When my three daughters were young, they had a tradition of individual, one-on-one dinners with their grandparents each week. 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 our girls to a small, alternative education school with a stated “no homework” policy. While they had to read each night and prepare for tests, there was none of the endless busywork. Most importantly, 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.
Too often, socializing is considered the enemy of learning and 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.
The current education system frequently demands that time is spent on academic endeavors after school and on weekends, limiting the time available for developing social skills. We now know that a lack of social skills in childhood is a leading indicator of loneliness and depression in adolescents.
Our cultural emphasis on cognitive learning at the expense of equally important non-cognitive human factors has widespread implications for our children’s future. A recent Washington Post article, “The surprising thing Google learned about its employees–and what it means for today’s students,” provides insight into the need for these skills. In 2013, Google tested its hiring hypothesis by reviewing employee data since its incorporation in 1998 and found surprising results:
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 for non-cognitive development 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. Deming finds:
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.
The boundaries between school and home have blurred in the past few decades. The homework load, in particular, has dictated how we prioritize our children’s time outside of the classroom. We need to find a balance that allows time for the development and nurturing of relationships and the essential learning they provide. Together, parents and schools can ensure that students have this time by reallocating some of the hours devoted to school-related work.
At home, we can model the importance of investing in relationships, while carefully reviewing the time required of academic course loads and structured extracurricular activities. At school, we can advocate for a review of homework policies as well as reward systems, such as honors assemblies and rankings, which encourage heavy workloads and individual achievement over collaboration.
My eldest daughter is now entering her senior year of college. I know that those grandparent dinners and time spent with family and friends helped her develop the skills needed to thrive academically and socially. She, along with the rest of her generation, will need these skills as they enter a dramatically transforming economy. Machines are increasingly replacing routine tasks, but they cannot replace the unique qualities of human interaction. Helping our children learn to connect with others is not only critical for their lifelong health and well-being, but it is also essential to their success in the workplace of tomorrow.