6 Skills Your Kids Need To Become Self-Sufficient Adults

The keys to success look more like a Swiss Army knife.

by Patrick Sauer
flickr / Amanda Tipton

There’s enormous pressure on kids to be successful adults. It’s the reason why Mozart and Einstein have the prefix “baby” and “little” in your house. But, the downside to all that preparation is that it’s making them mentally and physically ill. Most parents overrate intelligence and ability (to say nothing of test scores) when they should be rewarding strategies, hard work, and trust in — as Philadelphia 76ers fans say — the process.

That’s according to developmental psychologist Richard Rende, Ph.D., who co-authored Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Children The Tools To Thrive In A Fast-Changing World. He felt most of the advice out there was for some caricature of a parent “who micromanages every aspect of their kids lives”, or the opposite extreme, those who “let their kids roam free to do whatever they want.” Here’s how to find the middle ground that will ground helicopter parents, and corral free-range kids who may be straying too far from the farm. “We want parents to help raise kids who are not only problem-solvers, but problem-identifiers first,” says Rende. Here are the 6 skills your kids need to know to do for themselves.

They Should Know How To Destroy And Create

Remember Sid, the nightmare-boy-next-door in Toy Story? He loved destroying toys and rebuilding them into creepy weirdos? Well, Sid may have been a sadist and a pyro, but he was also onto something elemental about becoming a problem-solver. “Taking things apart is not purposeless — it’s a formative, foundational instinct. Being able to deconstruct and reconstruct is powerful for young minds because it is not just an abstract experience, but a real hands-on adventure,” says Rende. Using an M-80 to blast those toys into orbit may not be cool with Buzz Lightyear, but it might turn your kid into a Buzz Aldrin.

They Can Use “Divergent” Thinking

The concept behind “divergent” thinking is getting away from words like “yes” or “no,” and leave questions open-ended. For example, when you hear the chorus of “Are we there, yet?”, you can choose to either send the minivan off a cliff, or a teachable moment in between rest stops. Go ahead and have them figure out where the nearest tourist trap is. Play “I Spy” or the “License Plate” game. Or, you simply don’t have this problem, because all you see is iPads and headphones when you look in the rearview mirror.

They’re Consummate Optimists

There’s a quote in the book, “optimistic people exert effort, whereas pessimistic people disengage from effort.” In other words, if you think a situation can be improved upon — it can! While kids generally have a positive interaction with parents, research shows that negativity in infancy can impact them years later. Guess you really can’t tell a baby to stop being such a baby about things.

They Take Opportunities, Not Risks

According to Rende, successful entrepreneurs don’t take on the biggest risks, but instead use all the information at their disposal to guide the decision-making. This is where risk turns into opportunity. The goal is not to “create a generation of random thrill-seekers,” but to cultivate kids who can size an opportunity without being afraid of failing. To help them look before they leap, Rende says not to overreact (or underreact) to situations. But, how the hell do you know if you’re doing either?

Say your kid is having a tough time going to their soccer practice/gymnastics class/tuba practice. Don’t drag them into the building against their will. And don’t drop them off at the curb and let them deal with it. Your kid can go through the door by themselves — but make sure you’re also on the other side to high-five them. (This may require a stunt double.)

They Care More About Being Likeable Than Being Popular

“You know what’s a great predictor of future success? If your child is what used to be called a good egg,” says Rende. While being likeable is important, you should keep in mind, likability and popularity are not always the same thing. (See: the 2016 Presidential Election). The difference is that a likeable person is someone with a natural empathy for others and a warm disposition. A popular person is someone who will say anything to curry favor. (Mmm … curry favor.) So, are you going to raise a Ducky or a Steff?

They Have The Best Words

“Time and again [business owners] tell me young people have incredible resumes, but they can’t get through an interview because they have no conversation skills,” says Rende. It’s annoying to everyone around you that you’re carrying on a conversation with an infant. But guess what? Your kid needs to hear millions and millions of words before Kindergarten. As they grow up, start to have real, look-them-in-the-eye-conversations. And when they’re teenagers, listen (if they still talk to you). Eventually you’ll catch on to what “basic” and “swag” mean.

They Do The Dirty Work

Rende says a common misconception is that young people today don’t work hard. In fact, they’re working harder than ever, it just happens to be on things that earn them a place in the future economy. That means taking up robotics, Sanskrit, or sushi-rolling. “Grunt work, like chores, is what kids aren’t doing anymore. But, when entrepreneurs start out they do everything,” says Rende. So get your kid to do the chores and the extracurriculars. “Put it this way, in the early days, rock stars had to be their own roadies.” And honestly, do you think that Elon Musk carries his own guitar today?