When I was a young father, I wanted my young children to be very good at everything they did. I wanted them to be very good students, very good athletes, very good thinkers, etc.
Although they never took a great deal of interest in sports, they did well enough in school and became bright and athletic thinkers.
By the time they had become young men, my desire for them to excel at everything had evaporated. And in its place was something else: pride and satisfaction in knowing that they had become independent and kind.
Many parents, I believe, experience the same shift. When their children are small, they want to see them excel because they believe that childhood performance is an indicator of future success. But as time passes, they come to have a more realistic view of maturation.
One of the most important recognitions is that the most important stages of childhood development are all marked by the need to separate in some way from the parents.
This makes perfect sense when you consider us as creatures of evolution. When our children are helpless, our instinct is to nurture and protect them. As they grow older, they acquire habits (biting the nipples that feed them, breaking free of the hand that holds them, discovering music their parents abhor, etc.) that promote independence.
This is as it should be. A mentally healthy parent learns to accept and eventually desire his children’s independence.
But there are parents who can’t let go. They encourage dependence in their adult children by paying their bills or trying to stay “best friends.” They believe themselves to be good parents because they are always “there” for their kids. What they are really doing is making their children less able to take care of themselves.
Such behavior is unhealthy—for both the parents and the children. It circumscribes the parents’ lives to a close orbit around their children. And it encourages a habit of dependency in their children that makes them less capable of independent action.
As for kindness: I never consciously wanted my children to be kind when they were young, but I suppose I expected it. When they were rude to their friends or their elders, I chastised them. But I never taught them to be kind.
Still, I was delighted when I saw them, as adults, acting kindly toward their older relatives and less fortunate strangers. It made me proud.
Independence and kindness are very important human qualities. To see them animate in your adult children is a wonderful experience.
Writing about this got me thinking: If I could start over again, what qualities and skills would I encourage in my children?
Excellence in particular skills would not be on my list. If one of my kids took up a new skill, such as speaking Spanish or playing the French horn, I wouldn’t care whether he mastered it.
But what I would want—for sure—is that my children become competent at life’s most important skills.
Today, I’d like to talk about the most important skills we need to be successful in life. I’ve been thinking about this subject for several decades. I hope that what I’m about to say will be helpful to you.
The Three Mega-skills: Thinking, Writing, and Speaking
I’ve identified about a dozen skills I believe are important to a successful life. Of these, three are fundamental: thinking well, speaking well, and writing well.
At some level, every human being can think. But some people, I’m sure you would agree, think better than others.
Thinking well means having the capacity to reason. It means being able to assess, analyze, and solve problems. It means being able to create and follow a trend of thought. It means being able to recognize good ideas from bad ones. It means understanding logic.
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Having the ability to think well gives a person a great competitive advantage. It allows him to solve problems and accomplish objectives quickly and efficiently. It distinguishes him as a smart and capable person.
I have been in the self-improvement business for almost two decades, and I have yet to read another author who includes thinking well among the important self-improvement skills. That’s crazy. Thinking well is the basis for all of the other important social skills—as you will soon see.
In thinking about thinking, we must remember that there is a difference between thinking well and intelligence. Thinking well is a skill. Intelligence is a natural capacity.
Having a sizeable intelligence is an indisputable asset. It makes it so much easier to learn how to think well. But it does not guarantee it. The world is full of intelligent people who have never learned how to think well. They grow up to be adults who do not have the intellectual capacity to fend for themselves. They live out their lives dependent on the kindness of others.
Having only a modest intelligence is a challenge. But it does not prevent one from learning how to think well and succeed. Thinking well, like any other skill, can be learned.
If it can be learned, it can be taught. And that teaching will fall primarily on your shoulders. Government-run schools and many private schools, as well, have neither the interest nor ability to do this. The job is—and should be—up to you.
There are at least three ways you can teach your children to think well.
The most important is probably through thoughtful conversation. Taking the time to walk your children through problems and obstacles is invaluable. Asking them questions and questioning their answers is also important. And finally, it is important to encourage them to have their own ideas. Society wants to make us all think alike. You can’t possibly be a good thinker unless you have the temerity to think for yourself.
The second most important is probably through a good formal education. A good formal education, in my view, is one that emphasizes the liberal arts: literature, language, history, and the arts. Some knowledge of science and mathematics is helpful. But these are skills that are not likely to make you anything more than a successful or celebrated worker bee. The skills you learn in liberal arts teach you how to think.
The third way you can teach your children to think well is by exacting a diligent control over their use of computers, video games, television, and access to the Internet, generally. My wife and I unplugged our televisions during the 25 years that our children lived at home. And we banned video games and encouraged our children to “play” games that were educational.
Today, there are hundreds of games you can download for free or a few dollars from the Internet. These include fundamental thinking games—discrimination, recognition, sorting, pairing, etc.—and more advanced games that focus on skills such as analysis and logic.
There are also hundreds of knowledge-based games available—everything from arithmetic to diction to history to language. There are games for virtually every aspect of thinking.
Another thing I’m proud to say is that our children are reasonably proficient speakers. In my view, speaking well is the second most important social skill.
As with thinking well, we need to make a distinction here. Speaking well involves grammar and diction, but these are not as important as the ability to express worthy thoughts concisely and clearly.
However good your grammar and diction may be, you can’t speak well if have trouble “saying” what you “mean.” To become a good speaker, you must practice the skill of speaking concisely. And you must also develop the habit of saying things that are worth saying.
It is amazing to me how many college-educated people I meet who can’t speak well. There are the people who have good ideas but cannot express them. When trying to express even a modestly complicated thought, they hem and haw and pepper their phrases with expressions like “you know” and “it was like” and so on. Then there are the articulate people who never say anything that isn’t shallow or trivial.
Having the ability to speak well is such a rare quality that the possession of it will immediately separate you from most other people in the room. It will give you social power that they lack—even if they are richer, taller, and better looking than you are.
How do you teach your children to speak well?
Again, the most important way is by speaking well yourself. A child’s first and most frequent exposure to the skill of speaking is with his parents. Small children absorb the intricacies of language like sponges. If you want your children to have this second most valuable social skill, then speak thoughtfully when you speak to them and expect them to do the same with you.
You can also encourage your children to speak well by insisting they take courses that involve speaking in school. These would be primarily the liberal arts courses but also any courses for which you can’t get a grade simply by checking off boxes.
And thirdly, there is the Internet. There are dozens and dozens of applications available that will improve one’s vocabulary and grammar. As I said, these are not the most important elements of speaking well, but they help.
The third most important social skill is writing well.
Writing may seem to have become less important in the age of instant messaging, but writing short communications is still writing.
And as your child enters into the world of work, writing well will become an increasingly valuable skill. Having the ability to express himself well in memos, business letters, proposals, personal notes, and so on is a very powerful skill.
Writing well is dependent on speaking well, and speaking well is dependent on thinking well. So if you educate your children to think and speak well, it will be quite easy to teach them to become good writers.
Again, writing well is the skill of expressing worthy ideas concisely and clearly on paper. Writing well demands some additional facilities beyond those of speaking well, but for the most part, if you can speak well, you can also write well.
The most important way you can teach your children to write well is to insist that they spend some amount of time every day writing. You might encourage your children to write letters to an out-of-town relative or find a pen pal through one of the supervised pen-pal sites on the Internet.
Caveat: As your child’s primary writing teacher you should not be looking for “creativity” (whatever that is) but for the ability to write down good thoughts concisely and clearly.
The Skill of Persuasion
Thinking, speaking, and writing well are the three most important social skills. If your children learn these, they will be set for life.
But there are other important social skills that I’d recommend. One of them is the skill of rhetoric—knowing how to argue a point or persuade someone that your idea has value.
I learned this skill from my parents who loved to argue, and our children learned it from my siblings and me, who still do. There are formal ways to learn to argue—taking debate class or being on a debate team are two. But your children will learn rhetoric best if you simply make it a habit to debate ideas when you are together. It will add to your children’s skills immeasurably. And you will never have a dull moment when you get together in later years.
Next on the list would be reading. Learning how to read well is much more than just learning literacy—learning how to interpret clusters of letters. Reading is the skill of consuming information and accessing stories intelligently. By “intelligently,” I mean analytically. On one level, you are taking in data, but on another, you are analyzing.
You can’t read at this higher level unless you have done a great deal of reading as a child. As I said, we encouraged our children to read first by depriving them of live television and videogames and then by finding books they enjoyed reading. It didn’t matter what sort of books they were, because our goal was to develop the skill of reading at an early age. Later on, we encouraged them to read good books. And eventually, they did.
Depriving your children of TV and video games may seem draconian by today’s standards. But it had a marvelously positive effect on our children. They all became active and voracious readers. And instead of wasting time shooting down aliens, they were living in their imaginations and learning.
Many parents use these modern contrivances to pacify their children. And pacify them they do. Watching TV or playing video games is a passive activity. But reading—reading intelligently—is active. Nature has designed us in such a way that we learn more when we are in active mode. Allowing your children to passively consume most of their “information” is a terrible way to treat them. It’s a form of passive child abuse.
Then there are the smaller skills. I’m talking about skills that aren’t vital to success but that are, nonetheless, helpful in certain social situations. You may find some of what I’m about to say to be ridiculous, but I will try my best to persuade you that these smaller things matter.
I would have taught my children to sing and dance. Why? Because singing and dancing are very important social skills. Most of the time we don’t need them. But when we do—at a wedding or party—they can come in very handy. Singing and dancing are often considered natural talents. But they both can be learned. And the earlier a child begins to take lessons, the better and quicker he will learn.
Another one is good manners. Having good manners is something rarely talked about these days. It is considered quaint and old-fashioned by many people. But it is extremely important. It is the grease that makes all social transactions go smoothly. It is enormously helpful in business, and it is just as important in personal affairs. By good manners, I mean primarily speaking with consideration and courtesy. But I also mean knowing how to introduce yourself, how to say thank you, and how to eat properly in public.
When you have good manners, you can still express yourself honestly, and you can still persuade people that you are right. You can still be the person you want to become, but you will do so more easily because you won’t be unnecessarily offending people along the way.
I realize I haven’t said anything about teaching your kids to be kind. I suppose I didn’t because you can’t actually teach your kids to be kind. If you are kind, they will be kind too. If you are not a kind person, there is nothing you can do or say to make them kind. So be kind.
If you can teach your children these skills, there is no doubt they will be equipped to lead independent and fulfilling lives. They will have the ability to analyze problems, find solutions for them, and thus be seen as problem solvers. They will be able to stand out in any social group (at work or outside of work) by their abilities to express good ideas concisely and clearly. They will be able to quickly acquire the knowledge they need on any subject because they will be good readers. They will have enormous social power because they will understand the art of persuasion. Plus, if they acquire good manners, they won’t have to pay the cost of treating other people badly.
On top of all that, they will be able to sing and dance.