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Lisa Belkin

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Children Are Not Ready To Cope With The Future

Posted: 10/28/2011 1:14 pm

We raise our children to live in a world whose landscape we can not predict. Like Generals who always fight the last war, we look back on our own childhoods, mine lessons of what worked and what scarred us, and then vow to make our kids the beneficiaries of this wisdom.

But the world has this pesky habit of transforming itself between here and there.

In a lecture on the changing workplace years ago, I learned a factoid that sums up the dilemma: 2/3 of professionals today are working in jobs, and certainly in ways, that did not exist when they were in school. That sounds like a stretch, but then I did a quick mental scan of just my immediate family. My husband finds genes for a living. My mother teaches law classes online. My sister does something that has to do with science research grants that I don't understand. One brother-in-law has a slew of patents for wireless devices. The other brother-in-law helped found a charter school. My sister-in-law studies managed care. I blog every day.

What to tell my children to study in to prepare them for whatever might come next?

Skills can be learned, of course, so far trickier is how to give them the emotional and intellectual foundation that will serve them best. The children of the 70s and 80s grew up in households with two working parents -- who left them more or less on their own. It will make them independent, those parents thought, but the kids felt it as a lack of attention, and now that they are parents themselves, they have vowed to do better.

Which is why no one can accuse today's parents of not paying attention to their children. We measure their every emotion, put video of it on Facebook, analyze it online with friends, applauding and reinforcing along the way. The finish line in this race is getting into college, with the car window sticker serving as proof that attention was paid, children were given all the tools to succeed, and happiness will logically follow.

Which is turning out to be exactly the wrong message to be sending this generation as they head out into the least welcoming and embracing adulthood in decades. The first wave is now looking for work (or camped out in Zuccotti Park, or being tear-gassed in Oakland) and adjusting to the new reality that the world as a whole is not going to tell them how special and unique they are.

Timothy Egan makes this point compellingly on The New York Times website today.

...For all the efforts to raise hyper-achievers, we didn't teach enough of a basic survival skill -- to find joy in simple things not connected to a grade, a trophy or a job.

What was missing in the life message of child-raising was some of the counter-cultural swagger in that 2005 commencement speech by Steve Jobs, the one that made the viral video rounds after his death. If you listen to the whole speech, it is what he says at the end that seems so apt for these years of diminished expectations. "Stay hungry," Jobs said, borrowing an admonition from the creators of The Whole Earth Catalogue, an early bible for him, and equally important, "Stay foolish."

...There were those soccer games with no losers or winners, with everybody getting a trophy at season's end. (Even if most parents knew the score.) And all those small bodies trudging home with ridiculously heavy backpacks, loaded down in many cases with SAT prep material for children yet to lose their front teeth. The summertime menu included homework camp. How fun!

...Maybe if I knew that our children would be coming of age in an economy that would crush even the best and brightest among them, I would have cared a little less about their score on an advanced placement history test, and a little more about helping them find happiness in moments at the margin. I hope many of them are doing just that -- without our help.

Have you changed the message you send your children lately? Do you regret any messages you've sent them over the years?