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How Parents Can Help Teens Gain Powerful Skills for Future Careers

03/13/2013 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2013

In the "good old days" of college admissions, parents would show up at my door during the summer before their child's senior year and ask for help with choosing colleges and getting in. Except in rare cases, it was assumed that it didn't really matter what a student majored in; somehow, someday everything would just work out. There were plenty of jobs for college graduates, regardless of their majors in college.

Even Middle School Parents Want Advice about College Admissions
Fast forward to 2013: Even middle school parents are now calling to find out what their children should do to prepare for a major that will land them a job right out of college. What I hear is, "Johnny (who is 12 years old) is going to be a businessman," or Susan (who is 14 years old) is not really crazy about math and science, but we know she will have a good job if she majors in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)." Obviously, the recent recession is the culprit behind this anxiety. I don't blame parents for worrying.

Nonetheless, I am concerned about young students who are being prodded to find and focus on what they are going to do to earn a living five, eight, even ten years down the road. As someone who has spent many years providing career counseling to adults and teens, I strongly believe that in spite of their good intentions, this new parental preoccupation is NOT in the best interests of the child.

In order to help kids figure out what to do with their lives, we need to teach them 1) how to become more cognizant of who they are as people and students, 2) become aware of their natural bents, talents and interests, and 3) translate this knowledge into making good decisions about courses, activities, jobs and careers. Some ideas about how to do this appear in a blog I wrote for HuffPost last May.

What Employers Say They Want from College Grads
Another way of thinking about this comes in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Karin Fischer, "A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, but Employers Wish It Meant More." She notes that employers describe recent college graduates as having "the right technical know-how for the job" (what students get from engineering, IT and computer science, business majors), but lacking skills to apply that knowledge, i.e., knowing how to write, communicate with others, research, think, analyze, make good decisions, problem-solve, and use their creativity (what students typically learn from humanities and social sciences majors). As college students get exclusively focused on majors that offer specific technical skills, the humanities and social sciences are often overlooked.

So what can parents do to help their children develop those so-called soft skills? Here are some ideas:

• WRITING
Early on, make sure that your children take writing courses, in which they are not only taught the basics of grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction, but also how to be creative, analytical and gain an appreciation for the thrill of writing. Many schools don't do a good job with this, so look for outside resources that do. Examples include the Center for Talented Youth list of creative writing programs, online courses such as offered through Brigham Young Independent Study, Apps, books as in Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, and individual writing teachers/tutors. The most important thing is that writing be experienced as something that is personal, meaningful, creative, and/or fun to do.

• SPEAKING
As soon as you can, encourage your child to speak up at family meals and larger gatherings, in classes and before groups. If they do chime in, ask questions and for more information, while praising them for their attempts. Whatever you do, don't criticize them. Useful feedback and suggestions: okay. Criticism and disapproval: not okay. The latter tends to shut them up and shutdown.

Also, find out if there is a speech class at school or teachers who emphasize oral presentations. Look into what is available outside of school through such groups as Toastmasters Youth Leadership Program or the Public Speaking Institute, which is offered all over the U.S.

Summer schools at high schools and colleges also offer speech courses and programs.

• THINKING
During moments when nothing else is going on, set an example for thinking within your family by discussing current events, what's going on in the world, a problem that needs a creative solution or an article you have read. Do this when you're with the kids in the car, standing in lines, sitting in restaurants waiting for food, or while you're on the way to Grandma's house.

Find out what "thinking courses" there are at school. In high school, that often depends on individual teachers. Ask other parents and school officials who thinking-oriented teachers are. More than likely they will be in English, Theory of Knowledge, philosophy and other advanced courses, but you never know. Sometimes they show up in biology and physics classes.

Also look for outside opportunities such as the League of Creative Minds, Model UN programs and/or college courses at local community and other colleges.

• APPLYING TO THINKING-ORIENTED COLLEGES
When your teens are looking for colleges to attend, find out what different colleges do to encourage the "critical thinking" skills Karin Fischer mentions. Loren Pope, the late author of Colleges that Change Lives suggests that students who attend small liberal arts colleges, and especially the 40 identified in his book, are more likely to develop oral and written communication expertise, learn critical and analytical reasoning skills, understand connections between choices or actions and ethical decisions, taught how to be team members and collaborate, and develop the ability to innovate and be creative.

Not only can students gain critical thinking and other skills at these colleges, but they are likely to be more engaged in their studies! When your children put together a college list, encourage them to pay attention to the kinds of learning offered at different colleges. Defining who they are and developing critical thinking skills will help them find a major, job and career in which they will both love and thrive.

Apparently, employers think that's really important.