When engineers build something expensive and important, they try to “future-proof” it. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, future-proofing means “to design software, a computer, etc. so that it can still be used in the future, even when technology changes.” On other words, something that’s future-proof is able to adapt and change as the world around it changes.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could “future-proof” our kids?
We sort of can! In terms of our kids, future-proofing means making them flexible, resourceful and resilient enough so that when jobs change or even disappear, they can land on their feet. When kids get some practice dealing with disappointment, risk, and frustration, they get stronger.
We’re not talking about Dickensian childhoods. Just ones where kids are allowed to figure some things out on their own, make some mistakes, maybe even fight some battles. Treating them as physically and emotionally fragile is the opposite of “future-proofing.”
For example: Kids who climb trees “dose” themselves with a little bit more fear each time. They are acclimating to risk. Ground those kids and they’re safer from falling. But they’re less safe from a future that’s going to be, at times, scarier than any tree top.
Trying to prevent all disappointment and discomfort for your kid doesn’t work. They’re going to have to face those disappointments and discomforts eventually. Let them do it now, when you can help them if they get overwhelmed.
What does future-proofing for kids look like?
Start by remembering that we don’t know what the future holds—only that it will be surprising. Then get your kids prepared for surprises by not always having an adult on hand to fix things fast. It’s when something goes wrong that kids rise to the occasion with all their resources. Those are the resources they’ll need in the future, so start developing them now! Here’s how engineers approach future-proofing, and how you can apply the same concepts to your kids.
Learn to Adapt.
In construction terms, this means using durable materials that can handle the elements. In human terms, it means kids learning to adapt to changing, even challenging, circumstances. This is something kids do all day long in play. When one kid says, “I’m sick of always playing kick ball!” the others have to adapt to this disruption. Then the play goes on.
Strengthen Receptivity and Reinforce Flexibility.
Similarly, when confronted by an insult or hurt feelings, future-proofed kids may flinch, but they don’t fall apart. If we bring up kids telling them they are so fragile they could be hurt by an unkind word, they become the opposite of flexible. They are on the lookout for words that can “break” them. Future-proofing kids helps them employ critical thinking skills. They can receive information or experience something and consider a variety of responses.
When we only focus kids on building their “college resume” skills they don’t have time to grow all the other interests that might serve them well. The hours a kid spends drawing, tinkering, exploring, or even cooking might be more useful in the long run than four years of French or violin lessons. In engineering, to diversify means to “include different sources, uses, capabilities, and economic models rather than one dominant trait.” That one dominant trait among kids— college-readiness—isn’t enough.
Nothing endures but change. Anyone who can’t “pivot” can be left behind. Creativity and adaptability don’t flourish when kids’ time is spent only completing activities prescribed by someone else. Think of the autocratic countries where the kids spend the majority of their day at school, memorizing things that can be Googled. That’s already obsolete. Learning how to come up with a new idea, create consensus, even tell a joke— these are “non-robot skills” that won’t become obsolete…because the robots can’t do them. That’s future-proofing.
No one is going to sail through life without some setbacks. Kids are fortified when they are allowed to experience hundreds of scrapes, falls, arguments, and losses, each one building another tiny layer of resilience. Giving kids trophies as if they’ve won when they’ve lost, or intervening in all arguments as if they can’t handle a spat—these take away the opportunity to survive a minor setback, see that it’s not the end, and be fortified for the next.
Consider life cycle benefits.
To engineers, this phrase means to consider what already exists in the built environment, rather than just tearing everything down and starting anew. When it comes to kids, consider what already exists when they are born. Curiosity. Sociability. Resilience. These innate qualities mean our kids come pre-equipped to take some risks and deal with some disappointments.
Looking for more ways to future-proof your kids? Check out the Let Grow Project and all of our other programs designed to help you raise strong and independent kids and teens.