Significant Results

Using research findings to tell a more positive story.

Why Kids Should NOT Learn Skills

In our attempt to save kids from pressure we are crushing them

When I was a kid there were certain skills I was expected to learn. They included cutting my own steak with a sharp knife, learning how to work a circular combination padlock, learning to swim and ride a bike, how to approach a strange dog, and some very basic first aid. I also had a list of more academic skills which I was supposed to master. These included multiplication of small numbers, spelling words correctly, writing in cursive, and lining up alphabetically with my classmates. And that was pretty much it. The rest of the time I was mostly left to my own devices, to go where I wanted and do what I pleased so long as I fulfilled two basic requirements: "be home by dinner" and "don't get into trouble."

Now, decades later, I have kids of my own and I have watched them do grow from fat little babies into sweet children into capable teenagers. As any parent of children in the current generation can tell you life is different today than it was for those of us raised in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. There are obvious differences such as the ways kids seem to have an almost supernatural ability to interface with technology of all types. But there are psychological differences as well.There is little question that children today face enormous psychological pressure that seemed not to burden their forebears. In fact, rates of childhood anxiety and depression are on the rise and many educators note a rise in perfectionism among their high-achieving (and high strung) students.

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Interestingly, kids these days are being asked to learn more skills than at any time in history. Not only do they have to know how to cut their own steak but they also have to become adept at texting and learn how to ace standardized tests. They are also expected to have a range of skills relating to emotional awareness and intelligence as well as social acumen. I believe that the fundamental difference between me and my peers during our childhood years and our counterparts today is that we were expected to be children. There was no one expecting that we would be capable of assertiveness, or have the social tools necessary for dealing with bullying, or know our own limits where time management or attention were concerned. In short, kids these days are being asked to master the types of skills that most contemporary adults have not yet mastered. Could it be that part of the crush that children feel is the burden of being held accountable for an ever increasing set of skills?

To be clear: I understand that writing a post on why kids should be let off the hook for anti-bullying skills and assertiveness might be less than popular. So let me clarify that I am not arguing for less assertiveness, more bullying, lower academic standards or descreases in emotional intelligence or self-awareness. Instead, I am merely raising the question of whether these issues are best addressed programmatically? It has become de rigeur to teach children skills to cope with every possible challenge they might face. Skills programs abound. It could be-- just maybe-- that many of these very same issues were addressed for former generations through more naturalistic means: the kids for whom the problems were the most pressing and relevant were the one's that received the lion's share of the intervention and sometimes authorities stepped back and let kids figure out solutions for themselves. I do not argue that the hands-off approach of my youth was more effective than the programs of today but I do think that an unintended consequence of all these skills programs is an implicit focus on more personal responsibility and higher achievement, which amounts to more pressure.

I should also be clear that I am not a hopeless nostalgic who beleives the days of yesteryear had a brighter luster than do the tarnished times of 2012. When my grandmother speaks of abandoning her pet dog during the depression or my parent's speak of the social upheavals of the 1960s I don't get a sense of nostalgia. I do not buy into the romantacized vision that the past was simple and good and that the present, by contrast, is harsh and complicated.

In the end, I think the question is not whether adults want to equip their children with tools needed to navigate an increasingly complex world. I beleive the root issue is a matter of how those skills are presented to and understood by children. Are we creating skills programs in which trial and error and failure are accepted as inevitable and important? Are we creating skills programs wherein children have a clear understanding that they will gain proficiency not over the course of several afternoons but over several decades? In short, are we creating programs that mimmic the arhcitecture of real life, in which different kids recieve different information at different times and in different amounts, and in which they are expected to struggle, make mistakes and learn over time? Allowing for more individualism, more failure, and more self-generated solutions might be a terrific pressure-relief valve for chidlren who are already have enough pressure to succeed in life.

Robert Biswas-Diener is a happiness researcher and adventurer.

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