What to teach kids so they’ll do well at work


The skills that help us most in life are not the skills we learn from homework. In fact, Time magazine reports that homework is wasting kids’ time on a number of levels, and in his book “The Homework Myth,” Alfie Kohn rails against the massive amount of family time that’s lost to homework. Finally, Harris Cooper, who studies homework at Duke University, found that too much of it can be counter-productive to learning.

Ambition, self-confidence, and goal-setting are better indicators of adult-life success than doing well in school. So instead of harping on homework and test scores and insipid parental competitions over childhood metrics, help your children learn the skills that really make a difference in their future success or failure:

1. Teach your kids to persevere.
Persistence is what gets us what we want in life, and persistence without the risk of failure is not persistence — it’s monotony.

Some people think persistence is perfection, but perfection isn’t rewarded in the workplace — it’s penalized. So don’t teach your children to be perfect, teach them to try things that are very hard and not likely to go well. Then watch them overcome their fear of failure and try anyway.

You know that parental instinct to tell your kids everything will be all right, and that failure isn’t really failure? It’s not realistic, because persistence is moving forward even when you recognize that the odds are bad. So teach your kids to recognize bad odds, and help them move forward regardless.

2. Teach your kids to make decisions without doing all the research.
We all know we need goals, but most adults are hindered by their inability to commit to something big and meaningful. After all, how do you know what’s best for you to be doing at any given time? You don’t. We never know what’s best for us, because we’re limited in our knowledge. But we have to take action anyway.

Teaching your child to set a goal — even if it’s not perfect — is a great tool, because making a decision with imperfect information is a key to adult life. You can’t teach a kid to shoot for perfect decisions, because there aren’t any. But you can teach your child how to take action in the face of the information that could change.

(One of my favorite discussions about this sort of decision-making is on the blog Mind Your Decisions by Presh Talwalker, who writes a feature called Game Theory Tuesdays.)

3. Make yourself a positive thinker so you can teach it to your kids.
The biggest indicator of how happy someone is in adult life is how positive their outlook is. Adults can change their outlook with practice, and parents can help their children learn and practice positive thinking.

You can start by training yourself to talk to your children in terms of the good things they do. In his upcoming book “The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child,” Yale psychologist Alan Kazdin helps parents focus on the positives in their children’s behavior instead of the negatives. If you always focus on the bad behavior instead of the good behavior, your child will learn to do that for herself. Kazdin advises, for example, to say, “You did a great job cleaning your room — don’t forget to put the clothes in the hamper” instead of “You’re not done — there are still clothes on the floor.”

Did your child do something good? Make a big deal out of it, because as an adult, if you can’t focus on your achievements it’s unlikely that you’ll have any.

4. Teach your kids frugality.
A parent’s instinct is to provide as much as possible for their kids. This probably worked very well in the prehistoric era, when children would freeze to death if they didn’t get enough animal skins. Now that we’re dealing in iPods rather than skins, the need to provide isn’t so urgent.

The best way to learn how much you can live without is to live without it. I was forced, by a series of crazy circumstances, to learn how to live without almost all my possessions. I thought I needed so much more stuff than I really did.

It was a great lesson for me, and it made me realize that the only way to teach frugal living is to force it. If you impose frugal living on your kids, perhaps artificially, you end up giving them the freedom to focus on a future career for reasons more important than the stuff they can buy with their salary.

5. Know your own limitations.
Your children are growing up in an environment much different from the one you grew up in. The rules are different, and the measures for success are different.

So don’t find yourself stuck in old ways of thinking. Challenge your own assumptions first, in order to give your child the strongest foundation for adult life.

For those of you with older kids, here’s a list that will help you give advice during the college years.

17 replies
  1. Paul Copcutt
    Paul Copcutt says:

    Some excellent points made. We always try to end up the day with our children by asking them what the best parts of their day were, researchers have found this sets their mind up for postive sleep patterns and in terms of frame of mind the next day. Ever gone to bed in a bad mood and woken up any better?.

    The future world of work for our children is going to include so many more choices and options, this is why personal branding is resonating so much with the younger generation as the way to plan and manage their careers.

    I just blogged myself about the importance of Perseverance as a personal brand trait – http://paulcopcutt.typepad.com/pcs_weblog/2007/10/perseverance—.html.

  2. Katy Horton
    Katy Horton says:

    You are a total self-involved IDIOT. This is what I say to your post on Yahoo: This is the most vapid piece of tripe that I’ve come across on the internet in the long time. Yahoo must be hard up for traffic! Ms. Trunk must OBVIOUSLY rely on her looks to propel her forward because she certainly would not get far otherwise! That being said, I myself am overweight (although I always take care of myself and have in fact modeled for the plus-size community), and I found a few things in this article to be true. Common sensical things like ‘People judge you on your looks’ and ‘look presentable for work’. That she suggests ALL employers will hire a LESS qualified slim person over a better qualified overweight person is not only ridiculous, it’s quite frankly insulting, narrow-minded and tasteless. The condescending nature of the article and the importance stressed on looks only suggests to me her own insecurity and inferiority issues. Its sad that someone would actually sound off like this NATIONALLY in writing – her ugly and shallow way of thinking. Perhaps this is how it is in Barbie land, but out in the REAL world, the most important jobs are based on PRODUCTIVITY, charm, intelligence, efficiently. It’s easy to snidely peck away at a computer and hurl insults, much like an orangutan hurls steaming feces from its bottom, at people you will never meet; but I would LOVE to see you in a room of well-groomed, intelligent overweight people and say it to their faces. Where is your bravado then? It’s people like you that make me scared for the generation to come. Congratulations; you’ve just made millions of people hate you.

    Feel FREE to email me. But be careful, I might come over there and SIT ON YOU.

  3. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ Katy:

    “That she suggests ALL employers will hire a LESS qualified slim person over a better qualified overweight person is not only ridiculous, it's quite frankly insulting, narrow-minded and tasteless.”

    It may be all that (and those are experiential observations) BUT this claim is backed up by a large body of evidence found in research done by some of the most well-respected American researchers and academics.

    And one more point, I am not the author so I can’t say about the comment, but WRONG POST, I am afraid. That post was a few days ago.


  4. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    @ Penelope:

    The title of the post says "What to teach kids so they will do well at work".

    I think "what to teach kids" would have sufficed. Between the ages, when parents have sufficient influence over the tender psyche of a child to teach them anything, and when these kids actually get to work, a whole lot of cultural and social moderation takes effect.

    I feel the most important lesson may have been left out: "Lead by example".

    If the child sees you lying, bringing official stationery home – €˜to get even' for your unfair pay, gossiping about your colleagues, moaning about how hard your job is and how you _want_ to buy such and such useless but tempting things, then it will not matter what you want to _teach_ them. Their observation is telling them something else.


    * * * * * *

    Well, this is an interesting point about the title. It's true, I dind't HAVE to put at work. I put it there because I try so hard to stay true to my overarching topic of the blog: Work. I do veer pretty far away (sex, anyone?) but I always try to come back to work. I think for a blog to be successful you really do have to stick to one topic so people know what to expect. So this title is my nod to the idea that sticking to a topic matters. You can dance around the topic, but you have to come back so that people know where they are when they get here.

    – €“Penelope

  5. Steve Wilson
    Steve Wilson says:

    Making decisions without all the information is a good skill to develop. Rarely do leaders and managers have the luxury to make a decision with 100% of the information. Imperfect information is the reality of life.

  6. Brian Johnson
    Brian Johnson says:

    What a great topic and opinions. Completely agree with all of these, including the observations on incessant levels of homework.

    Another one that I would add to the list is “insist on personal standards.” I’m constantly amazed at how meeting my own minimum standards sets me apart from about 80% of the workforce. Basic things like showing up on time, honoring your word, and doing what’s asked of you seem to be the difference between workplace mediocrity and increasing levels of reward. By supplementing the basics with congeniality, a few new ideas, and occaisional extra effort you seem to fall into the category of top-performer.

    The art of self-evaluation is closely related. One of my greatest musical teachers always reminded us to ask ourselves “if everyone else in the group were working and performing at my level, how would the group sound?” Applying this concept to day-to-day life has had more impact than any middle-school social studies assignment I can remember.

    I think the philosophies of trying new things and am not being afraid to fail can coexist with the axiom “if it’s not worth doing well, it’s not worth doing.”

    * * * * * *
    This comment makes me realize that being a top performer is not really about looking at what other peoples’ standards are for top performance. It’s asking ourselves why OUR OWN standards do not put us on top. It’s a really interesting question, I think. And I do see how most top performers have basic standards that put them above most people without even trying to do anything but be true to themselves. This is such an interesting way of thinking about performance. Thanks, Brian.


  7. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    This advice goes smack in the face of the way people actually raise kids. While I agree with your advice, here is what I see parents do on a regular basis:

    1.Teach their kids to quit when things are hard. They want their kids to like them so they cave in when the kids want to quit soccer or Karate. They “cheat” and do their homework for them when the kid looks distraught. They kiss up and make excuses for the kids all day long.

    2.Teach their kids to avoid choices. They give them both. When faced with all the trendy “cool” toys they buy them all rather than making the kids choose one item. More is always better to these families, as they dont want the kids to feel deprived of anything that the kid down the block has, so they buy it all.

    3. Be a self centered pessimist, and treat the kids like adults who can share the burden. I see parents all the time who view the world through a glass that is half empty. They point out all the bad with the government officials, global warming and the evils of religion. They see no need to shelter kids from the crap in the world and think they are doing them a favor by treating them as adults too early.

    4. Teach your kids to spend and show off. Many parents in our society do not teach kids how to save, but instead lead by an example of over-spending to have fancy things. Many would rather have a Wii and other gadgets than college funds and retirement.

    5.Know no limits. People who act superior to all around them raise kids who are bullies and selfish. But they dont know or care that they are doing this because they are superior to others in their own minds, and thus so are their children.

    Penelope, I think you are right in what you say, but there are a lot of parents who do the exact opposite and are raising our future. YIKES.

  8. Kathryn
    Kathryn says:

    I think you forgot to add #6: Reading Skills. Being able to quickly ingest and intelligently respond to written communication is one of the best ways to distinguish yourself from the herd. Plus, excellent reading skills frequently translate into other skills and talents as well.

    I like how this post is in essence “teach your kids to be smart.” All of the elements that you mentioned could easily just be lumped together as “excellent thinking” and in that way be easily dismissed by people who consider themselves average. But really, all the benefits of being smart stem from developing good mental habits and self-discipline. So an average person who uses the habits associated with being smart will always outperform (and be a better choice) than a smart person who lacks those habits.

    Sorry that was so recursive.

  9. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:


    What a sad place you must live! I have two daughters, age 3 and 6, and lots of friends with kids. I don’t see what you’re seeing at all. I encounter great parents doing the best they can – and really great kids who are smart, active, and respectful.

    I also teach at the college level – and those kids are great, too.

  10. GreatManagement
    GreatManagement says:

    It’s not just kids, it is also in the universities.

    Employers will struggle to fill graduate vacancies because university leavers lack the right soft skills for the job.

    Team-working, leadership and communication skills are in short supply among academic students, according to research by the Association of Graduate Recruiters. The research predicts up to 40% of employers will struggle to fill their vacancies.

    Is there enough training for these soft skills in universities today?


  11. maymouna
    maymouna says:

    i have son is ten years old he don’t want to learn i am asking were can find another thing than school

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