Kids are the pint-sized kings and queens of the digital age.
Their tiny fingers fly over keypads and their eyes glow with the reflected light from the screens that hold their minds hostage. They can crush a computer game — or surf effortlessly around educational sites. “Swipe left” is a term even the toddler set understands.
But can they make a sandwich, ride a bike, or use simple tools like a wrench? Our kids are sorely lacking in the life skills department — signaling a frightening future if parents don’t grab the reins and step in before it’s too late.
These things are called “life skills” for a reason.
Both parents and schools are to blame. And with today’s parents, “easier” has been confused with “better.”
“Parents should play a big role in teaching life skills,” Dr. Ellen Braaten, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, told LifeZette. She is also director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “But we’re all so busy and stressed, and parents who are running around all the time asking their kids to get their shoes on say, ‘Velcro is great! It’s a huge time saver.'”
On both sides of the Atlantic, people see the gaping holes in the skill sets of children of all ages.
“You can have these smart, educated kids turning up for work — but they have absolutely no practical life skills,” Sydney plumber Steve Kowaleczko told the Daily Telegraph. “They’re young adults who’ve never had to do a single thing for themselves. I’m talking about [grade] 10 kids who still have their school lunch boxes packed by [their mothers], their rugby gear washed and laid out for them and toothpaste squeezed on their toothbrush every morning,” he said. “A lot of these kids just can’t cope in the real world.”
One HR professional at a large U.S. insurance company told LifeZette, “It’s very sad, really. I hire a lot of young people, most of them coming right out of college, and the number one reason I fire them is not performance, or personality clashes — they are as nice as can be — but because they can’t get to the office on time. They have no idea how to plan their morning so that they can arrive at the office at 8:45 a.m.”
Social researcher Mark McCrindle thinks that males in particular face a steep road when it comes to the lack of basic skills. He authored a recent UK report showing that traditional “male skills” like fixing a faucet, putting up a simple wall shelf, lighting a fire or changing a car’s oil are all on the decline.
"Things are no better when it comes to young people performing basic tasks," he told the Daily Telegraph. "The problem we face is that our kids have amazing digital and academic skills, but those talents aren’t balanced out with domestic and life skills. Our children can build a magnificent world on Minecraft — but many have no clue how to build a real cubby house. They’re growing up with no knowledge of the traditional skills required to become self-sufficient adult."
Said one Massachusetts father whose two sons are both scouts, "This is why we love Boy Scouts. Boys are taught to be real boys — making things, using a map, setting up camp, handling the wilderness."
He noted that the Boy Scouts organization teaches self-control and discipline, too. "But even the scouts are under attack in this PC society, and [that] takes the focus off the valuable skills they teach boys."
Report author Mark McCrindle added, "I’m of the strong opinion that our kids need less screen time — and more real world time. As a parent, I think the most important task we need to focus on is teaching self reliance to our kids. When they have a flat tire on their bike, show them how to fix it. Instead of a pizza home delivery, make one. Practical life skills are vital when it comes to surviving — and thriving in society."
Schools aren’t helping matters, either. Cursive is a thing of the past in most American elementary schools, and so are activities like beading and lacing, which develop fine motor skills and help enable little ones to finally tie those shoelaces.
"It’s not just that we have gotten good at gadgetizing a lot of childhood, but it also relates to our educational system, even our pre-schools," said Braaten in Massachusetts. "We used to do a lot of coloring — coloring in the lines — that teaches hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Now, I think, there’s a lot to be said for stringing beads and those 'boring' activities schools have now stopped offering. Schools tend to be either very play-based, offering free play all the time, or very academically focused."
Interestingly, special education students often have a leg up when it comes to basic abilities.
"Pre-school special education is more focused on skills like tying shoes, so these students actually come out of school better prepared," said Braaten. "As a culture, we tend to think of these skills as ‘beneath us.’ A good analogy for older students is the ability to make change [with dollars and coins] — kids can no longer do that. They have no clue."
In trying to prepare our kids for success in the technological age, too many parents are failing at what may, in fact, serve our children best in the long run.
"Now, a skill once valued is termed boring if it doesn’t get us ahead in the race towards the ultimate student — whatever that is," said Braaten.