In the stream of operating smartphones and working social media, experiencing rigorous academics well before formal schooling, and filling up the day with multiple lessons and competitions, some developmentalists -- count me in here -- worry that we're also taking away opportunities for kids to develop the kinds of skills and values that get established early in life and last a lifetime. Part of the problem is that in pushing so hard for our kids to be "advanced" and to "achieve" we are reducing essential learning that will help kids become doers -- people who will be able to navigate what will undoubtedly be an uncertain future and in the process be primed for defining, chasing and securing their own vision of success. We don't have to eliminate all of the modern features of growing up today but we can make sure that we aren't doing away with the seminal experiences kids need to learn how to do for themselves.
In researching our new book Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World, my colleague Jen Prosek and I focused on seven reasons why it makes sense to raise a Can-Do Kid -- and what you can do to make this happen:
Kids should explore the world. Babies need to have lots of time for engaged face-to-face interaction, talk and play with adults. Kids need to be open to experiences and treat the world, at times, like a Children's Museum, where it's not just okay to explore without boundaries but encouraged. Too much structured time -- and time spent with a device -- takes away from the fundamental learning that happens during unstructured play. And too much emphasis on "academics" in the early years, at the expense of play (whether it's recess, pretend, putting on a school play), runs counter to decades of research on how the brain develops.
Kids learn by being innovative. Kids are natural problem solvers. They test out ideas about cause and effect and understand what trial and error is all about. These abilities can either be encouraged or squashed by adults. Kids need time for open-ended, unstructured activities where they take the lead. Drawing pictures, using building blocks, working with molding clay -- and any other chance for a kid to operate without instructions and critique -- help kids discover their innovative self. Parents can nurture this process by providing time for unstructured time with simple materials, and by modeling and encouraging the wonder of discovery and the joy of coloring outside the lines.
Kids profit by being optimistic. Kids who learn the power of optimism will learn how to take on the setbacks and work through solutions that may not be panaceas but are the stuff of resilience. Parents can encourage kids to talk about their challenges -- whether it's learning to ride a bike without training wheels, a hard class in school, problems with a friend -- and help them brainstorm about what can be done to identify the next steps to try to make it better.
Kids need to be opportunity seekers. Kids should not grow up in bubble wrap -- but they shouldn't be reckless either. Rather than focusing on "risk taking," cultivate in kids a sense of finding opportunities and learning how to go for them while managing (and learning from) the potential downsides in order to experience the benefits of pushing oneself. Parents can be "hand-off but eyes on" when a child wants to try to climb a tree that may be a little high. And it's not just about physical play. Make sure a kid feels comfortable raising her hand in class even if she's not sure of the answer. Tell a kid it's okay to try out for the school play even though they may be a little shy about being on stage. Celebrate the efforts and the learning rather than "big wins."
Kids should take on dirty jobs. How many kids are doing chores? Kids should experience age-appropriate ways of not only being able to pitch in but understand that you can't expect someone else to do all the dirty work. Let kids contribute to household activities (they can help how they can, without having to take on things they are not equipped to do alone) and learn how to work with others to do what needs to be done. Help them understand that the world doesn't revolve around you, and that people who learn how to do their own grunt work turn into successful people.
Kids need social skills. We keep seeing research that knowing how to get along with other kids early in life predicts success as an adult (personal and professional). Kids need to learn how to manage conflicts proactively rather than stomping and screaming to get their own way. Collaboration is a skill to be nurtured throughout childhood and parents can encourage turn taking and what it takes to work together on a project as a team that encourages and supports. Communication is essential -- talking to kids and cultivating their conversational skills at all ages pays off later in many ways.
Kids should do for others. Research suggests kids -- even toddlers -- are natural helpers when given the opportunity. If you drop something, look to see if your little one is going to pick it up and let them do it. All they need in return is a thank you. Some work suggests reinforcing a kid as being a "good helper" cultivates a sense of doing for others. Model empathy and concern and be explicit about how we can always find ways to help someone in need.
It's been suggested that digging into the suggestions on raising a Can-Do Kid will lead to "lasting results." You don't have to do away with the smartphones and the piano lessons. Just be sure you leave enough time for you to help your child cultivate all these skills they can learn at home that will serve them very well when they leave the nest.
Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, educator, consultant, and author. He has held many leadership roles in child development research and academia throughout his career. He is co-author (with Jen Prosek) of "Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World" (Perigee/Penguin Random House), which provides an evidence-based approach for nurturing entrepreneurial traits that all children will need for future success. Rende serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Phoenix Country Day School. He provides a trusted academic voice on parenting, and his work has been featured in Parents.com, Parenting.com, the Huffington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Yahoo!, Time.com, CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, and NPR.
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