Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Three Most Important Areas of Youth Development Are Not Taught in Schools

It's amazing what you see when you step outside the box. I've been focusing on the topic of parenting teenagers for over a year now, and I've been outside the box the whole time.

Inside the box, you understand that you need to sacrifice and save money for your child's college education, urge the child to study and get good grades, get the child tutoring for how to take the SAT, and help your child get admitted to a great school. And there's nothing wrong with any of this, even if getting admitted to a great school is no guarantee at all of success in life and work.

But outside the box I've seen something else...

1. The most important thing a kid can learn when he or she is a teenager is how to think - critical thinking skills, which are handled by the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is "under construction" the entire period of adolescence, which lasts 10 or 12 years. It's a time-sensitive window of brain development, during which a person's foundation for critical thinking (understanding, evaluating, analyzing, relating, reasoning, problem solving, decision making, planning and managing) is established once and for all. At the end of the period, the window closes. Following the metaphor: construct a small foundation and you are limited to building a small house on it. The key is to construct an ample foundation. This makes a huge difference in your ability to gain "brain power" as an adult.

2. The second most important thing a teenager can acquire is personal strengths. These are behavior patterns that enable a person to do the hard things to deal with the challenges of life and work. In my work, I've identified more than 40 personal strengths, such as optimism, awareness, passion, focus, courage, composure, integrity, tolerance, and many more. You can see why personal strengths are so important.

3. Finally, there are people skills - interacting with people effectively. There are dozens and dozens of people skills, although in my work I focus mainly on a couple dozen of the more high-impact ones, such as listening, resolving conflict, dialog, guiding learning, stimulating thinking, and giving feedback. Nearly everything we do in relationships and work requires interaction with people; and when these are handled badly, there are adverse consequences. 

These are the game-changers. Imagine how hard it would be to succeed in the world if a person was inept in all three areas!

By the time adolescence is over, most young people have left home and have started to make their way in the world. So prime time to start developing these areas is during the teen years.

But here's the amazing part. None of these areas of ability are taught directly in our education system. Not taught in high school. Not taught at the college level, either. No courses in critical thinking, no courses in people skills, no courses in personal strength. So how are people supposed to learn this stuff?

You don't learn it by reading about it. You learn it by doing it. All three areas - critical thinking, personal strengths and people skills - get stronger simply by exercising them repeatedly.

It's possible to pick up some of these patterns indirectly and by chance. For example, one of my colleagues told me that the most important person in her youth was her economics teacher. When I asked her why, she said, "He taught me how to think." Lucky her.

Team sports are fine opportunities to build some of the personal strengths, even though that's not high on the agenda of most coaches, who have their hands full teaching athletic skills, conditioning and winning. And a kid can get some experience with interacting with people by socializing and participating in extracurricular activities.

But these developmental opportunities are unstructured, random, spotty, and depend on luck. It's kind of like "street knowledge." Kids pick up things hit-or-miss - the good, the bad and the ugly - hanging out with their friends. It's no wonder that most people become adults with a lot of unlearning and catching up to do. Which most people never do - they just get by within the boundaries of their limitations.

Isn't it amazing that something so important is unrecognized by parents and the education system?

There's so much young teens should be told, but it almost never happens. That why I wrote these books...

Conversations with the Wise Aunt - for girls

Conversations with the Wise Uncle - for boys

Can you think of a better way to give a kid an edge in life?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength . (Permission to use photo purchased form

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