Beyond Book Smarts

Eleven Skills Young People Really Need
to Be Successful in the Real World

by Maribeth Kuzmeski

For high school seniors and their parents this is the time of year when scholastic success is squarely in the spotlight. Soon-to-be grads and their moms and dads are anxiously watching the mailbox for college acceptance letters. All those parental admonishments to study, study, study finally bear fruit. Underlying the waiting – and the shrieks of joy when the coveted “thick envelope” finally arrives – is an assumption that few people question: Academic achievement is the cornerstone of lifelong success.
Not true. While grades are surely important, they’re not everything. Indeed, book smarts may play less of a role in their future success than a skill set that’s increasingly neglected in a culture where texting and posting have replaced talking: the ability to connect and engage with other people.
Ironically, while today’s young people are more “connected” than any other generation in history, they have a crippling ability to, well, connect. They can text and update Facebook all day long – but many of them struggle to carry on the most basic conversations and can barely articulate what they want or need. Stacked up against that reality, straight A’s lose some of their luster.
Giving parents the tools they’ll need to help their children develop a strong ability to connect with others is the focus of my latest book, The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology. As a bonus, my 17-year-old daughter, Lizzie, wrote the last two chapters.
Look ahead to the future and consider what your young adult will be like in college and, later, the job market. If you picture an intelligent kid who gets straight A’s but who is also constantly on whatever gadget he’s typing on, he may not have the skills needed to express himself properly both with his peers and adults. And that means his potential success will be limited.

Here are a few of the skills today’s kids need to be developing:

Conversation:

The ability to talk with adults. When it’s time to have a good old-fashioned verbal conversation, especially with someone they don’t know well, many kids tend to clam up. Make it a habit to start practicing with him during the morning car ride to school or at the dinner table – and put him in as many social situations with adults as possible.

Writing:

The ability to write with clarity (and good grammar). Mastering the art of written communication is truly about practice, practice, practice. Unfortunately, it’s very likely today’s teens aren’t getting all the help they need in this arena through the writing they do at school. Writing a research paper on the cultural implications of banning books, for example, and writing a heartfelt, grammatically correct thank-you note or an effective cover letter are very different beasts.

Listening:

Understanding how and why to really listen to others. How many times have you been trying to tell your teen something as she’s frantically texting a friend? Now ask yourself this: How many times has she had the exact same experience with you? A significant part of raising teens who listen is setting the example of being a good listener yourself.

“Face-the-Music”-ability:

The willingness not to hide behind technology in uncomfortable situations. For many teens the cell phone is the new, more grown-up version of their old blankie or teddy bear. When it’s time to give someone bad news, of course they’re going to balk. The challenge for parents is twofold: First, you have to help your kids recognize those instances when it’s better to pick up the phone and actually call someone or to meet with them in person. And second, you have to help them get more comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

Full Engagement:

Knowing when to disconnect from technology. Email, social networking, text messaging, mp3 players, and more have radically changed the way this generation communicates and spends its free time. The result is that often, whether it’s because they’re listening to their iPod or texting, teens don’t seem engaged with what’s going on around them.

Valuing Relationships:

Understanding why relationships matter and how to keep them. In your teen’s world, ending a relationship with someone may feel as easy as changing their relationship status or unfriending someone on Facebook. It’s a lot less painful to type snide comments or even break up with someone when you’re not there to witness the fallout.

Speaking:

The confidence to speak to a group. Public speaking is well documented as being a major fear for many. However, most of us have to do it at one point or other and it’s a valuable skill to have – even if you’re just speaking up during a meeting. Here again, practice will make perfect.

Interviewing:

The ability to “sell yourself” to potential employers and others. Make sure your teen understands that when it comes to the job market, it’s not whether you can do the job that’s most pressing; it’s whether you can get the job in the first place.

Negotiation:

The art of getting what you want and need (and giving a little, too). Negotiating is all about talking confidently about what you bring to the table. It’s about clearly articulating what you want and need while making others feel that they’re benefitting, too.

Etiquette:

Knowing what’s appropriate. During a typical weekday dinner, you might let it go when your kid accepts the mashed potato dish without saying thank you. You might even let a muttered, “Eeew, this is gross,” pass without comment. However, the same under-the-breath comment when they’re eating at a friend’s house or at a formal event can have major repercussions. Therefore, you have to take up the gauntlet when rudeness or ingratitude raises its disrespectful head.

Self-sufficiency:

Learning problem-solving and accountability. Parents tend to do things for their kids that they could, with a little coaching, do for themselves. We set up their dental appointments, for example. We call in sick for them when they need to miss a day of school. And we have a tendency to bail them out whenever they’re in trouble.
We do these things because they don’t seem unreasonable at the time and because we’ve always done them – and in the process we squander what could be rich learning opportunities. That’s why in The Engaging Child I encourage parents to view everyday life as a “learning lab,” using everything from turning down party invitations to returning clothes that are the wrong size as practice runs for their kids.

It will take time for them to catch on to the benefits of developing their communication skills outside of texting shorthand. That’s why it’s best to start these lessons long before your teen is filling out college applications.

Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, CSP, is the author of The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology.