How much thought have you given to developing a theory of your kids' future? According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's latest report, kids ages 8 to 18 spend an average of six hours daily with electronic media (mostly TV, followed by computers, then video games) and less than half an hour reading books.
If you think your kids' future is spelled out in The Matrix, then read no further. You have nothing to worry about. In fact, you'll probably want to join the pop-media chorus in praise of Steven Johnson's new book, Everything Bad Is Good for You (Riverhead, 2005), which praises, well, pop media. He posits that video games such as Grand Theft Auto teach kids how to deduce a subtle hidden architecture of rules.
But I don't want my children to spend their waking hours deciphering someone else's rules, like a clerk in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. I want them to learn how to make their own. Pop media may be more complex and therefore more cognitively challenging than it used to be, but Johnson overreaches by crediting media's new complexity with raising IQ levels in the general population. That's like crediting Big Macs for the fact that people are generally taller than they were generations ago.
The alternative to marinating kids in TV and video games is not an easy call. Friends of ours, John and Florence, rebelled against the pop-media option with an approach shared by lots of parents and documented in Judith Warner's book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (Riverhead, 2005). By age 2, their daughter, Lydia, had a schedule of structured daily activities. Soon after, the lessons started: piano, French, fencing, and so forth. They wanted Lydia to have every advantage in the competitive climb. Lydia's sweet, but she's uncomfortable when there is "nothing to do." She'll declare, "I'm bored," while flipping on the tube. She waits for her folks to tell her what's next and then plows through the weekly schedule. When I ask her if she's having fun, she stares at me blankly.
While I don't agree that everything bad is good for you, Lydia's life reminds me that everything good can be bad for you. Flo and John haven't prepared her for the future but for today's workplace in which success and happiness depend on excellent performance according to prescribed criteria. This approach is making plenty of people miserable. According to the latest Conference Board report, only 14% of U.S. employees are very satisfied with their jobs; 25% say they're just showing up to collect a paycheck; and 66% say they can't identify with their employer's business objectives. Why get our kids ready for a world that's already in cardiac arrest? What will replace it?
Already we're seeing signs that the workplace of the future will bear little resemblance to today's centrally administered hierarchies. Work will be more ad hoc, on the fly, and responsive. Successful employees won't be afraid of new situations without rules. They'll be expected to use their knowledge, imagination, independent judgment, and critical thinking, while leveraging disparate resources — from information to communities — to construct the best solution that's aligned with core principles. The rapid and dynamic demands of problem anticipation, identification, and solution will put a premium on continuous learning.
So what does this mean for our kids? It means they should be self-managing independent thinkers as well as good empathizers and collaborators. Rather than constant external stimulation or structured activities, they need uncluttered time in which to let their imaginations unfurl. Kids well armed for this new world will benefit from immersion in the rights and obligations of teamwork and community endeavors, balanced with the self-expression that comes from learning how to write. Above all, this vision of the future calls for kids who are deeply literate, with all the sense-making capabilities that attend passionate reading.
A decade ago, my husband and I began a journey to figure out how to help our own kids develop these personal resources. I can't say we've found all the answers, but our family has had a lot of fun asking the questions. "No TV on school nights" was an easy one. Most of it has been more subtle. How to ignite their thirst for reading? How to celebrate languorous afternoons in which they have nothing to do but what they make up? When they were little, I told them, "Only boring people can be bored," and the notion stuck. We've laid our bet on a theory of the future. You may not agree with it, but think hard about yours. Do it now, or pop-media mavens will do it for you.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.