10 Things I Wish I’d Known About Raising ‘Smart Enough’ Kids

by Karen Nimmo
JGI/Jamie Gril / Getty

Raising kids doesn’t appear on any lists of the world’s most stressful jobs but — no disrespect to mountain guides or stuntmen — I think parenting is right up there. Emotionally, at least.

A young mother I worked with was worried about how much screen time her three-year-old son was having. She’d been struggling with anxiety around her parenting and the iPad was a go-to strategy when she needed time out from him.

Now she feared she was nurturing a tiny gaming addict.

“I want him to be tech savvy, but I want him to do other, healthier things,” she said.

“What do you have in mind?”

“That’s the problem. I want to be the best mother, but all I can think about is everything I’m doing wrong. Do you have any advice?”

I hesitated. Long ago I learned there’s no point telling anxious young parents to let go their perfectionist standards, both for themselves and their children— they won’t hear you. Nor will they believe every parent screws up, even though we who’ve raised kids know it’s true.

It takes raw experience to learn it’s not only okay to grow “smart enough, nice enough, happy enough” kids — it’s also a triumph.

Looking back, I know I left some things out of my daughters’ “life education” and I’ll never get that time back. I’ve also seen difficulties amongst adolescent clients which stemmed from skills they hadn’t learned as children.

So for this young mother and others like her, here are the 10 Life Skills for ‘Smart Enough’ Kids I’d go to if I was doing it all again:

1. Amuse yourself (without technology).

Encourage children to play alone sometimes; they shouldn’t need or crave external stimulation. Provide young kids with creative toys (blocks, toy animals, dress-up clothes, sand and water, and let them invent games. Don’t constantly intervene and make suggestions. They need to answer their own questions and — if necessary — laugh at their own jokes).

2. Finish something. Like your own homework.

Kids do need to try lots of things and they don’t need to finish every single thing they start. But often they give up because they don’t think their work is good enough. Teach them it’s okay to make bad art; they won’t be judged for it. While it’s good to praise effort, don’t talk up truly awful art — smart kids will see right through that. And guide homework, but don’t do it for them. You’ll take away their power.

3. Ask a good question (and absorb the answer).

Being able to ask a question that shows genuine interest in another person (and listening to their response) is the hallmark of social intelligence. Good social skills turn into good communication skills and transfer across many contexts. Put some effort into this one.

4. Name your top three strengths.

It’s helpful for kids to know and name what they are good at. You’d be surprised how many adults can’t do this. Test yourself (leaving out your work strengths). Teach kids to add things to the list as they try new things and learn new skills.

5. Make up a story (but don’t lie).

By this I mean make up a fictional story, to be able to put words together imaginatively. Help kids out by starting a story and letting them finish it. Make them the hero, sometimes. But beware of the crossover into Real Life — that’s called a lie and it’s not a skill you want to foster.

6. Read a book.

Reading doesn’t come easily to everyone. But this is a metaphor — as an extension of playing on their own, kids need to learn how to sit still. Too many young people hit adulthood with a restlessness they can’t shake. Being still means you can relax WITHOUT activity. That’s Art.

7. Settle a fight.

Conflict resolution skills are gold — so start early. Kids need time and ways to resolve a dispute without intervention. No bullying tactics allowed either! Listen and guide their ideas: they often have clever and novel solutions.

8. Cry.

Children need to know it’s okay to express their feelings. You can teach them to name different emotions — and they should be able to go beyond the Big 3: happy, sad and angry. It’s the basis for sound emotional expression as they grow into adulthood.

9. Stop crying.

A key part of emotional expression — the one that’s often left out — is being able to calm yourself down after being sad, angry or even over-excited. It is a learned skill and you need to guide your kids as to how much is too much — both in their emotions and behaviour. Too many young adults don’t know when or how to turn off the tears or the frustration. The type and amount of emotional expression should be appropriate for the situation.

10. Make a sandwich.

Okay, it’s not really about the sandwich. It’s about meeting a primal need. It’s about planning, hunting and gathering fillings, thinking through process. It’s about creativity, adaptability and problem solving. It’s teaching good nutrition AND trying to ensure your kid never goes hungry. When they leave home, it might be the most valuable skill of all.