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7 essential life skills every child needs and how parents can encourage them

By Ellen Galinsky

Adapted from the author’s book Mind in the Making (HarperCollins)

We all want the best for our children, but how do we ensure that they not only survive but thrive–today and in the future?

For children to reach their full potential in school, the workforce and in life, we know, of course, that they need to acquire knowledge in many different areas. And they also need life skills so they make use of what they learn.

Others have talked about skills for the 21st century before, but eight years and interviews with and filming more than 75 of the leading researchers in child development and neuroscience have led me to new insights about which skills truly have short-term and long-term effects on children’s development–effects now and in the future.

I have concluded that there are seven essential life skills which are incredibly powerful in making children be all that they can be growing up and as adults. They involve what child development researchers call “executive functions” of the brain–the part of the brain that helps us “manage” our attention, our emotions and our behavior in order to reach our goals.

These skills weave together our social, emotional and intellectual capacities. They help us go beyond what we know–and tap our abilities to use all that we have learned in these different areas. It’s important to understand three essential points about these life skills: We as adults need them just as much as children do. In fact, we have to practice them ourselves to promote them in children. We can promote them through our daily activities with children. We don’t need expensive programs, materials or equipment. It’s never too late to help children learn these skills, no matter how old they are.

Overview of life skills

1 Focus and self-control. This skill allows children to achieve their goals in a world filled with distractions and information overload. It involves paying attention, remembering the rules, thinking flexibly and exercising self-control.

2 Perspective taking. This goes beyond empathy. It involves figuring out what others think and feel, and it forms the basis of children understanding their parents’ and teachers’ intentions. Children who can take others’ perspectives are much less likely to get involved in conflicts.

3 Communicating. It’s much more than the ability to speak, read and write. It’s the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how our communications will be understood by others. It’s a skill that teachers and employers feel is most lacking today.

4 Making connections. It’s the core of learning: what’s the same, what’s different. And the ability to make unusual connections is at the core of creativity. In a world where information is so accessible, people who can see these connections will be successful.

5 Critical thinking. It is essential for the ongoing search for valid, reliable knowledge to guide our beliefs, decisions and actions. It involves developing, testing and refining theories about “what causes what” to happen.

6 Taking on challenges. Life is full of stresses and challenges. Kids who are willing to take on a challenge (instead of avoiding it) will do better in school and in life.

7 Self-directed, engaged learning. We can realize our potential through learning. As the world changes, so can we–if we continue to learn for as long as we live.

How to encourage life skills

This article looks at just one of the seven skills and suggests ways parents can promote it with their children–now and in the future. Next month, on our Parenting page, we’ll talk about ways to encourage another skill. As you will see, helping children acquire these skills simply involves weaving them regularly into everyday activities in school and at home in playful and fun ways.

Ways to promote focus

Help infants and toddlers learn to bring themselves under control. This is a first step toward self control. You may notice that your child calms down when you carry her to a quiet place or when you use words to describe his feelings. When you follow kids’ own cues and use their strategies to calm down, you’re not imposing control. You’re helping them, even in infancy, learn to take the lead in managing themselves.

Encourage lemonade stands. This is my term for having a strong interest–so named because my daughter had a lemonade stand when she was six and seven. I saw the planning, work, stick-to-itiveness and passion it took to set up and maintain. Of course, not every child should go into the lemonade business. My point is by promoting children’s interests, we help them focus. Why do kids who are involved in the arts do well in school? Researchers have found links between the focus and motivation gained by pursuing the arts and academic achievement.

Play games that require kids to pay attention. Try the “I Spy” game, “red light, green light,” musical chairs and puzzles. Encourage games with rules that children have to remember.

Read stories in ways that encourage kids to listen, focus and remember. For example, ask preschoolers to listen to a line or two of a nursery rhyme or book and repeat it with you.

Ways to promote cognitive flexibility and self control

Choose computer games that require kids to think flexibly. Some researchers use computer games to promote these skills. In one, the children are given a joystick to move a cartoon cat around on a computer screen. At first the cat is surrounded by grass, but patches of mud begin to appear on the screen. The task is to keep the cat away from the mud, which requires a variety of skills.

Play games where kids can’t go on “automatic pilot.” You can start this with three-year-olds, but it’s best for children four and older. For example, there’s a “peg tapping” game: if you tap once,  your child should tap twice or you tap twice, the child taps once. Or in a “Simon says” variation, do the opposite. Players do the opposite of what the leader says. If “Simon says stand up….” children are supposed to sit, and so forth.

‘Do you want one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later?’

In a famous research project that Dr. Walter Mischel, now at Columbia University, started in the 1960s, four year olds were asked whether they wanted one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. Then the experimenter left the room. The children who wanted two marshmallows waited until the experimenter returned (15 minutes), but if they didn’t want to wait, they could ring a bell and bring her back. To watch a video of this experiment, go to

Sounds simple, but this study has had dramatic findings over time. As the children grew up, those who waited longer for their marshmallows were also able to pursue their academic and other goals more successfully–with less frustration and with less distraction.

As adults, the children who were able to wait longer achieved a higher educational level, were less likely to engage in bullying behavior and had less drug use. While the children who did not wait were in no way doomed, the study points to the significance of the life skills of focus and self control for children.

The children in this study used wonderful strategies to resist temptation. Some turned their back on the marshmallows or sat on their hands. Others sang songs to keep themselves distracted or shook their heads as if to say ”no, no, no.”

Dr. Mischel found that kids can be taught to use these and other techniques to help them manage frustration and delay gratification. The small things that parents can do make a big difference!

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