When engineers build something expensive and important, they try to “future-proof” it. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, future-proofing means “to design software, a computer, etc. so that it can still be used in the future, even when technology changes.” In other words, something that’s future-proof is able to adapt as the world changes.
Isn’t that what we want for our kids? Wouldn’t it be great if we could future-proof them?
We sort of can – but it requires a cultural mindset shift. What kids need from parents and teachers is the chance to become resourceful and resilient enough so that when jobs change – or evaporate – they can land on their feet. This means they need some practice dealing with disappointment, risk and pivoting.
With a society that requires schools to send home a note every time a kid falls on the playground, that’s not the direction we’re going. Treating today’s children as physically and emotionally fragile is the opposite of “future-proofing.”
For example: Kids who climb trees “dose” themselves with a bit more fear each time. They are acclimating to risk. Ground those kids and they’re safer from falling – but they’re less safe from a future that’s going to be, at times, scarier than any treetop.
Trying to prevent all childhood disappointment and discomfort doesn’t work. So, here’s how engineers approach future-proofing and how we can apply the same concepts to kids.
No. 1: Learn to adapt.
In construction terms, this means using durable materials that can handle the elements. In human terms, it means kids learning to adapt to changing, even challenging, circumstances. This is something kids do all day long in play. When one kid says: “You guys are hogging the ball. I quit!” the others have to adapt to this disruption to keep the fun going. Eventually, they do, and the play goes on. The lesson? Kids need more time to play, argue and work things out – without adult interference.
No. 2: Reinforce flexibility.
Similarly, when confronted by an insult or hurt feelings, future-proofed kids may flinch, but they don’t fall apart. If we bring up kids telling them they are so fragile they could be permanently hurt by an unkind word or deed, we do them no favors. Future-proofing kids means letting them have some suboptimal (not Dickensian!) experiences and discover they are rubber, not glue.
No. 3: Diversify.
When we only allow kids to focus on building their college-resume skills, they don’t have time to grow all the other interests that might serve them well. The hours a kid spends drawing, tinkering or exploring may be more useful in the long run than four years of French or violin lessons.
No. 4: Reduce obsolescence.
Nothing endures but change. Simply memorizing things that can be Googled is already obsolete. Learning how to come up with a new idea, create consensus or even tell a joke are “nonrobot skills” that won’t become obsolete, because the robots can’t do them. Kids need lots of nonlesson time.
No. 5: Fortify.
No one is going to sail through life without some setbacks. Kids are fortified when they are allowed to experience hundreds of scrapes, falls and even betrayals, each one building another tiny layer of resilience. Giving kids trophies as if they’ve won when they’ve lost, or intervening in all arguments as if they can’t handle a spat, take away the opportunity to survive a minor setback, see that it’s not the end and be fortified for the next one.
No. 6: Consider life-cycle benefits.
To engineers, this means to consider what already exists in the built environment rather than just tearing everything down and starting anew. When it comes to kids, consider what already exists when they are born: curiosity, sociability, resilience. Our kids come pre-equipped to take some risks and deal with some disappointments.
Our job, then, is to step back a bit and let our kids leap – and stumble – into the future.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a contributing writer at Reason.com and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?” To learn more about Lenore Skenazy (Lskenazy@yahoo.com) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.