As usual, I caveat this essay too with the disclaimer of being a non-expert in the field of parenting or education. My opinions are from the experiences with our education system and of being a father who has not done a very good job with his son hence the essay for other parents who may do better.
I will detail out some of the traits and characteristics which children/youth must have before they step into the work place irrespective of the kind of education they have and the burden of helping children pick up these is with parents and they must work with the school system to implement whatever is possible in the school system:
1. Critical Thinking:
I guess objective of reading by children is to remember the stuff they are reading and reproduce as and where required. I don’t know if Critical Thinking is taught in schools these days but this is an area where there is vast amount of good quality literature available for parents to access and provide to their wards.
a. In general:
Critical thinking is not just memorizing or gathering information and knowledge but is making logical and creative connections to build upon these inputs to the brain to reach conclusions on any issue or problem that seizes the mind.
b. While reading:
Reading a document and also thinking about every word or sentence that the child is reading is important. I have found first hand that some near geniuses are pretty slow readers especially when it comes to stuff which are science/math/logic heavy. The reason being that they digest and think about every word they read and debate within their own minds about the subject matter, what the writer or author intends to say, whether there are biases in assumptions, hasn’t considered contrary arguments and whether they agree with it, does it make sense etc.
c. While listening:
This is a corollary to the above and involves deep and active engagement and focus on the speaker and asking open minded questions to to gain insight by separating facts from assumptions and arriving at ones own conclusions on the subject.
d. First Principles Thinking:
This was pioneered by Aristotle over two thousand years ago, when he defined a first principle as “the first basis from which a thing is known” Its synonymous with Elon Musk today. This requires breaking down everything you are trying to understand down to the basic fundamentals. All super achievers have a mastery over the basics and you may need to go only a few levels deeper than most others to get the benefits out of this type of thinking process. This cant be taught at school since systems are not geared to teach this way. This will be either self taught by driven and motivated kids like Elon musk must have been or needs lot of involvement from parents at early ages of children. Parents would need to make the time to satisfy the innate curiosity and drive of kids to understand the world. This is inherent in every human being till external influences suppress or smother it. This is especially relevant for those blessed with “Gifted and Talented” kids as identified by programmes of various school systems or the parents themselves. We have seen many examples in India of parents who have given up their own careers to homeschool and teach gifted kids with great degree of success.
2. Decision Making-Financial and otherwise
The world when we were growing up was pretty simple and choices were limited. Today the youth and kids are bombarded with a huge plethora of choices and academics does falls short for children in this area. Indian parents tend to make all decisions for their kids till the kids are well into early twenties. Kids need to be trained to use a basic version of decision tree analysis to figure out decisions they need to take on their own for everything relating to their day to day routines and major ones like choice of education and career etc. For training their minds early, kids need to be involved in every major and minor decision around the household where there is some process followed for selecting the best possible outcome for the household. This maybe some CAPEX decision like buying a TV, Automobile, Consumer durables or OPEX decisions like buying day to day stuff for the household. Kids must learn to analyze, decide and transact with the world. This happens by default in case of the poorer socio-economic strata but not so much in case of the middle and upper economic strata. Learning financial skills early as a subset of Decision Making is very important for youngsters since the treatment of kids like “Little Emperors” with most of their demands being fulfilled on demand are a recipe for lack of understanding budgets, financials and a spendthrift attitude which may result in accumulation of unwarranted levels of debt and financial burden in their future. Not everyone can be a Warren Buffett who purchased his first stock at 11, first plot of land (40 acres) when he was 15 and did all kinds of odd jobs as a kid including that of selling soda crowns, newspaper delivery etc but there is a lot to learn from lives of such people. There are many good biographies of this great man which could be read out to children or read together with the parents.
3. Problem Solving
I found the Written Analysis and Communication course taught at IIM Ahmedabad pretty useful given its structured approach at situational analysis, problem definition, setting of objectives, criteria for evaluation of alternatives, generation of alternatives, decision on an alternative keeping in mind the objective and the criteria and a contingency plan in case the selected plan of action doesn’t work out. This is something which must be taught to children in schools or at home with case studies of problem situations they are likely to be interested to analyze and solve. The Kepner Tregoe method ( KT-method) is a good problem analysis model for problem solving which was developed in the 60’s and which we were trained in our jobs when I joined the corporate sector. The corporate sector also taught us stuff like Eliyahu Goldratts Theory of Constraints when we were into our mid twenties.
I am sure these frameworks can be all used in the context of kids if the parents have the background to understand and use these methodologies for problem solving. For others who may not be technically minded could set up small workshops like areas for their kids in their homes with basic toolkits for them to tinker with items at home which they could try to dissemble and assemble (wherever possible). Even more simpler would be to have their kids spending time with Electricians, Plumbers, Masons, Carpenters, Mechanics(tractor, automobile, engine etc) or any manner of skilled person who families interact with in rural or urban areas. Kids could be deputed to see their day to day work and how they solve problems for which they are approached by households. One of my genius batchmates at IIMA has an amazing mind which could top at academics, has fluency in half a dozen languages, picked up playing most musical instruments in a matter of days etc. His mind was shaped by his electronics engineer dad who got him to work as his apprentice at an early age to help him build all the electronic PCBs etc at a small workshop at home. So from early age till his 12th standard, he became a master at electronics and communication devices and parts at home itself though he graduated in statistics despite a good rank at JEE. His early training shaped his mind and made his mind critical, creative and solution oriented.
When I was young I have seen farmers virtually acting as assistants to the village carpenter while their bullock cart or plough or whatever item was being made or repaired by the craftsman. Both the farmer and the carpenter would have a debate around what was the best solution to solve whatever the problem that was existing. Same was the case with the farmer and the tractor mechanic or even the electrician who would turn up on the farm to fix things with the electric motor or wiring which the farmer wasn’t able to fix himself. The farmer would ask all these people questions as to what was the problem and how they intended to fix it and would assist all these people in their work. I found the curiosity of these simple rural folk very admirable. The Indian farmers generosity is legendary and all the service providers would walk away from the farm with not only their fees but also a bag full of fruits or vegetables that were available on the farm. (Farmers, though highly skilled at their plant producing factories, missed out on understanding capital and markets and those historical failures are being corrected with extant policies). In our transition from rural societies to living in urban areas we seem to have lost this curiosity for the work done by the working classes who provide technical services to the middle classes and above. It would be very rare for any person in the middle class or above whose family members would assist an electrician or a plumber or a carpenter or mason with the work that they were doing around his or her house. This needs to change at least for the sake of the kids.
The farmers have respect for those who work with their own hands because they do the same. The urban citizenry does not have this empathy and this has percolated down to children who have therefore lost their curiosity for the problem being solved around them by these kind of service providers missing out on valuable and free technical education.
In the western world when the parents fix things around the house the children observe and in many cases also assist which enables learning and thinking. Many middle class and above western households tend to have workshops at home where the parent indulges in largely technical work where children are allowed to assist and learn. I have seen many households in the west have highly technical hobbies an example of which is maintaining a full fledged miniature railway system either at their homes or in spaces outside their homes. Kids who participate in helping parents with these kind of hobbies develop very useful technical problem solving skills. In one of his interviews to media, Jeff Bezos credits being resourceful and solving problems to the work that he did with his grandfather on his ranch in Texas. Bezos has mentioned about his grandfather being wise and resourceful enough to do most of the work on ranch by himself. Bill Gates and Paul Allen spent time tinkering after school hours in their school lab and that resulted in Microsoft corporation.
We need to bring this the western style tinkering culture into families and borrow from our own rural culture which has engagement of our farmers with service providers to enable our kids to become tinkerers and innovators. Even the smallest of houses or huts could accommodate a separate space for kids to tinker with mechanical, electronic and other stuff.
Both oral and written communication are extremely critical and important skills. Parents must make special efforts to ensure kids are comfortable in speaking before a small family and friends audience (can be large eventually) and also in written communication. I find the younger lot a little challenged in terms of oral as well as written communication despite the plethora of tools at their disposal today. We were dependent on Wren & Martin for our art of crafting sentences that made grammatical sense. This area needs focused attention by parents because the schools can pay only so much attention to each individual and only a small percentage of students are involved in activities like debates, oratory competitions etc.
While physical education is taught in most schools which may include sports, yoga, gymnastics, swimming etc, meditation is not taught in most schools. There are many techniques and choices could be offered to kids who may take up whatever parents have adopted as a part of their lives. Meditation is important for mindfulness, humility, introspection, observational skills, focus and many such traits which are outcomes of someone who turns inwards on a regular basis. These qualities would in turn aid critical thinking since the mind sees reality as it is as it trains the mind to stay in the present and mindful rather than flitting between the past and the future like it keeps doing on a regular basis.
Points 1 to 5 have intersections and linkages with each other.
6. Integrity and discrimination between right and wrong/good and evil:
As a youngster it is very easy to take shortcuts by lying and cheating at exams, picking on other kids and many other things which are on the thought-words part of the evil spectrum as outlined in my last post. This is also an area where parents have to carry the heaviest burden and it is from them that the child will learn about integrity as well as discrimination. As Indian parents, for social socio-cultural reasons “aap” is used between children and especially the father in large parts of India. In my opinion, there is a lot of distance due to this requirement of display of respect. In some parts the father as well as mother is addressed with the more intimate “tu” like in Maharashtra. The western world is pretty egalitarian with there being only “you” to address all ages and categories of people. We need a relationship of equals between the parents and the kids to enable them to speak up openly and express themselves without fear. The kids need to be able to point out hypocrisy and contradictory behavior of parents vis a vis their preaching and prescription. This kind of feedback loop can keep entire family on the path of good.
Parenting is a mind bogglingly complex multi decade project and needs similar kind of involvement, application of mind and hard work as in a persons education and career if not more. Bringing up a child into someone who creates positive change in the lives of many is very satisfying and fulfilling too and may probably be one level above the self actualization (highest) level in the Maslow Pyramid. I hope this helps my colleagues and friends who have kids who are in the single digit years of their lives. I am happy to assist them with more information about my own deficiencies for them to do better.