Do Lazier Summers Set Up Kids for Future Success? 

Absolutely, says Katherine Ludwig. The coauthor of Humility Is the New Smart explains why the trend of highly structured, rigorously “enriching” summers are not giving kids the advantage we think they are. Here are eight ways to better shape a summer that will help your kids develop the skills they’re actually going to need.

For many families, summer vacation is just as hectic as the school year, if not more so. Gone are days when kids spent summers splashing around the public pool, scooping ice cream for minimum wage, and finding creative ways to stave off boredom in the great outdoors with their friends. Schedules are now consumed with specialty camps, supervised sports, ongoing tutoring, and even new lessons and practices.

Many parents don’t have a choice, of course. Full-time work obligations require them to nail down weeks of childcare, and all-day camps or summer school are often more affordable than hiring a private nanny or babysitter for three months. Yet the increase in intensity and number of organized summer activities is often fueled by a belief that it will give kids an advantage so they don’t fall behind peers in sports, academics, or artistic pursuits.

Here’s the irony, says Katherine Ludwig: Parents who plan highly “enriching” summers to ensure that kids become high achievers who are able to compete for good jobs in the future may actually hurt their cause.

“Aside from being expensive and exhausting, this summer rat race isn’t doing kids any favors,” says Ludwig, coauthor along with Ed Hess of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4, $27.95). “It does nothing to prepare them for the highly automated, volatile work environments they’ll eventually confront. In fact, it takes away time they could be using to develop and hone the skills they’ll actually need.”

With smart machines, robots, and artificial intelligence predicted to take over nearly 50 percent of what Americans are currently paid to do within the next decade or two, it’s very unclear what the “good jobs” actually will be. However, it’s a pretty safe bet that most manual labor and routine cognitive and professional work will be automated.

The jobs that will be left will require high levels of social and emotional engagement in service to, care of, or collaboration with other people (things machines can’t do). Full-time employment will be rare, and a majority of work will be freelance, part-time, or otherwise contingent on constantly building relationships, networking, and hustling for the next gig.

“The bottom line is that human skills will be in high demand for the next generations of workers,” says Ludwig. “By that I mean critical, creative, and innovative thinking; social and emotional intelligence; and the ability to continually learn, adapt, and fend for ourselves.

“Our culture hasn’t realized this truth yet and it continues to stress individual achievements, competitiveness, perfectionism, and near constant productivity as the ultimate markers of career readiness,” she adds. “Yes, the popularity of science, engineering, and coding camps shows that parents do have their eyes on the advance of technology, but arming kids with tech savviness is not sufficient and neither should it be the highest priority.”

How should your kids be spending the summer? In general, says Ludwig, they need less structure, more downtime, more responsibility, and a much greater focus on “otherness” than kids are accustomed to in a culture that’s become increasingly self-interested and self-absorbed. Here are a few pointers you can use to make the most of what’s left of the summer:

Give them as much freedom as you can. Many summer programs are designed to keep kids busy or to improve a skill. There’s a time and place for that, but summer offers a chance to loosen the reins and let kids meander a bit more. To excel at critical and innovative thinking and creativity requires that they develop the intrinsic motivation to learn, the curiosity to explore, and the resilience to bounce back from mistakes and failure. Too much structure, scheduling, supervision, and pressure to achieve measurable results can hamper these behaviors.

Of course, the best summer camps and activities offer kids a lot of independence and choice over their time. You can send your kids to one of these programs and—regardless of how much time they’re at home this summer—you can make a conscious decision to ease up on the reins a bit. A good way to offer kids more freedom is to let up on restrictions in an age-appropriate way.

“For example,” says Ludwig, “let kids ride their bikes a bit farther or stay up a bit later if they’re playing with friends or working on a project. Summer can be a great trial period for added privileges that will boost kids’ self-reliance and autonomy and give them chances to learn from mistakes and failure.”

Let them be bored. Rather than ruing their “I’m bored” pronouncements—which should be expected and actually encouraged once kids are released from school year structure—summer is the time to leverage a reprieve from constant test preparation, homework, and soccer games. Cognitive and psychological science has shown that boredom and downtime actually fuel creativity and flexible thinking, and that igniting a kid’s curiosity to learn and explore requires giving them freedom to choose their interests and plenty of open-ended, even idle time.

“Psychologists have already sounded the alarm on the significant decrease in kids’ free play time thanks to the increases in structure, adult supervision, and expectations for academic and sports achievements,” notes Ludwig. “It not only takes a toll on kids’ well-being, but it affects the development of creativity, self-efficacy, and executive functions that underlie learning and cognition.

“Free, kid-directed play is where they learn to problem-solve, develop social and emotional intelligence, and use their imaginations—all keys to the kinds of skills and behaviors they’ll need to be successful,” she adds.

Don’t let them sit in front of a screen all day. Computers, TVs, phones, and video games are not what Ludwig means by free play, and no educational digital game is a substitute for the brain-boosting effects of simply hanging out in nature. In general if kids aren’t getting at least an hour a day of unstructured free time not involving a screen, something needs to change, and summer is ripe for resetting rather than letting up on screen limitations.

“Leave TV, video games, or texting for the afternoon or evening, when kids are hot and tired from playing or working, or at least require some reading or independent play or exercise first,” advises Ludwig.

For older kids, consider a summer job. As we’ve all seen with recent generations entering the workforce, overprotecting and overscheduling kids can result in fragility, a lack of self-sufficiency, and a sense of entitlement and self-absorption. A summer job is a great way to make kids stand on their own two feet and think about other people for a change—including those outside their social and economic bubbles.

“The numbers of high schoolers with summer jobs has plummeted in recent years,” says Ludwig. “Whether it’s to give kids more time for sports and extracurriculars or simply because parents provide all the money they need, this decline is unfortunate for them and wastes an opportunity to develop necessary skills and behaviors.

“And if kids can’t find employment, perhaps they can create their own source of income,” she adds. “Mowing yards, washing cars, painting houses, babysitting, tutoring…all of these time-tested options are great learning experiences and truly help kids hone their entrepreneurial instincts.”

Assign chores and projects to do around the house. Your child should be doing basic chores all year long, but freer summer schedules mean he has time to do more of them andto take on bigger projects as well. For example, if his room needs painting, have him research how to do it and let him choose his own paint colors. You may need to help him, but let him take the lead.

“Giving kids more challenging chores provides ample chances for teachable moments involving problem-solving, perseverance, and meeting other people’s needs,” notes Ludwig.

Make it a summer of self-sufficiency. During the school year when kids are busy with homework and afterschool activities, they may not have time to do their own laundry, prepare their own snacks, and keep their rooms spotless. That’s understandable. During summer, however, there are no such excuses.

“As much as possible, let your kids take care of their own needs this summer,” advises Ludwig. “If they go to a day camp, have them prepare their own lunches, for example. IfFriday is swim day and they forget to take their swimsuit, oh well. They’ll just have to sit this one out.

“In general, try swooping in a little less to protect kids from hassle or embarrassment,” she adds. “With summer stakes being much lower, a little failure, discomfort, and disappointment can be beneficial experiences.”

Take full advantage of vacation’s “teachable moments.” For example, make kids pack their own bags, even if it means they forget their favorite t-shirt. When you arrive at a hotel, have your kids check in with the front desk clerk. Insist that they order for themselves in restaurants, and if there’s a problem with the food, make them talk to the server about it.

“You might even let kids plan a whole day of vacation,” suggests Ludwig. “Give them a budget and tell them they’re in charge of finding something they want to do, buying the tickets (if age appropriate), packing the backpacks, making lunch arrangements, and so forth. This is a wonderful way for kids to learn lessons about planning, logistics, money management, and more. Plus, it’s fun for them and provides a boost of independence and self-confidence.”

Find ways to emphasize “Otherness.” A big problem with overly structured summers designed to improve kids’ competiveness is that it’s all about them and their individual success and interests. Tomorrow’s workplace, however, will require a much greater focus on other people. The abilities to empathize, see other perspectives, and collaborate in order to innovate, solve complex problems, and think critically will be highly valued human skills. The good news is that summer offers more opportunities for kids to practice looking outward—to develop the sense of Otherness they’ll need in the future.

“Summer is a great time for volunteer work,” says Ludwig. “Whether they spend a service week helping the less fortunate, become a tutor or camp counselor, or help an elderly neighbor clean up her yard, they’ll develop humility and learn to appreciate the value and needs of other people. Even taking on more household chores can help with this.

“The key is for them to truly put other people’s needs and interests ahead of their own sometimes and to view building strong relationships within their families and communities, as well as outside of them, as a top priority,” she adds.

Providing a more open and flexible summer vacation for our children and teens is not about longing for simpler days when kids spent their time jumping rope, learning to tie knots, and catching fireflies, says Ludwig.

“We feel nostalgic about lazier summers, and we want our kids to enjoy their childhoods like we did—or at least like we wish we did,” she adds. “And kids should be able to enjoy the slower pace of summer. But they also need the opportunity to develop the tools and skills they’ll actually need to find success in a world that’s very different from how it used to be. The good news is, when you give up the notion of an overly scheduled, highly structured, ‘enriching’ summer, they can do both.”


About the Authors:
Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business, and Katherine Ludwig are the authors of the new book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age(Berrett-Koehler, 2017), which puts forth a new model called NewSmart, designed to help humans thrive alongside technology in the Smart Machine Age.

For more information, please visit www.edhltd.com and www.katherineludwig.com.

About the Book:
Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4, $27.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

First published in 2017.

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