Beyond book smarts

Eleven skills young people really need to be successful in the real world

For high school seniors and their parents this is the time of year when scholastic success is squarely in the spotlight. Soon-to-be grads and their moms and dads are anxiously watching the mailbox for college acceptance letters. All those parental admonishments to study, study, study finally bear fruit. Underlying the waiting—and the shrieks of joy when the coveted “thick envelope” finally arrives—is an assumption that few people question: Academic achievement is the cornerstone of lifelong success.         

 Not true, says Maribeth Kuzmeski. While grades are surely important, they’re not everything. Indeed, book smarts may play less of a role in their future success than a skill set that’s increasingly neglected in a culture where texting and posting have replaced talking: the ability to connect and engage with other people.    

“Ironically, while today’s young people are more ‘connected’ than any other generation in history, they have a crippling ability to, well, connect,” says Kuzmeski, author of the new book The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technology (Red Zone Publishing, 2012, $18.95). “They can text and update Facebook all day long—but many of them struggle to carry on the most basic conversations and can barely articulate what they want or need. Stacked up against that reality, straight A’s lose some of their luster.”

Her point is simple: A teen can be Harvard-bound, but if she lacks the ability to effectively communicate one-on-one she’s going to miss out on opportunities both in college and in the working world. That’s why instead of encouraging kids to spend all their free time studying in their room, parents should be teaching them to hold their own in challenging face-to-face conversations. After all, the global marketplace demands the ability to persuade, collaborate, and make meaningful connections.

Giving parents the tools they’ll need to help their children develop a strong ability to connect with others is the focus of Kuzmeski’s latest book. As a bonus, the author’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Lizzie, wrote the last two chapters. They are meant to be read by Lizzie’s fellow teens and tweens in order to provide a peer’s perspective on the elements of building and maintaining real relationships in a wired and fast-paced world.      

“Look ahead to the future and consider what your young adult will be like in college and, later, the job market,” advises Kuzmeski. “If you picture an intelligent kid who gets straight As but who is also constantly on whatever gadget he’s typing on, he may not have the skills needed to express himself properly both with his peers and adults. And that means his potential success will be limited.”

Kuzmeski lays out a few of the skills today’s kids need to be developing:

Conversation: The ability to talk with adults. When it’s time to have a good old-fashioned verbal conversation, especially with someone they don’t know well, many kids tend to clam up. Whether your child is a chatterbox at home or not, opening up to strangers can be quite intimidating. Make it a habit to start practicing with him during the morning car ride to school or at the dinner table—and put him in as many social situations with adults as possible. “Even before the days of smartphones and Facebook, it was completely normal for young people to feel reluctant to approach older adults,” Kuzmeski points out. “You’ll be doing your teens a big favor if you arm them with icebreakers that they can use to proactively connect. Before social events, go over what some good topics of discussion might be and help them to make a list of strategies for drumming up conversation. Doing so will not only help them hold good conversations, it will also help them power through any awkward lulls in conversation that might otherwise discourage them from taking the connecting initiative in the future.”

Writing: The ability to write with clarity (and grammar). Mastering the art of written communication is truly about practice, practice, practice. Unfortunately, it’s very likely today’s teens aren’t getting all the help they need in this arena through the writing they do at school. Writing a research paper on the cultural implications of banning books, for example, and writing a heartfelt, grammatically correct thank-you note or an effective cover letter are very different beasts.

“Have your teen write thank-you notes for all the gifts she receives for her birthday,” advises Kuzmeski. “Give her pointers on how to make each one special for the individual note recipient. Another way to practice is by having her write notes she needs for school. The next time she has a dentist appointment, have her write out the letter explaining her absence and then you approve it and sign it.

“Once your teen has perfected these short notes, ask her to write a mock cover letter and résumé for her dream job and then give pointers on how to improve it,” she adds. “And constantly explain why all of this is important. Those thank-you notes might not seem like a very big deal, but when she’s in college and needs to write an email to a professor, she’ll be grateful she had so much practice.”

Listening: Understanding how and why to really listen to others. How many times have you been trying to tell your teen something as she’s frantically texting a friend? Now ask yourself this: How many times has she had the exact same experience with you? If you’re sheepishly putting down your smartphone, you probably know what you’re about to read. A significant part of raising teens who listen is setting the example of being a good listener yourself. Explain how important it is for your teens to fully engage with others by truly listening to them.

“Teach them that they can’t fully engage with someone if they aren’t curiously listening,” says Kuzmeski. “When you’re texting or just letting your mind wander while in conversation with someone, you miss verbal and physical cues, you miss opportunities to find out more about what the person is saying, and often you miss the entire point of what they’re telling you.”

So, what does it mean to really listen? Kuzmeski offers eleven pointers for your teens (and you!):

In addition to hearing what someone else has said, actively try to understand his or her words in your own way and ensure that you understand what he or she means. Ask questions to confirm that any assumptions you’ve made are true.

Make sure the speaker has your full attention. Watch for non-verbal cues, stay focused, and don’t interrupt.

Show that you’re listening. Let your face display a range of emotions that reflect that you’re paying attention, and acknowledge what the speaker is saying every so often with an “uh-huh” or a “sure.”

Most importantly, remember that you’re there for the speaker, not the other way around. Your job isn’t to jump to conclusions or one-up the other person with a story of your own! “Because so few people truly practice the art of listening, it’s the most effective way to make lasting connections with others,” confirms Kuzmeski. “Being a good listener will set your teen apart! It will make them very likeable because others will feel comfortable and valuable when they’re with them. Cultivating this skill will lead to better, more beneficial relationships in college and beyond.” 

“Face-the-Music”-ability. The willingness not to hide behind technology in uncomfortable situations. For many teens the cell phone is the new, more grown-up version of their old blankie or teddy bear. When faced with an uncomfortable situation, they hide behind it. Rather than deal with the awkwardness, they can just text a friend or see what’s happening on Facebook. What’s worse, they use technology as an “easy out” when difficult conversations loom. Instead of calling to cancel their babysitting gig, for instance, they can just text and avoid the unhappy parents on the other end.

“Young people have never been good at tough conversations—really, who is?—but now that so much of their daily communication involves typing rather than speaking they get little face-to-face practice,” says Kuzmeski. “When it’s time to give someone bad news, of course they’re going to balk. The challenge for parents is twofold: First, you have to help your kids recognize those instances when it’s better to pick up the phone and actually call someone or to meet with them in person. And second, you have to help them get more comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations. “Place a ban on texting for one week to force your teen to have to pick up the phone when she wants to communicate with someone,” she suggests. “And use mock conversations to help her figure out what is and isn’t appropriate to say in certain situations. Taking these actions will help your teen build up her comfort level with interacting with adults and peers.”

Full Engagement. Knowing when to disconnect from technology. Email, social networking, text messaging, mp3 players, and more have radically changed the way this generation communicates and spends its free time. The result is that often, whether it’s because they’re listening to their iPod or texting, teens don’t seem engaged with what’s going on around them. It’s important to teach your kids when they need to step away from the keyboard, and why face-to-face interactions are the most rewarding of all.

“Place a basket at the door before dinner each night and collect all electronic devices,” Kuzmeski suggests. “Include a note on the basket that reads, ‘So you can enjoy the people you’re with.’ Explain to your kids how important it is to engage fully with people. And don’t allow them to have their phones out in social situations. Point out that if they stay distracted by text messages and Facebook, they’ll miss out on fun and memories with the people who are actually right there in the room with them.

“Plus, kids need to understand that not giving others your attention is just plain rudeand can do major damage to their reputation and the impression they make on others,” she adds.

Valuing Relationships. Understanding why relationships matter and how to keep them. In your teen’s world, ending a relationship with someone may feel as easy as changing their relationship status or unfriending someone on Facebook. It’s a lot less painful to type snide comments or even break up with someone when you’re not there to witness the fallout. Over time, teens may come to see other people as disposable. Obviously, this is a morally bankrupt way to thinkand it certainly won’t do young people any favors when they enter a business world whose foundation is built on the ability to connect and engage.

“It’s important that parents teach kids not to be too quick to throw people away,” asserts Kuzmeski. “Explain that with the right communication skills many problems can be worked out with friends and even frenemies! If you know your teen is having a difficult time with a friend, teacher, or other acquaintance, practice the conversation they’d like to have with that person. When you’re practicing, be sure to help them pinpoint why it’s important they preserve the relationship.

“You can also showcase the value of relationships through the example of your own life. For example, perhaps you received concert tickets from a client because you were able to build a personal connection with him based on his love for jazz music. Explain to your teen how you found out about the client’s love for jazz and how you used that knowledge to form a better, more profitable relationship with the client.”

Interviewing. The ability to “sell yourself” to potential employers and others. Make sure your teen understands that when it comes to the job market, it’s not whether you can do the job that’s most pressing; it’s whether you can get the job in the first place. It’s never too early to start preparing your teen for job interviews. After all, an interview might be part of their college application process.

“Run your teen through mock job interviews to help him prepare for the difficult questions he might be asked during an interview,” says Kuzmeski. “Provide him with specific examples—such as ‘Describe how you corrected a recent mistake,’ or ‘What bugs you most about other people?’ And help him prepare what to say when he has no idea what to say. Work with him on creating an elevator speech that explains what he’s all about in just a few sentences.”

Speaking. The confidence to speak to a group. Public speaking is well documented as being a major fear for many. However, most of us have to do it at one point or other and it’s a valuable skill to have—even if you’re just speaking up during a meeting. Here again, practice will make perfect, says Kuzmeski. Just having frequent conversations with your teens will go a long way in helping them develop their speaking skills, but you can take it a step further.

“Have them give mini-presentations about recent events, whether it was the family going out to dinner or a recent field trip,” she suggests. “Go around the dinner table each night and have your kids tell about their day at school. Make them speak at family events. Help them learn how to phrase their sentences eloquently and avoid the ‘uhs,’ ‘ahs,’ and ‘likes’ that sometimes pepper our speech. Practicing with close family will help them prepare for those times when they have to present to professors, their peers, and future employers.”

Negotiation. The art of getting what you want and need (and giving a little, too). Negotiating is all about talking confidently about what you bring to the table. It’s about clearly articulating what you want and need while making others feel that they’re benefitting, too. It’s about not having a temper tantrum or slinking away in defeat when things don’t go your way. And it’s about knowing when to give, when to take, and how to do both effectively and graciously.

The next time your teen needs to negotiate—for example, to ask a teacher to move a big test from the Monday after the prom or to get a starting position on the high school basketball team—work with her on how to approach these unique conversations, suggests Kuzmeski.

“First, ask her to explain to you why she wants what she wants,” she says. “This will help her clarify her goal. Tell her to lay out everything she wants from the person upfront. And then, run her through a mock negotiation. Be a little tougher on her than you think her negotiating counterpart will be in real life so she’ll have extra confidence going into the conversation and can keep her intimidation level down.”

Etiquette. Knowing what’s appropriate. During a typical weekday dinner on almost any given day of the year, you might let it go when your kid accepts the mashed potato dish without saying thank you. You might even let a muttered, “Eeew, this is gross,” pass without comment. After all, you’re too exhausted to disrupt the meal with a lecture. However, the same under-the-breath comment when they’re eating at a friend’s house or at a formal event can have major repercussions. Therefore, says Kuzmeski, you have to take up the gauntlet when rudeness or ingratitude raises its disrespectful head.

“Be alert for opportunities to remind your children what appropriate manners are in various situations and to help them exercise those ideals while they are still in the moment,” says Kuzmeski. “For example, if your son is about to walk out the door of his grandmom’s house without thanking her for the delicious meal she just cooked, stop him in his tracks. Explain how hard his grandmom worked on the night’s dinner and that a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ is in order. “Try never to ‘let things slide just this once.’

Be a constant manners monitor! Ask for ‘Yes, ma’ams’ and ‘No, ma’ams’ and ‘Pleases’ and ‘Thank yous.’ If you instill these qualities in them while they’re in your presence, the odds are much better that they’ll remember to use them when they’re away from you. ”

Self-sufficiency. Learning problem-solving and accountability. Parents tend to do things for their kids that they could, with a little coaching, do for themselves. We set up their dental appointments, for example. We call in sick for them when they need to miss a day of school. And we have a tendency to bail them out whenever they’re in trouble—for example, calling their teacher to get an extension on a paper due date or asking for extra credit opportunities to bring up a low grade. We do these things because they don’t seem unreasonable at the time and because we’ve always done them—and in the process we squander what could be rich learning opportunities. That’s why in The Engaging Child Kuzmeski encourages parents to view everyday life as a “learning lab,” using everything from turning down party invitations to returning clothes that are the wrong size as practice runs for their kids.

“When your child reaches her teens, you have to begin showing her what accountability is all about,” says Kuzmeski. “She needs to understand that you’re not always going to be there to do her dirty work. When you force her to handle these situations on her own, she can really feel the consequences, which will improve the way she’ll act in future situations. You’ll force her to become self-sufficient—and the earlier you do it the more you can monitor her progress and guide her when needed.”          

“Of course, you’re not going to be able to instill all of these qualities into your kids in a week,” says Kuzmeski. “It will take time for them to catch on to the benefits of developing their communication skills outside of texting shorthand. That’s why it’s best to start these lessons long before your teen is filling out college applications. Start helping them learn to truly connect with others now, and when they are entering college or the job market, they’ll be poised for great things.”

Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, CSP, is the author of six books including And the Clients Went Wild! and The Connectors, and is a frequent national media contributor and international speaker. Maribeth and her firm, Red Zone Marketing, Inc., consult and train businesses from financial services firms to Fortune 500 corporations on strategic marketing planning and business growth. She has personally consulted with some of the world’s most successful CEOs, entrepreneurs, and professionals. Maribeth lives in the Chicago, IL, area with her husband and two teenagers.