7 Skills Your Child Really Needs for a Happy, Productive Life

How the science of early learning can help kids and parents, too

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What skills do children need to grow up to be healthy, happy, productive adults? That's a big question for parents, who are bombarded with conflicting advice from schools, books, and experts. Ellen Galinsky has wrestled with that question herself, while raising her own two children, and also as president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, where she researches the conflicts between work life and families. Her new book, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, includes hundreds of simple ways that parents can use games and activities to promote the development of life skills in children.

[Read 10 Reasons Play Can Make You Healthy, Happy, and More Productive]

I asked Ellen what practical lessons she learned in researching the book, things that parents can use to help their children daily. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

You're busy running the Families and Work Institute. Why did you decide to write this book, which required years of research into the science of early learning?

I started out with both the feeling that too many young people are turned off by learning, and also that there's confusion about how best to explain what children really need to know. But it wasn't until I heard employers complain that skills needed for the 21st century are not being promoted in new entrants to the workplace that I began to see that these skills actually emerge in childhood, but we don't do anything to nurture them. That was my 'Aha!' moment. I didn't end up with the list of skills that most people do. Instead, [I looked] at things that help kids now and in the future; as a 2-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 15-year-old, and a 25-year-old. You name seven essential skills: focus and self-control; perspective-taking; communicating; making connections; critical thinking; taking on challenges; and self-directed engaged learning. But you say communicating is most important, and that's the one employers think is most lacking. Why is that? I thought this generation of kids did nothing but communicate.

Simply putting out what you think or feel is one thing, but understanding how you're going to be understood is not easy. Texting is different than communicating to a business audience. [Read 5 Ways to Make Kids’ Media Use Safe and Healthy]

One way to teach children this is to have them keep a journal and write down what's important to them. You can [correct] the words they've misspelled and have them work on their grammar. You can then have them read their journal to a group, and have other kids react to it, so the child gets a sense of what he or she is trying to say and how that is being understood. You give children experience not just in the mechanics of spelling and grammar, but you also help children learn how communication is done. In researching the book, I visited a school where first graders looked at how the authors started a book. How do you get readers engaged? Did you start with a mystery? Did you tell a story about someone but only [include] part of it? They did a chart on that kind of communicating. I thought that was really just an incredible way of teaching literature.

You also say that taking on challenges is critical, but that most children—and adults—aren't prepared to do so.

A lot of my own research from the workforce is about stress. People used to think that it was important to be resilient in the face of stress—who caved and who didn't. As I looked at the research, I realized that we don't want children to just be resilient in the face of stress, we want them to take on challenges. The world is changing so fast. We need adults and children who can actually take [on] that next-order problem and try something nobody else has done before. [Read Teen Mental Health: How to Raise Kids Who Can Cope]

To get children to be willing to take on challenges, parents need to praise effort instead of traits. I have a group of friends that go walking with our dogs. [One grown daughter of a friend told me] that when her mother told her how brilliant she was, it made her feel terrible. It just never rang true. Instead, praise efforts or strategies, like 'you worked hard to find the right pieces of the puzzle.'

Critical thinking is a key skill for navigating the world successfully, according to your research. How can we teach that?

You use everyday moments to teach that as a parent. In the book, I talk about when [my son] Philip decided that boys are portrayed more negatively than girls on television. 'How do you know that?' I said. 'Here's a pad of paper. Every time you see a boy portrayed negatively on TV, make a mark, and every time you see a girl portrayed negatively, make a mark.' He came back with a pad of paper that had a lot more checks for boys. I said, 'Well, there are a lot more boys on television than girls. Are boys proportionately portrayed more negatively than girls?' I just kept pushing it, and he was into it. He was doing a little research study, and it was fun. We have to teach children to ask themselves, 'How do you know if you can trust that thing on the Internet? Is it true? Does the person saying that have a vested interest?' You keep doing it all the time until your children have that voice in their head. There are so many advice books out there for parents. Why should they open yours?

As a parent, the automatic response to any book is, 'they are going to tell me what I did wrong.' I wanted this book to be inspiring, rather than a guilt trip. And I hope it is. -----

To learn about another great, guilt-free book on raising happy, competent kids, check out my recent conversation with Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness.