John, the son of a friend of ours, looked directly at me, his long hair pulled back into a pony tail, as he earnestly explained his new business. This young man, born into the "establishment" and pampered by parents who expected him to achieve in a traditional career, chose a different path. He described how his passion for the environment and his penchant for experimentation led him to try alternative methods of growing vegetables and raising fish. And his persistence paid off. He started his own company, BioShelters.com.
Did he know he would be successful? Of course not, but he came from a family that eventually recognized and then encouraged his creativity. I thought about John recently when talking with parents of this year's graduates. The parents seem to be fretting more and more about what jobs their children will find. Even when their children are quite young, they begin worrying. "We are preparing our sons for the last war," a woman lamented. She fears that the corporate/Wall Street jobs Greenwich parents hold in such high regard are disappearing. This mother's anxieties are based on real life stories of unemployment, not because a person's work was inadequate, but because of corporate downsizing, mergers, buyouts. She worries more about her children's generation than her own, perhaps for good reason.
So how can parents help young people psychologically prepare for careers with no names?
PEOPLE SKILLS. Most parents know how important it is to get along with others, to sense another's emotions, to listen, to encourage cooperation. Although these skills are learned at home, they are needed in the workplace as companies move toward team management, contract work, and remote communication. Teaching a child listening and cooperation skills will allow him or her the freedom to express desires, interests and ideas -- and to recognize the same aspirations in others.
CREATIVITY. This quality was confirmed when I asked a father who was let go from a Wall Street firm what he would encourage in his three sons to prepare them for a career. "Creativity," he said. "A person with new ideas and who is not afraid to express them gets rewarded. Making children learn everything by rote will not help them."
Creativity also comes from a constant questioning of how things are done. If a son has an idea of how he would like his room arranged, let him arrange it. If a girl questions the way her teacher has structured a lesson, encourage her to ask the teacher why she has done it that way. If he suggests there may be a better way to kick a soccer ball, urge him to try his new method. When she says she can build a better mousetrap, help her find the materials she needs.
PRACTICAL KNOWLEDGE. A child also will need to develop a "practical or tacit knowledge." Conceptualized by Robert Sternberg, former president of American Psychological Association, tacit knowledge means "knowing how" rather than "knowing that."
A person with tacit knowledge can look at a situation and determine what would be the best outcome and how to arrive at that outcome, using an IF/THEN thinking pattern.
The strategies of "if/then" can be developed by questioning "if you do this, then what?" Playing a game such as chess is a good way to practice
OPEN MINDS. Parents must acknowledge the worth of many different types of work. Researching non-traditional careers or new approaches to traditional careers will open up a child's world to new, exciting possibilities, perhaps encouraging future entrepreneurs.
It goes without saying that technical skills are a must in any job today, but without the ability to relate well to others, to create new ideas, to know how to reach a goal, and to have an open mind, non-traditionalist young people like John may become drop-outs rather than the employers of the future.
Are traditional Greenwich parents brave enough to encourage their children's non-traditional pursuits?
Ann Caron is an author of books on adolescence and a parent-educator. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.