The 21st-century life skills our children will need include more soft skills. Parents can play a role in helping their children acquire these essential skills.
Making sure our kids can read. Teaching kids their math facts. Encouraging an interest in STEM.
Most parents in the 21st century feel compelled to make sure their kids are strong academically.
And while schoolwork is critical, research shows there are a number of softer life skills that may be even more important than academic achievement in the future.
Below, you’ll see what the World Economic Forum and other organizations identify as some of the most important skills our children will need. For each, you’ll also see tips on how parents can help their kids develop these skills — because, while schools can help kids work on some of these skills, it’s often parents who can have the biggest impact.
21st-Century Life Skills Our Kids Need
Unlike doing one’s laundry or maintaining a car, the life skills below are ones that develop over time. In most cases, it’s the way we interact with our kids and communicate with them that determines their ability to learn these skills.
A good problem-solver can wade through challenges with relative ease, making this skill not only attractive to employers but one that’s beneficial in any adult’s personal life.
Parents can play a crucial role in helping children develop problem-solving skills at a young age. For starters, instead of trying to do everything for your children, encourage them to think through their own solutions to problems they face, even minor ones such as trying to fit a square block into the triangular hole.
Unstructured play is also a great way to encourage young children to problem-solve independently. With no clear direction or guidance, children will have to come up with their own rules and ways of figuring out stumbling blocks in their chosen activity.
Critical thinking is defined as: “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.”
Parents can encourage kids to become critical thinkers simply by asking their opinions about issues they or your family have confronted. Asking kids about world events can encourage them to think globally as well.
Kids will be more eager to think critically if their opinions are received by their parents with a sense of openness and respect – no matter how outlandish their opinions are or how much they differ from your own.
That’s not to say that parents can’t ask questions, even challenging ones, to help kids refine their opinions. But a general sense of acceptance is key to encouraging kids to continue to think critically.
Knowing how to be an effective communicator is a skill that can serve one well, both in work and in private life.
Kids learn most of their communication skills at home through parents and siblings. The more we can demonstrate good communication skills, the more our kids will be better equipped to interact with people outside their family.
This demonstration can begin as soon as children learn how to talk. Don’t forget that listening is a critical part of communications — not just speaking. The more parents showcase active listening and empathy when talking to their children, the more children will feel heard and understood and treat others in the same way.
Other critical moments when good communication skills can be taught and demonstrated is during disagreements and sibling arguments. Seeing these situations as opportunities for kids to learn will set the stage for kids to gradually develop the communication skills they need.
“Collaborate” is just a fancy word for knowing how to work with others. When do kids have an opportunity to work with others? When they’re playing.
For younger kids, imaginary play best promotes collaboration skills. You can’t force kids to use their imagination. But you can give them ample unstructured time, with little intervention from parents, to play with other kids. This allows children to test and refine how they collaborate, as well as fostering communication and problem-solving skills, which, as discussed above, are also important.
Older kids benefit from unstructured playtime as well, but often learn collaboration skills through organized activities such as sports teams, dance classes, community groups, etc. Parents’ role at this stage is simply to be on hand to coach kids through the challenges of collaboration as they come up.
When thinking of creativity as a skill, try to think beyond arts and crafts. Creativity is the ability to use one’s imagination to come up with original ideas. Creativity and problem-solving often go hand-in-hand, as it sometimes takes original ideas to solve a problem.
Even in the 21st century, with the growing automation of many jobs, creativity will continue to be an in-demand skill. Although robots can perform an increasing number of tasks, they still don’t have the ability to be creative.
Giving kids access to art supplies, building blocks, or other open-ended toys can be one way to encourage their creativity. Also, providing kids with ample unstructured, screen-free time can get their creative juices flowing.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand and manage one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others. In 1995, author Daniel Goldman widely introduced this concept in his book, Emotional Intelligence, and made the case for why a strong emotional intelligence is often a greater predictor of success than one’s IQ.
Research shows that emotional intelligence can be learned and improved upon, which means parents have an important role to play in helping their children develop emotional intelligence and use it to their advantage. One of the best ways is for parents to use kids’ emotional outbursts as opportunities for connection and teaching, by listening to and validating feelings, labeling emotions, and helping kids problem-solve their way to emotional resolution of whatever is bothering them.
Someone with persistence and grit not only has the courage to take on a challenging task, but they also stick with it to see it through to a successful end. These skills are essential for entrepreneurs, scientists and a long list of other important career paths.
Parents can cultivate these qualities in their children by being aware of how they respond to failure. If a child views failure as a negative and something to be avoided at all costs, they’ll be less likely to take necessary risks. But if they view failure as an opportunity, and something they can learn from, persistence and grit is more likely to naturally follow.
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Taking initiative and having intrinsic motivation never go out of style. People who take initiative and have the internal drive to get things done require less guidance and monitoring and usually accomplish more.
A few of the ways parents can help their children develop initiative and intrinsic motivation is to use encouragement instead of praise, avoid external rewards (since they have been found to demotivators in the long run), normalize failure, and model these traits yourself.
Social and cultural understanding
As our world becomes more interconnected and countries more ethnically diverse, our children will benefit from a greater understanding of diversity and different cultures.
If you live in a diverse neighborhood or area, your child will likely pick up on differences in your neighbors. The most effective way to foster social and cultural understanding – and greater empathy – is to talk to kids about what they’re seeing and feeling. Kids are likely to point out controversial subjects or observations, which parents can approach as an opportunity for teaching.
If you don’t live in a diverse neighborhood, books, movies, and documentaries can prompt these same types of discussions. The more kids see diversity as beneficial in their world, the more empathy they’ll have and the easier they’ll be able to interact and communicate with people different than themselves – which is also essential to be a successful collaborator.
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