Investors are constantly told to "diversify" the portfolios. Don't put all your money in stocks -- what if the market plunges? But don't put all your money in bonds -- you'll miss the market rallies. And for God's sake, don't put all your money in one company.
Or, to put it an older way: Don't put all your eggs in one basket.
When it comes to our kids, however, many of today's parents have been told not to diversify at all. Just make them college material.
That has meant a childhood concentrated on academic success and "resume building." To be sure, it's good to learn how to write a persuasive essay (I'm doing that right now!) and some world history. Nothing wrong with lacrosse or coding, either.
But the time and energy (and sometimes money) being devoted to resume building can be draining. And the abilities kids develop beyond the classroom or extracurricular could end up being the most valuable of all.
I'm the president of Let Grow. Before this, I wrote the book Free-Range Kids and started the movement by that name. But in my spare time, every fall I volunteer as an alumni interviewer for Yale. Over the years, I've interviewed over 100 students and I can say that all schoolwork and no fun makes for some dull boys and girls.
The students I recommend are generally very excited about at least some facet of their formal education, but also about something they have discovered on their own.
- One girl started a class on "Real World Skills" at her school after she found out her friend couldn't sew a button on a coat.
- One boy started his own website business (and if a request got too technical, he outsourced it to overseas programmers).
- Another girl started a comic strip in her school paper.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays from excellent students. They are looking for something extra.
And so is the business world. Human resources departments say that "soft skills" are what today's labor force is lacking. In a Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives, 92% said "soft skills" were equally important or more important than technical skills. The buzz is that many young employees lack the ability to collaborate, innovate, and communicate in-real-life.
Building a fort in the woods can teach kids everything they'd learn in Robotics Camp and more. They still have to gather materials, come up with a plan, execute and test it. Often they work in teams. But unlike Robotics campers, they are building the fort because of the fierce desire to make something in the world -- something adults may not ever see or comment on or compliment. This is the "self-driven" element that psychologists are coming to recognize as crucial to emotional and real world success.
The skills kids learn when simply organizing themselves are the exact skills businesses want: collaboration, innovation, communication. Even when just doing something on their own, alone -- tinkering, say, or drawing -- they learn focus and perseverance. At Let Grow, we call these "non-robot skills" -- a skill set robots don't share.
A young boy in Miami spent his free time picking up the fruit that fell to the ground from all the fruit trees in the neighborhood. He put it in his little red wagon and then he went around the neighborhood, selling it.
No prizes for this. No extra-curricular class. Nothing he could brag about on a college application. He just loved selling other people's stuff. And he still does.
His name is Jeff Bezos.
It is hard these days to give our kids free time. Parents worry that it's wasted time, because no one is teaching the tykes something that has a name, like "chess." Adults worry, too, that maybe the kids will spend a lot of that free time watching YouTube videos instead of building that goshdarn, super-iconic, character-expanding fort.
Of course some time will be "wasted"! But some time is wasted in classes, homework, and extracurriculars, too. (Not to mention in the car rides there!) But honestly: Can you still do a quadratic equation? Diagram a sentence? Do you still play field hockey?
There are a lot of hours in a week. Kids need some of them back to spend alone or with friends in ways that may not seem valuable, but probably are — even SnapChatting (being creative, social). Or doing Minecraft (building, sharing). Or watching cat videos (a mindless amusement that distracts attention from some of the anxiety and depression gripping so many kids).
Let's allow kids to "diversify" beyond the skills they get in one formal setting or another. The future (and maybe even Yale) awaits.