21st Century Parenting
Preparing Kids for the Future
Today’s children have more opportunities to change the world than ever before. Teenagers are organizing global activism movements, LEGO lovers are mastering robotics and young entrepreneurs are launching successful businesses before they’re old enough to drive.
But for Mom and Dad, this fast-paced, technology-driven childhood looks drastically different from their own. To help kids thrive, parents must learn to mindfully embrace today’s modern advances without losing sight of timeless virtues and skills such as kindness, creativity and critical thinking.
After-school hours used to be filled with outdoor free play in which kids independently developed their natural capabilities as self-learners and creative problem-solvers. The Children & Nature Network has reported that just 6 percent of children ages 9 to 13 play outside on their own. Instead, stress and anxiety are on the rise in our competitive culture as many kids attempt to balance heavy homework loads with an overflowing schedule of extracurricular activities.
With the ability to connect to the world at our fingertips, Thomas Murray, director of innovation for Future Ready Schools, in Washington, D.C., notes that devices can also disconnect us from those right next to us. “It’s a massive struggle to find balance and mindfulness, but it’s vitally important. How often do we see an AP [advanced placement] kid that is falling apart emotionally? As parents, we need to recognize that kids have a lot on their plate—more than ever before.”
Salt Lake City-based Courtney Carver, author of Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More, worries that parents are creating résumés for a life their children probably don’t want. On her Be More With Less website, she focuses on living with less clutter, busyness and stress to simplify life and discover what really matters. “It’s challenging to maintain close connections when we’re overwhelmed with what’s in our inbox, or on Instagram or what the kids are looking at online,” she says.
On her own journey to practical minimalism, she gained a greater sense of presence with her daughter. “When you can pay attention to a conversation and not feel distracted and antsy, especially with young kids, that is everything,” says Carver.
The ubiquity of digital devices is a defining difference between today’s youth and that of their elders, making it difficult for parents to relate and know how to set boundaries. As senior parenting editor at nonprofit Common Sense Media, Caroline Knorr helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids’ media lives. “We can think of media as a ‘super peer’: When children are consuming it, they’re looking for cues on how to behave and what’s cool and what’s normal.” Parents need to be the intermediary so they can counterbalance the external messages with their own family’s values.
Today’s devices are persuasive and addictive. “As parents, we need to set boundaries, model good digital habits and help kids to self-regulate more—which is our ultimate goal,” Knorr says.
To raise good digital citizens, Richard Culatta, CEO of International Society for Technology in Education, in Arlington, Virginia, believes conversations about device use shouldn’t end with screen time limits and online safety. “Ask kids if their technology use is helping them be more engaged and find more meaning in the world or is it pulling them out of the world that they’re in,” he says. “Talk about how to use technology to improve the community around you, recognize true and false info, be involved in democratic processes and making your voice heard about issues you care about.”
Parents are often uncomfortable with their kids socializing digitally, but Culatta encourages the introduction of interactive media sooner rather than later, so they understand how to engage with the world online before they are old enough to have social media accounts. Geocaching, which uses GPS-enabled devices to treasure hunt, and citizen science apps provide family-friendly opportunities to engage in both outdoor activities and online communities.
“The majority of our kids will need these digital communication skills to be able to work with anyone at any time,” says Murray. He’s witnessed the impact of connecting classrooms around the world, observing, “When students learn to navigate time zones and language barriers to communicate and collaborate, they see that they can solve the world’s problems together.”
“The world doesn’t care how much our children know; what the world cares about is what they do with what they know,” says Tony Wagner, senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, an education research and policy nonprofit in Palo Alto, California. In his latest book, Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for The Innovation Era, he emphasizes the importance of creative problem-solving and the joy of discovery, especially as more jobs become automated. “We’re born with a temperament of creative problem solvers. But then something happens. The longer kids are in school, the fewer questions they ask, the more they worry about getting the right answer and fewer and fewer think of themselves as creative in any way,” he says.
“Instead of listening and regurgitating, kids need to learn how to find and be a critical consumer of information,” says Murray. Fewer employers are asking for college transcripts—including Google—as they discover the disconnect between what students are taught and what innovative skills they actually need.
While most schools are slow to adapt to the modern needs of the future workforce, parents can proactively foster the entrepreneurial spirit and discourage a fear of failure at home by offering safe opportunities for risk-taking and independence. After speaking extensively with compelling young innovators around the world, Wagner discovered that their parents explicitly encouraged three things: play, passion and purpose.
Their children were provided with many opportunities to explore new interests, as well as to learn from their mistakes. “The parents intuitively understood that more important than IQ is grit, perseverance and tenacity. You don’t develop that when Mom is yelling at you to practice; you develop it because you have a real interest.”
To create a culture of innovation, Murray encourages teachers and parents to get to know the interests, passions and strengths of today’s children “and prove to them every day that they matter.” When that interest blossoms into a passion, it can lead to a deeper sense of purpose and a desire to make a difference.
According to Wagner, this happens when parents and teachers instill one simple, but profound moral lesson, “We are not here on this Earth primarily and only to serve ourselves; we have some deep, profound obligation to give back and to serve others.”
In a culture that is obsessed with selfies and threatened by cyberbullies, it’s a tough task for parents to teach compassion and kindness. “We need to create an intentional family culture where virtues like kindness and respect are talked about, modeled, upheld, celebrated and practiced in everyday life. What we do over and over gradually shapes our character, until it becomes second nature—part of who we are,” says Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and education professor emeritus at the State University of New York College at Cortland, and author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain.
Sesame Workshop’s 2016 Kindness Study found that 70 percent of parents worry that the world is an unkind place for their kids, but Scarlett Lewis believes it’s all in our mind, saying, “When you choose love, you transform how you see the world from a scary and anxiety-producing place to a loving and welcoming one.”
After losing her 6-year-old son Jesse in the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, she attributed the tragedy to an angry thought in the mind of the shooter. Her compassion fueled the founding of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Movement to educate and encourage individuals to choose loving thoughts over angry ones. “Although we can’t always choose what happens to us, we can always choose how to respond,” she says. The evidence-based Choose Love Enrichment Program teaches children to live a life with courage and gratitude, practice forgiveness and be compassionate individuals.
While we don’t want to overwhelm kids with all the evils in the world, Lickona notes that it is valuable to make them aware of human suffering and how we can help. “Cultivate the belief that we’re all members of a single human family. Teach [them] that one of the most important ways to show gratitude for the blessings in our life is to give back.”
Meredith Montgomery publishes Natural Awakenings of Gulf Coast Alabama/Mississippi.
Common Sense Media provides education and advocacy to families to promote safe technology and media for children. They provide independent, age-based, media reviews for TV shows and movies. Each detailed review includes pertinent information for parents, plus talking points to foster critical thinking skills.
Let Grow seeks to restore childhood resilience by pushing back on overprotection, and shows concern that even with the best intentions, society has taught a generation to overestimate danger and underestimate their own ability to cope. Its programs work with schools and parents to give kids more of the independence to do the things their parents did on their own as children—bike to a friend’s house, make themselves a meal or simply play unsupervised in the front yard.
The Choose Love Movement offers a free social and emotional learning program for educators and parents. Students learn how to choose love in any circumstance, which helps them become more connected, resilient and empowered individuals.
This article appears in the August 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.