Are Your Self-Centered Kids On the Way to Being Unemployable Adults?

Five Dos & Don'ts to Help You Reverse the Trend



In the Smart Machine Age, it's our human skills and our "Otherness" that will lead to career success. Yet everything about our culture encourages us to parent for self-absorption.

Coauthors Katherine Ludwig and Ed Hess offer some how-to (and how-NOT-to) advice for breaking the cycle and raising kids who put others first.           

Collaborating and emotionally connecting with other human beings may be the most important job and life skills for the next generation of workers. We hear this all the time. And it makes sense: Because robots and artificial intelligence will automate routine cognitive and manual work on a massive scale over the next 10 to 15 years, the few jobs left in the Smart Machine Age will be those that require continuous learning, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation—tasks at which humans need other people's help and contributions to excel.          

Although we've all been told the robots are taking over and we'd better hone our human-to-human skills, we parents have yet to change our outdated ways, says Katherine Ludwig. We're not really teaching our kids to value others and practice teamwork. In fact, we're doing the opposite.           

"With the intention of helping their kids succeed, parents are implicitly and sometimes explicitly teaching them to be self-interested to the point of self-absorption," notes Ludwig, coauthor along with Ed Hess of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4, $27.95). "And it's not hard to see the influences pushing us in that direction. "We live in a 'selfie' culture, and rates of narcissism are rising," she says. "What's more, society and the country's education system support and encourage self-focused values by rewarding individual achievement and competition more than teamwork and collaboration. Parents are simply getting swept along with the current. To resist is increasingly difficult and even countercultural—but we really MUST do so for the sake of our kids' futures."           

As Ludwig and Hess explain in their book, workers in the near future will need to possess a trait called "Otherness." Essentially, it's a tendency to focus less on ourselves and more on other people—on what we can learn from and with them and how we can best serve them. To do this requires that we build strong, trustworthy relationships with others. It also requires that we be more mindful and open-minded and less self-centered and that we rise above our cultural (and very American) preoccupation with individualism.           

Research shows that humans are psychologically wired to connect with and care about other humans, but that in many ways today's parents compromise and devalue that instinct—albeit with good intentions. Just one example: A now famous 2014 Harvard survey of 10,000 middle and high school students around the country asked the students to pick which of three goals they and their parents most cared about: that the student grow up to (1) achieve at a high level, (2) be happy, or (3) care about others. Eighty percent of kids picked high achievement as both their parents' and their own top priority.          

"We often downplay the importance of kindness, caring, and collaboration at school, home, and work," says Hess. "That's too bad, because kids who can cultivate their instincts for compassion, empathy, and connection will be at a distinct career advantage in the future."           

Here's the good news: Parents can better encourage their children's development of Otherness, but it will likely require making some very bold, courageous decisions that go very much against the cultural grain. In the short-term these decisions may be inconvenient for parents, unpopular with kids, annoying to coaches, and perplexing to other parents. For the long-term, however, these are sacrifices worth making, because the old rules of achievement and success will no longer apply in the Smart Machine Age. Here are some dos and don'ts.

1 – DON'T Make Your Kids' Schedules the Center of the Family Universe. When we value our kids' time and activities over everything and everyone else, we are sending a message that they should too. When we as parents sacrifice our own time to strengthen our own relationships—with our spouses, extended families, and own friends—in order to manage the increasingly busy schedules of our kids, we are sending a message that other people's needs and time aren't important and that relationship-building isn't as valuable as our kids' individual pursuits. In the guise of selfless parenting, we are raising selfish, ungrateful, self-absorbed kids. Here's the bottom line: If you're spending almost every weeknight and weekend running the kids around to their various lessons, events, and social engagements, stop. If you find yourself about to cancel a family vacation or reschedule long-held plans to visit with relatives to accommodate kids' sports tournaments or travel leagues, take a step back. If family mealtimes have become rare, you need to adjust. What has become culturally normal is not advisable nor is it unchangeable. 

"Spending dinner as a family more days of the week than not may seem radical in this day and age, but it's a very direct way to force changes to a schedule that's gotten out of whack," says Ludwig. "Limit kids' extracurriculars to one or two per week and sports to one per season and even require that kids take a season off. Unless a college scout is going to be in attendance, setting a rule that family vacations and plans won't be missed or changed to accommodate unanticipated games or kids' events sends a strong message that people outside their bubble matter."

2 – DON'T Advocate for Kids at the Expense of Others. One of our main jobs as parents is to protect our kids, but too often these days that instinct veers into unnecessary and potentially harmful territory. Instead of just ensuring that our kids are safe and get what they need, we fight for what we think they deserve or desire—whether it's a better grade, more playing time, or special treatment or dispensation. Teachers and coaches from preschool to the college level report a dramatic increase in parental involvement than in previous generations. "In many cases, being your child's advocate and enforcer means putting his or her interests in front of others'," says Ludwig. "It means inconveniencing other children or demeaning another grownup or authority figure. Not only does this deprive kids of the opportunity to experience and develop resiliency to life's ups and downs—it shows them that other people's desires and needs are relatively unimportant. If you constantly take your kids' side in every dispute, you are not teaching compassion or empathy."

Her advice? The next time you find yourself about to email a coach, call a teacher, or complain to another parent, first ask yourself three questions: (1) Is this a situation that does NOT directly endanger my child's safety and well-being? (2) Am I about to advocate for special treatment or to put my kid's needs ahead of someone else's? (3) Is this something my kid would rather handle herself?  If the answer to any of these is yes, back off. DO

3 – Celebrate Teamwork, Helping, and Kindness at Least as Much as Individual Achievements. In the Smart Machine Age, helpers and good team players who are other-focused will be in high demand. To get our children to value these skills requires that we value and promote them. Instead of saving the best accolades and awards for the highest scorers, loudest talkers, and biggest achievers, we need to raise the profile of the kids who assist, are good friends, help others, and listen well. We need to value relationship-building, collaboration, and compassion as much as if not more than competitiveness in our kids.

"Instead of immediately discussing how well your kid did on a test or at a game or performance, first ask: Who else in your class or on your team performed well or contributed? Whom did you help or assist?" suggests Hess. "Also, make a point of discussing those social and emotional assessments on their report cards at least as much as how well they scored in math or science. Consider implementing a family ritual of sharing and celebrating acts of kindness that each family member has given or received during the week."

4 – DON'T Constantly Cater to Individual Desires at the Expense of Compromise and Togetherness. While the average household size has decreased from 3 to 2.5 since the mid-1970s, the median size of a single-family home has more than doubled during that time, and the cost of many material goods has greatly decreased. More and more kids today have their own bedrooms, TVs, cell phones, computers, and headphones to block out the rest of the family on their own devices—all at younger and younger ages. As they get older, teens get their own hangout areas in the house and their own cars in the driveway. Everything they have can be monogrammed and self-branded—from clothes and furniture to social media accounts. Everyone gets to eat what they want, when they want. Often the purpose of giving kids their own space and stuff is as much to provide greater convenience to parents as it is to meet a child's or teen's needs for individual comfort or expression, points out Hess. Unfortunately, kids who aren't forced to share or compromise in their own families very often won't develop the ability to do so with the wider world when they grow up. They won't learn to be team players and helpers who give more than take.

"It's hard to taketh away what's already been given, but look for ways to encourage more togetherness and compromising at home," he suggests. "It is possible to share a family TV, to ban headphones from the car unless it's a long trip, and to have a take it or leave it policy on scheduled meals. It is possible for siblings to share important stuff including a car."

5 – DO Connect Individual Interests and Goals to the Service of Others. Parents have a large role to play in encouraging kids to discover their individual strengths and interests, set goals, and develop the motivation to pursue their dreams. But no longer can their achievement of success, financially or otherwise, be divorced from building relationships with and serving other people. In the Smart Machine Age, the lines between personal life and livelihood will be blurred, and socially and emotionally engaging with other people and Otherness will be critical skills and behaviors not just for a happy home life but for a fulfilling career. In other words, instead of teaching kids to maximize individual achievements in academics, arts, or sports for their own benefit, parents should be helping them connect their interests and goals to the engagement with and service of other people.

"Ensure that academically driven kids make time to tutor younger students," suggests Ludwig. "If they are athletic, require that they also give back to their sport by volunteer coaching or refereeing or gathering and distributing used equipment to underprivileged kids. If they are artistic, suggest that they mentor younger kids or help with artistic fundraisers and benefits. Steer good writers and speakers to volunteer their talents to meaningful causes. The key is to instill a sense that helpfulness to others deserves time and attention and is an end in itself—not a means to college acceptance or résumé fodder."  Some parents may be taken aback by these guidelines, Ludwig and Hess admit.           "Abiding by some of these dos and don'ts will go against the cultural grain and will be unpopular and uncomfortable in the short-term," says Ludwig. "But these sacrifices are worth making for the long-term in the Smart Machine Age. And I think when we get mindful of the messages we're sending, and really make the changes, we'll find they're not sacrifices at all. They lead to richer, deeper, more fulfilling lives for parents and children alike." 

Ed Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business,  and Katherine Ludwig are the authors of the new book Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017), which puts forth a new model called NewSmart, designed to help humans thrive alongside technology in the Smart Machine Age. For more information, please visit  and Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, January 2017, ISBN: 978-1-626-56875-4, $27.95) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.