re good enough, what is going to happen, what’s going on in the world, and how to deal with the overwhelmingness of life. We don’t often acknowledge it, but we feel uncertainty all day long.

To deal with that feeling of uncertainty, of the groundlessness of not having stability in our lives … we cling to comforts and distractions, we procrastinate and put off the habits we want to form, we are constantly busy and messaging and more. And if we get a little downtime, we will pick up our phones or jump onto our favorite video site to watch something.

The idea of being in solitude, of having quiet in our lives and time for contemplation, might seem nice to many of us. But when it comes time to actually do it, we cling to busyness because of our feeling of uncertainty. “I can’t because I have too much to do!” “Just one more email. Just one more video.”

And yet, this constant busyness and distraction is draining us. We are always on, always connected, always stimulated, always using energy.

What would it be like to disconnect every single day for an hour? To remove ourselves from TVs, books, devices, and just go out for a walk? To not be productive, but connected to nature?

We could use the downtime. We could use the time to let ourselves recharge and be replenished by nature. We could use the movement, the quietude that gives our brains a chance to rest, the space for contemplation and nothingness.

To do this, we have to stop letting the uncertainty rule our lives. It can be with us, a constant companion, and we can learn to be comfortable with it and even love it as it is. But it doesn’t have to drive us.

The way to shift this is to create the space for solitude, even just half an hour … and then make it happen. Watch your mind try to rationalize why you shouldn’t do it, or have an urge to put the solitude off for just a little longer. Then don’t give in to that urge, but instead go to the solitude and be with your urges, your rationalizations, your stress.

See what happens when you give these things some space. They air out. They calm down. And you get nourished by the space and life around you.

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Technological Unemployment: A Self-Test

Normal people worry about technological unemployment.  Economists keep telling them to relax, but to little avail.  You can’t trust a coven of eggheads, can you?

Rather than rehash the textbook arguments, let me propose an easy way for the public to test its own understanding.

Step 1: Create a graph where the x-axis runs from 1948 to the present, and the y-axis shows the overall level of technology.

Step 2: Sketch whatever you personally believe about the evolution of the overall level of technology during this period.  Do NOT proceed to Step 3 until you have finished Step 2.

Step 3: Compare your graph to the actual history of U.S. unemployment from 1948-present.  I repeat: Do not peek until you’ve completed Step 2.

Step 4: If technology were an important cause of unemployment, the two graphs should look a lot alike: more tech, more unemployment.  (If you favor the more sophisticated theory that it’s tech growth, not tech level, that raises unemployment, eyeball that instead).

Step 5: So what do your own eyes tell you?

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