9 Essential Skills Every Child Should Learn

In my book, I Saw the Angel in the Marble, I shared that when I graduated from college I felt like I’d been prepared for a world that no longer existed. It was quite a shock to have spent 18+ years getting an education only to discover that many of the things I had been taught had no relevance to the world I found myself in after graduation. I was trained in a skill set based on the jobs that were in demand when I started school, not when I graduated.

I have a friend who works for what was once one of the largest newspapers in the U.S. Over the past five years he has watched one budget cut and layoff after another. The paper has shown a consistent loss for the past ten years and now operates on less than half of the staff it employed five years ago. And circulation has dwindled to a third of what it was just a few years ago. Why? Because people don’t read newspapers that much anymore. With the proliferation of internet news sites, smart phones, and cable TV, there are much easier, more efficient, and less expensive ways to find out what’s going on in the world.

Who could have predicted the day would come when newspapers were practically obsolete?

The point is, we have no idea what the world has in store for the children who are just starting first grade. How do we prepare our children for a world that is unpredictable and unknown? A world that, by the time they graduate from college 16 years from now, may be totally different from the world we live in now…as different as today’s world is from the world of 1999. (See 25 things that were totally normal in 1999.)

Think about it. Just 16 years ago the internet, cell phones and cable TV were in their infancy (remember dial up and floppy discs and VHS?); Amazon was just a start-up company selling books; PCs were operating on Windows 98; Facebook was 5 years away (2004), Twitter was 7 years away (2006), LinkedIn was 4 years away from its launch (2003), and Instagram wouldn’t exist for another 11 years (2010). In 1999 we were all concerned what would happen with Y2K, and no one, in their wildest imagination, could have predicted that in just 2 years terrorists would flatten the World Trade Center.

How do we prepare our children for such a rapidly changing future? By teaching them to adapt, to deal with change, and to be prepared for anything. This requires focusing on different skills than we were taught to focus on. This requires an entirely different approach to child-rearing and education. It means leaving our old ideas at the door, and reinventing everything.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at nine essential skills that will help best prepare our children for any world of the future…nine skills that best prepare them to live and work in a world that never stops changing.

The 9 Essential Skills

1. The ability to learn on their own. What we want most for our kids is that they be able to teach themselves anything. Children are natural learners until we adults make them believe that they can’t learn on their own but need to have someone else teach them. Self-learners can adapt to any economy or world situation because they are able to teach themselves what they need to know when they need to know it. Anyone who’s gone through the three year old “whys” with a child understands that asking questions is the primary way children learn. So we need to encourage questions, even the hard ones like “Why would a loving God let innocent people die?” Kids are natural question-askers. All we need to do is make sure we don’t discourage their questions and we point them in the right direction to find the answers.

2. The ability to solve problems. Anything new that we face…a new skill, a new environment, a new need…is simply another problem to be solved. Don’t immediately solve all your child’s problems. Teach your child to solve problems by modeling simple problem solving, then allowing the child to solve easy ones on his or her own. Eventually, your children will develop confidence in their problem-solving abilities, and once that happens nothing new will intimidate them.

3. The ability to manage tasks. I’m always amazed at how many adults I know approach life from a last-minute, deadline-driven stance. The only way they know to tackle any task or project is to put it off as long as possible and then make a super-human, last-minute effort to get it done. I’m convinced that, as children, many of these adults were never shown how to manage the work-flow of a project and weren’t taught to practice good task-management skills. I’ve also noticed that many people don’t realize there are three parts to any task–preparing to do it, doing it, and cleaning up after doing it. Just teaching our children that one, simple concept makes a world of difference.

4. The ability to apply passion. The root word of emotion means “movement” and emotion is what “moves” us or drives us to do certain things…not rationale, not goals, not discipline, not external motivation, not reward … but passion. The reason so many people lack creativity is that their interests were squashed when they were younger. Help your children find the things they are passionate about. Let them try a lot of different things, find the ones that excite them the most, and help them really enjoy them. Feed their interests, don’t discourage them.

5. Independence. Stephen Covey teaches what he calls “the maturity continuum.” The natural progression of maturity is to move from dependence to independence to inter-dependence, despite what “helicopter parents” may believe. Kids should be taught increasing independence. Slowly encourage them to do things on their own. Teach them how to do it, model it, help them do it, then let them make their own mistakes. Give them confidence in themselves by letting them have many successes, and letting them address and solve their failures. Once they learn to be independent, they won’t need a teacher, a parent, or a boss to tell them what to do. They can manage themselves and figure out the course of their lives on their own.

6. The ability to be content on their own. Children who aren’t taught to be happy alone will grow up to rely on the presence of other people and other things for their happiness. They can’t stand to be alone and attach themselves to friends, girlfriends, or virtual social interaction (video games, Facebook, e-mail, texts, the internet) in order to feel content. But if a child learns from an early age that he can be happy by himself, playing and reading and creating and imagining, he is going to be fairly immune to peer pressure and the need for “things” to make him feel satisfied with his life.

7. Compassion/Empathy. In previous newsletters I’ve written articles about diminishing empathy in our society. Empathy is one of the most important traits of being human and it is an ability that is being constantly undermined by our culture. We need empathy to work well with others, to care for people other than ourselves, to be happy by making others happy. We can not only model compassion to our children, we can encourage them to consider how others might feel in a variety of different situations.

8. Tolerance. I am grateful that when my boys were growing up they had the opportunity to travel a lot and to do musical theater and mission work. Why? We lived in a predominantly white, Protestant town with an all-white, Protestant home school organization and we attended an all-white, Protestant church. So without travel, the Cumberland County Playhouse and mission work, they would have never had the opportunity to cross paths with people of all ages with all sorts of economic backgrounds, mental conditions, sexual preferences, worldviews and cultures. Too often we grow up in an insulated Christian environment with people who are like us and when we come into contact with people who are different, it can be uncomfortable or even shocking. You don’t have to be politically correct, but try to expose your kids to people of all kinds, from different races to different sexuality, values, economic status and mental conditions.

9. The ability to deal with change. One of my mother’s favorite sayings when a tragedy would occur was, “This too shall pass.” As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen that not only do life’s tragic circumstances pass but the happy ones do too. The world is always changing, and being able to accept and deal with the change and navigate its flow is one of the most important things we can teach our children. You can model this skill for your children at every opportunity by being flexible, by showing them that changes are OK and can be adapted to, and that every change brings with it new opportunities.

Life is an adventure and things will go wrong, turn out differently than you expected, and frustrate whatever plans you made but things can also work out better than you could have ever imagined — and that’s part of the excitement of it all. Because we can’t possibly know what the future will bring, we can’t give our children a set of information to learn or lock them into a career to prepare for unless we also give them tools for adapting to change. We can prepare them to be adaptable, empathetic, tolerant lifelong learners and problem-solvers.

And, hopefully, in about 20 years they will thank us for it.

(Portions of this article were adapted from Leo Babuta’s Zen Habits blog.)


  1. Excellent article! All 9 points are life skills that cannot be taught if we are bound to a traditional educational model. The freedom that schooling and life affords each one of us should be thoughfully planned out, and then lived out.

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