Read time 8 min
Aleksi Lumme is a research director, a designer, and a dad. Aleksi also writes about fatherhood in Finnish in his blog.
Six years ago, my own parenthood started with a storm. We were able to weather it as a family with cooperation and help from colleagues. The experience also prepared us to weather toddler defiance and other troubles parenting has thrown at us.
But the next challenge feels overwhelming: How can I prepare my children for the future of work?
As a parent, it’s easy to set the bar quite high when it comes to expectations of what I should do. No one’s pressuring me or telling me what to do, but the lack of a common model creates a problem in itself: I need to find my own model, but the stakes are high. The future of my children is at stake.
Fortunately, nailing good parenting is not as impossible as it may feel. There’s no single set of rules to follow to give a child a steady foundation. Providing a predictable environment, being present, and listening takes you 90 % there.
That being said, there are a few rules of thumb that are worthy of consideration when futureproofing a child. In this blog, I’ll talk about the skills I believe are a good bet.
Autonomy and initiative
When, after a maddening diaper circus, my son expressed his need to poop for the first time, it hit me. Getting a kid to articulate this need before it’s too late is a gamechanger in parenting. Things got even better when he started going to the toilet himself and informing me when he needs help. Autonomy and taking the initiative make things easier for the parent –and for the future employer too.
Teaching autonomy and initiative have their benefits, but the downside is, a child learning initiative will do all kinds of stuff I wouldn’t want him to. But it’s still worth it in the long run. I do not have the time and nerves to get everything done for my child, and doing so would rob him of the ability to learn and feel in control. An employee waiting for all problems to be solved for him is not a valuable employee.
Building autonomy takes a long time and lots of encouragement. It also requires nurturing the child’s ability to fail. Forcing a kid (or a subordinate for that matter) into a mold is not the way to go. Punishing them for failures based on unclear and inconsistent rules is a surefire way to grow contempt and anxiety instead of productive autonomy.
There’s one signal to look for: When the kid takes an initiative to build something themselves, or learn a new skill, encourage it. Encouraging a child to run away from my eyesight may feel scary to me as the parent, but it’s necessary for the autonomy to develop. If he wants to stack up the chairs and pillows to create a jumping platform, the word no is the first in my mind. But because the initiative came from the kid, a no would mean losing an opportunity. Instead, I need to figure how a no could turn into a yes, and...
“Yes, you can build it AND I can show you how this contraption can be built with minimal damage to you, to property, and to dad’s mental health.”
I still hold a memory dear from my childhood: the time we got to draw on a tennis court asphalt with chalk. It’s a strong memory because the situation granted me autonomy in something that I was interested in and which was a bit “wrong”. Experiences like this can be life-changing. They prove that I’m not just a subject, I can be in control. Now as a parent myself, I’m constantly trying to look for possibilities to say a surprising yes instead of a reactionary no.
Self-reflection and self-knowledge
One evening, we were watching the movie Raya with my daughter. It’s a story of a girl who loses her father (and after a long ordeal, gets him back). Due to its intensity, my daughter had a hard time falling asleep. She said she was afraid and that she felt “it” in her belly.
After a short discussion, we agreed that she could try to breathe out the fright with a long, calm exhale. She then got the idea to catch the exhaled fright and tear it apart. After this ritual, it took her just five minutes to fall asleep.
Being able to identify bodily sensations and controlling them with rituals like this is a promise of something really important. It’s a way towards identifying situations where emotions try to take control, and a method to take the control back. Rather than protecting the child from any uncomfortable emotions, could I teach her to cope with them?
Now, talking about bodily sensations may not sound like a crucial work-life skill, but I’m here to tell you it is. Our bodies are constantly sending us messages. If we never tune in and listen to them, trying to figure out what they mean, we might get dissociated from them. Dissociation is a disorder, not a healthy strategy. When you’re able to recognize bodily signals and emotions built around them, and understand what they do and don’t communicate about our surroundings, it’s possible to identify dangerous signals before it’s too late and to react in time.
Teaching self-knowledge and especially emotional control to a kid is definitely a challenge. In all honesty, my millennial generation or the generations before us weren’t really taught how emotions are made and dealt with. We certainly didn’t learn how to teach the same to our kids.
These things can’t be forced into anyone. I can only work as a gardener, creating circumstances and possibilities. And to be able to do that I should have some self-reflection and self-knowledge skills myself. Whether it’s me or my kids, it all starts with identifying an emotion and phrasing it out loud in more detail than just “I feel like shit”.
When a situation presents itself with a possibility for self-reflection, some emotions are necessary, but when the emotion is still in control, learning is not yet possible. If an infant’s brain is in full tilt, nothing’s going to stick nor happen until the fit passes. Once it does, there’s an opening for magic. The same goes for us adults: If I overreact, the moment I calm down is the golden zone of opportunity. I can phrase out what I just felt, how my body reacted to the emotions, how I feel now. In a word, I can self-reflect.
“I felt like my stomach was turning and my head was throbbing. My fingers tingled and I felt very angry. How did you feel? Where in your body did you feel that?”
Communication skills and reading
Clear signals make life so much easier. What would city traffic look like if cars didn’t have turning signals? How well would a relationship work if you didn’t have any idea what your spouse is going to do tomorrow with the kids and what she’s expecting you to do? How well would a team work if individual members fly solo and do their thing without keeping others informed?
The results would be the same as they are at my house when the need to poop is not articulated before it’s too late.
When it is, I can act based on the information and it can save me from an awful lot of trouble. You’d expect professional circles would value communications skills very high. But in reality, the ability to communicate one’s needs concisely isn’t as widespread as it should.
Therefore, teaching my children to communicate where it hurts, what they need help with, and what exactly would make them happy will be of immense value in whichever profession and throughout their life in general.
But in the end, if I’d have to pick one thing that I would love to be able to teach to my child, it would be the skill of reading. Reading teaches the brain perspectives and in essence, learning too: The ability to see more perspectives and absorb new information in an ever-changing world is and will remain vital. Verbal self-expression and communications benefit from reading immensely, too. I’m not that into success self-help, but this one hits the nail. Reading as much as possible is the surest way to succeed.
And the interest in reading can be cultivated even if you yourself don’t like it or don’t want to invest in books. Use the library, grant the kid some autonomy in picking a book, borrow some audiobooks, or download an app — replace some of that video or gaming time with a book time. Or read the kid a bedtime story, whatever suits your needs and the child’s alike.
In the end, it’s important to remember that it does indeed take a village. No parent raises a child on their own. We try, but it’s impossible. The child is socialized in society, not at home.
It’s soothing to know this. Parents have an effect on a child, but only to a certain degree. Society, everyone else, does the rest. Holding on to pressure to do things perfectly is not necessary. Just being present and trying is enough.