Parenting Teens for the 21st Century Work Place: Continuous Learning

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

By some accounts, digital information doubles every 18 months. That would make the amount of digital information currently available be at around 3 x 1021 (that is 3 with 21 zeroes after it). And growing. That’s a lot of information. It is no longer sufficient to establish a basic knowledge set that will carry you through the end of your working career. Your kid will need to be a life-long learner if they are going to continue to be a viable employee throughout their life in the 21st century. And, YOU are going to have to encourage and nurture this attitude.

Model it. Begin by reviewing your own attitudes toward learning and personal growth. Your kids are watching. There should always be something you are trying to learn or know more about. Make sure your kid knows about it. (Don’t forget that you’re still going to be alive and, hopefully, working, in the 21st Century.)

Talk it up. Have ongoing learning and the discovery of new things be a part of conversations, questions you ask and observations you make. Refer to how much there is to know, how much there is to learn, how much humanity already knows, the ability of people to learn throughout their lives, the remarkable access we have to information that used to be only available to a few and the wonderful opportunity to grow and develop personally (regardless of how much, or little, money you have). Characterize your family as one that values education, personal growth and continuous learning.

Build a foundation. While knowledge is expanding constantly, there are still basic foundations of knowledge that don’t change. Knowledge is transmitted by and expands out from reading, writing, vocabulary, math, scientific method, chemistry, computer and technological literacy, morals and ethics, historical perspective and psychological principles (of course). Make sure your kid has a firm foundation that allows for continuous learning. Happily, this is also the goal of educators in our schools. So, building a foundation involves finding ways to support what schools are doing by promoting learning at home, supervising homework, validating the legitimacy of education and making education a priority in your kid’s life.

Current events. Talk about issues of the day. Require everyone to be involved and require everyone to have real information (rather than just spouting off their opinion). [Note: this means YOU. Pontificating about your views may be self-satisfying but it doesn’t help your kids to be active learners. It just annoys them.]

Be curious. Be interested in personal development, what’s happening in the world, acquiring new skills, improving personal abilities or developing new ones, gathering information, gaining knowledge, improving physical abilities and nurturing talents. Include your kids. Find out what interests them. Ask about what they have discovered recently. Look for signs of curiosity and fan the flames.

Recognize learning opportunities. Once you look for opportunities to learn, you find them everywhere. There are familiar sources of accumulated knowledge and information like educational classes, training, apprenticeships and reference resources like the internet and books. But, there are also informal ones like literature, the media (news, entertainment, video game, etc.) and heroes and exemplary (as well as pitiable and despicable) people. Learning opportunities also arise from insight through personal experience, conversation and interacting with other people. And don’t forget the wisdom of elders and observing the world around you. It will be important for you to help your kid recognize the astonishing range of possibilities for ongoing learning and personal growth all around them.

Encouragement. Kids need encouragement to learn. Even if you are lucky enough to have one of those naturally self-motivated kids, they will need to have opportunities to express it. Create an environment that encourages learning and exploration. Buy books on interesting topics. Subscribe to interesting magazines. Watch shows that educate and illuminate and fascinate (rather than shock and titillate and distract). Provide things that promote and support your kid’s natural interests and sparks curiosity.

Foster self-directed learning. Continuous learning ultimately requires your kid to be personally motivated.  Motivation can be fostered by generating enthusiasm and energy (and sweeping them up in the excitement), by providing opportunities and by helping your kid discover their gifts (and interests).

Spend time in learning environments. What does that mean? The LIBRARY! Have you been to the Brentwood library (and, for that matter, the Williamson County Main Branch)? They are architecturally beautiful temples of learning filled with natural light, comfortable seating and incredible resources (both printed and online). Go to the library; regularly. Go to museums. Have you been to the Frist? The Parthenon? Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and MUSEUM? The Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University? The Lane Motor Museum (the largest European car collection in the US)? Well, you get the point.

Family skill development. Consider identifying a skill the family will acquire each year (and change it every year). Learn a new language (maybe the one your kid is taking, or will take, in high school). “hola mi hijo. ¿Cómo estuvo tu día?” (Translation courtesy of an online translator. It’s not like I did any of these things with my kids. Those who can’t do . . .). There is a place in your community you can go for foreign language lessons as well as digital language learning programs you can purchase. Take a pottery class. Learn to sew or cook. Take up a musical instrument (and form a family band). Study astronomy (and watch the night sky). It doesn’t matter what it is. The goal is for your kids to get in the habit of engaging in ongoing learning and growth experiences that don’t require them to go to school. This is a way to drag them along with you until they get their feet under them and start walking by themselves.

Ask questions. When you are in the presence of experts, ask them questions about their field. Mechanics, carpenters, professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, receptionists, laborers; they all have things to teach you. Help your kids understand that you can learn from everyone. Does your kid express an interest in some topic or issue? Find an expert and set up a meeting to learn all about it. The point is to emphasize the value of trying to find out about something you are interested in (or just have a casual curiosity about).

What did you learn today? Always ask. Not “How was your day” (though you can ask that) but “What did you learn today?” Imply that learning something new is an important criteria for determining whether the day was well spent. They should expect the question. Any answer that isn’t sarcastic is allowable. Ask follow up questions as though you are actually interested.

Personal skill development. Set aside family time each week for personal growth time. Everyone must have a consistent focus (not one that changes from week to week). It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated work to become an expert. It would be a shame if the closest your kid came to having an expertise by the end of their years in school (average hours a year spent in school = 900) was as a television watcher (average hours a year of media watched by students = 1500), video game player (average hours a year of video game play by boys, not by avid gamers = 676) or web surfer (average hours a year surfing the web = 520).

Unexpected inspiration. Obtain something that will further your kid’s interest and surprise them with it. Presents are always appreciated. It acknowledges that you are paying attention. It is subtle pressure to keep at it.

Ground Hog Day. Make up a list of the things each family member would learn to do if they had all the time in the world. It could be knowledge (e.g., Mayan architecture), a skill (e.g., welding), an artistic talent (e.g., calligraphy), whatever. Each person picks an area of personal development as the focus for the year.

Play. And don’t forget play, fun, joy. These are crucial to continuous learning. When your kid is curious; when they are interested or surprised or confused you want them to respond by learning more about whatever it is.

Continuous learning has to be a habit by the time they graduate from high school. Get on it.


(originally published in

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