When she was 13, Alexis Lewis invented the Rescue Travois, a wheeled cart that could carry at least two children. She got the idea from reading about the 2011 Somalia famine. “Families were forced to walk for weeks, and parents had to leave kids who were too weak to walk by the roadside to die.” Her lifesaving product could be airdropped and easily assembled.
Now 18 and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Lewis says her family raised her to be curious and to have a sense of agency. “My grandfather was a rocket scientist who worked on the Apollo missions, but he looked at STEM as learning about the world around you, not as super-complicated math,” she says. “You don’t have to be conventionally smart to solve a problem and make something really cool.”
Creative problem-solvers such as Lewis will have an edge, says Roxanne Moore, a research engineer on the faculty at Georgia Tech and director of the K-12 InVenture Challenge. As jobs disappear to automation, soft skills such as agility and inventiveness may predict success more than grades, scores or core knowledge.
“It used to be easy. We’d say get a business or law degree, but no one knows what’s safe anymore,” says Sue Ashford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.
Although there’s no one path to success, here are seven strategies that will help prepare your child for a rapidly changing work world.
Purpose doesn’t have to come from a grand passion, says Susan Cain, author and founder of Quiet Revolution, an organization dedicated to tapping into the power of introverts . “A big liking can become a deep source of meaning.” Encourage kids to explore new interests.
Even a simple project can be life-changing. Sandy Speicher, partner and managing director of IDEO San Francisco, a design and innovation company, recalls the time a group of her students were tasked with designing name tags. “I thought, ‘Oh man, a name tag feels so small,’ ” she says. But afterward she interviewed one of the student designers. Andrew, 14, said, “I learned to see myself as a leader who could create something that brings joy to others.” When she asked him how else he could imagine using those skills, he paused, then said, “I think the state economy of Michigan could use help, and also the school cafeteria.”
Nick Morgan, author of “Can You Hear Me: How to Connect People in a Virtual World,” recommends asking kids to list their 10 most meaningful experiences. This will help them understand what drives them. Have this conversation regularly because their answers will keep changing.
To foster intellectual humility, underscore that no one has all the answers. “The example I give kids is, if I think red, and I’m with someone who thinks blue, together we can think purple,” says Ken Ginsburg, author of “Raising Kids to Thrive” and co-director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Model how to listen to someone non-judgmentally. If your child comes home upset about a perceived offense, act curious and ask, “Why do you think they did that?” “Help them see the wider reality of people beyond that one objectionable comment, and build their ability to tolerate and engage with people who have different opinions,” Cain says.
When they come home with critical feedback, ask them what they can learn from it. Teach your child to observe others’ reactions to them so they can get back on track.
Practice these skills at home, too, says Vicki Algeri, head of learning at Mindprint Learning, a program that assesses the way an individual child learns. “We get used to things like siblings bickering, but pause and ask, ‘What could each of you have done differently?’ ” she says. Point out when they’ve used a successful strategy, such as taking turns.
Flip complaints into opportunities. Encourage your child to write down everything that irritates them, then consider how they might improve a product or experience. “Inventions don’t have to be a breakthrough technology; they can be small improvements,” Moore says. Ask questions that loosen their thinking. What would happen if they combined the product with something else? How could they make it more fun? Then have them test their ideas, says Ric Grefé, design thinker in residence at Williams College. “They’ll develop the ability to adapt an answer to a situation,” he says.
Sentence starters also can spur creativity, says Jeanine Esposito, founder of Innovation Builders in Westport, Conn. Listen without jumping to conclusions, even if their ideas seem absurd. Esposito likes posing the question, “What would have to be true for that to work?” To encourage kids to think expansively, ask them to identify the worst possible idea, then state two good things about it. “Original ideas come from picking the best pieces of bad ideas,” she says.
Introduce kids to real-life inventors, visit museums, browse websites such as Wired, Popular Science and New Scientist, check out YouTube channels such as Vsauce and Veritasium, or design rockets using the online Kerbal Space Program. Kids can enter science competitions, such as the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge , or read about other kids’ winning entries.
They also can participate in the Design for Change challenge, which teaches children to use the design thinking process, a way of solving problems using creative, different solutions to tackle issues such as bullying or hunger. IDEO created an Innovator page for the website DIY.org where kids can earn badges for completing tasks.
Identify experiential learning opportunities at school, too. Montgomery County Public Schools, for example, partnered with KID Museum this year for the Invent the Future Challenge. Teams of students from every middle school are building prototypes to address an environmental sustainability issue. “It’s not just about doing STEM or having a hands-on maker experience,” says Scott Murphy, MCPS’s director of secondary curriculum and districtwide programs. “We’re asking students to become global citizens who can solve global problems.”
Journaling builds self-understanding, says Tope Folarin, a novelist. “It enables you to be genuine and understand that everyone has this teeming inner life.” When he was growing up, he’d feel angry but wouldn’t investigate the source of his anger. “Something missing in my childhood was constant engagement with what was happening inside,” he says.
Olan Quattro, a painter and art teacher at Sheridan School in the District, uses art to achieve the same goal. She suggests that parents take sketchbooks and colored pencils with them to museums, then tell their child to pick a work of art to draw. “My 11-year-old son will sit in front of a piece for 20 minutes instead of zooming through,” she says. Ask them to reflect on their reaction and to imagine the thoughts of both the artist and subject.
“No matter how the universe continues to evolve, we want kids to have a firm ability to manage their thoughts so they’re not overly negative or overly confident, and to know how to take action to make a situation a little better,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do.” If your child tends to look for bad news, ask, “What’s the evidence that’s true? If that were true, how bad would it be? If a friend said that, what would you tell them?” Morin says.
Then, when they experience a setback at work, they’ll be more likely to take positive action.
“Everyone is so over-scheduled,” says Margaret Rietano, founder of the Elements, an outdoor enrichment program in the District.To counteract that pressure, she tells her instructors to let kids run with their imagination. Give your kids time and space to explore on their own, whether they take the Metro to a museum or go for a hike in the woods.
The structure of school and activities can make it hard to find ways to give your child freedom, says Anne Dickerson, founder of media training firm 15 Minutes Group. On a recent visit to New York City, she let her eighth-grade daughter take public transportation by herself. “She got on the subway and went the wrong way, and she had to figure out how to correct it,” she says. She wants her kids to feel confident that they can navigate the world independently.
“The more we control kids, the more we lower their sense of control and motivation,” says Ned Johnson, co-author of “The Self-Driven Child.” They need practice making decisions and cleaning up mistakes.
Allow discomfort, says Emily Bianchi, assistant professor of organization and management at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Her research has shown that adversity can lead to increased flexibility, gratitude and satisfaction later in life. Like most parents, Bianchi’s instinct is to shield her children from disappointment, but she says she “tries to let periods of unpredictability in their lives linger a little longer.”
Look beyond the grade-point average and imagine your child as a 35-year-old with obstacles in their path. As Ginsburg says, “if we don’t allow failure, compensation and workarounds, they’re not going to learn it later in life.”