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Summer will be here soon and your teen might be looking for a summer job. But it probably will be better if she doesn’t find a job. It will be better if, instead of finding a job, she invents one.

Here’s why. As a recent New York Times interview by Thomas Friedman makes clear, being able to invent employment is an essential life skill for everyone in the new economy. Friedman interviewed Tony Wagner, a Harvard education professor and author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Wagner believes that the old pattern of graduating from high school or college, finding a job in the conventional way, and then doing work that draws on one’s education is a pattern that is no longer reasonable. Life no longer works that way.

Unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, as high as 53% according to The Atlantic. To make their way in the world, young people need more than just a good education and connections. They need creativity and motivation.

According to Harvard’s Wagner, it’s not enough to know facts – the sorts of things standardized tests are good at measuring. Instead, kids today need to be “innovation-ready.” Wagner says, “what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know.” This is where your teen’s summer plans come in.

Instead of getting a job like everyone else – or, more likely, looking for a job like everyone else and probably not find one – help your teen assess his skills and interests and the needs of the community. What can he do that others might pay him to do? How can he turn his assets into cash?

Many of us did just that when we mowed lawns or babysat in our teen years. These are still good entrepreneurial ventures. But there are more. Here is just a starter list of jobs a teen could invent:

The point is not so much to make money. The summer is, after all, of limited duration and it takes time to build a market and visibility. The point is to learn how to find work from within…. To value one’s own talents and abilities and not rely on someone else to provide a job.

According to Tony Wagner this is the key to a life of full employment. He says, “Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

Summer is a great time to build these attitudes. Learning how to invent a job just might be your teen’s more important accomplishment for her future.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

Where are you when your child is on the monkey bars?

  1. Rushing to get her down as fast as possible.
  2. Warning her from the sidelines to be careful.
  3. Watching without comment, ready to help if she gets into trouble.
  4. Reading, checking your email, talking to friends.

Of course, every child is different and it makes a difference if the monkey-bar child is 18 months old or four. But the truth of the matter is this: children need challenges. A too-safe world keeps them small. In order to learn the limits of their abilities and to expand those abilities, kids have to push the edges of their known worlds into new worlds of mastery.

Playgrounds, in particular, can be too safe, not so much because they present no challenge but because parents don’t permit children to go into danger. I’m a fan of that rubber mulch that lets a child bounce a bit when he falls. But that mulch is there because falls are expected. Removing all chance of falling by insisting a child say close to the ground or by insisting he hold your hand doesn’t keep a child safe as much as it limits his development.

Former New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern puts it this way: “I grew up on the monkey bars in Fort Tryon Park, and I never forgot how good it felt to get to the top of them. I didn’t want to see that playground bowdlerized. I said that as long as I was parks commissioner, those monkey bars were going to stay.”

A study of children’s risky play found that risk tends to come in six varieties: climbing high, going fast, handling dangerous objects, being near dangerous phenomena (like fire or water), wrestling and other combat, and being away from adults. Researchers found that children manage their own level of challenge with these risks, going a bit further with risk each time, but regulating the danger themselves. Lead author of the study, Ellen Sandseter, says, “The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

In addition, there is no evidence that “safer” playgrounds, with lower structures and softer surfaces, have reduced injuries. Risk management professor David Ball reports that some injuries, including arm fractures, actually increased when softer surfaces were introduced. He explains this by saying that “safe” playgrounds actually disguise risks so that children are less able to regulate the level of challenge and get into trouble.

As every parent knows, a trip to the playground is no fun if there’s no challenge. The experience quickly becomes boring. So what can you do?

We all know how important it is that children be active and play outside. Make certain that your children’s outdoor play stimulates not only their muscles but also their brains. Let them stretch their abilities by making certain not everything is always safe.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

You know how this goes: you are riding on the bus or airplane and you bury your nose in a book so you can ignore your seatmate completely. There’s a certain courtesy in this, perhaps, in that while you signal your unavailability for conversation you also signal your respect for your seatmate’s privacy and peace.

This trick of self-containment has spread, however. Now we no longer need to carry around a book. Now we don’t limit our avoidance of others to trips on public transportation. These days we shut ourselves off with our phones. Instead of being present for our children, we close them out. We are present for only the screen.

Jonathan Safran Foer, writing in the New York Times, recounts a recent example. He was sitting on a bench, scanning his smart phone, when he became aware that a teenage girl on the bench nearby was sobbing into hers. The girl kept saying, “I know, Mama, I know,” crying all the while, seemingly heartbroken and bereft. The call ended and the girl continued to weep. Foer describes his inner conflict: should he reach out to her, ask if he can help, offer some sort of emotional support or should he pretend he didn’t see? He realizes that he has the means to ignore her in his hand – his phone permits him to hide. He can easily attend to digital connections and avoid the opportunity for human connection right in front of him. Which, he wonders, will he choose?

This is the choice we parents face every day, many times a day. Are we connected to the children right in front of us, who hunger for our attention, or are we connected to our devices?

Poet Marge Piercy write that “Attention is love.” What we attend to is what we love. Children learn what is so, not by what we tell them but by what we do. When we pay attention, when we drag our gaze away from the screen in our hand and look steadily at the child at hand, we show our respect and we demonstrate our love.

When we refuse to be present for our kids, we are hiding out. We signal our unavailability for conversation. We love something else more.

This adds up. The distance between us grows. Sooner or later it may be our child who is sobbing on a public park bench, telling us she knows, she knows but that knowing doesn’t change some terrible truth. What is that truth? What did we miss while we were on the phone?

If you’ve been hiding behind your devices, this is your error message. Your children are waiting. Please come out.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.