When my three daughters were young, their grandparents lived close by. They had a tradition of individual, one-on-one dinners each week; treasured times for both my children and their grandparents. As my eldest daughter moved from 3rd to 4th grade, she had more homework and projects to complete and time for these dinners became harder to create. We believed so much in the value of these relationships that my husband and I did something radical: we changed schools.
We moved them to a small, for-profit alternative education school, VanDamme Academy, with a stated “no homework” policy. They still had to read 20 minutes each night and prepare for tests, but they had none of the endless busywork. They had TIME. Time to develop relationships with both family and friends. We knew these social skills were essential to their lifelong health and well-being and that they could only be gained through personal interactions, not from studying a textbook.
Socializing is considered the enemy of learning and is discouraged in classrooms. Yet, we are profoundly social creatures, according to Matthew Lieberman, UCLA neuroscientist and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. He asserts that our need to connect with others, starting as newborns, is critical to our survival. Lieberman says:
“To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”
The current structure of our education system creates disconnection and isolation by requiring so many hours of study and test preparation, thus limiting the time available for developing social skills. We now know that the lack of social skills in childhood is a leading indicator of loneliness and depression in adolescents (Scientific American, January 2018, “The Toxic Well of Loneliness”). Former U.S. Surgeon, General Dr. Vivek Murthy, considers isolation and the effects of being socially disconnected a worse threat to well-being than cancer or disease. He believes that the resultant “epidemic of loneliness” has created a public health crisis.
We are quick to lay blame on social media for the high levels of anxiety and depression in our youth. Yet, how else do they socially connect with each other when their opportunities for physical interaction are diminished? When their time is scheduled down to the minute? I am not minimizing the negative impact that social media has had on children, but I am questioning our interpretation that it, by itself, is the reason for so much widespread anxiety and depression.
Our cultural worship of cognitive learning at the expense of equally important “non-cognitive” human factors has widespread implications for their future. A recent Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students” by Valerie Strauss highlights the need for these “non-cognitive” skills:
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Further support comes from new research entitled, “The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market” by David Deming, Professor of Education and Economics at Harvard. It describes the following:
The labor market increasingly rewards social skills. Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Math-intensive but less social jobs – including many STEM occupations – shrank by 3.3 percentage points over the same period. Employment and wage growth was particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both math skill and social skill.
The boundaries between school life and home life have blurred in the past two decades. The homework load, in particular, has dictated how we prioritize our children’s time. We need to find a balance that allows time for the development and nurturing of relationships and the essential learning they provide. Empathy, communication, and listening are just a few of the many skills developed through relationships. As machines increasingly replace routine tasks, our value is our humanness. Helping our children develop their connections to others is essential to their lifelong health and well-being, as well as their ability to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow.