The four essential skills every 21st-century parent and teacher should instill in the next generation

Tommy Otzen,
Co-founder of KUBO Robotics
Odense, Denmark

Shortly after the turn of the 21st century, a group of business, education, and policy leaders put their heads together to figure out what skills were most important for children to learn in a world run on technology. They came up with four Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Some kids learn these skills faster than others. Their parents and teachers expose them to technology at a young age—and not just as users of computers, tablets, or smartphones. They are taught instead the language technology speaks, how to wield these digital powers, and how to work alongside technology. They begin to see how machines are put together and how they function, from their components to their coding.

Those lessons give children a leg up over their peers and a fluency in technology that will expand their career prospects and prepare them to lead an automated future.

Here’s what the best parents instill in their children from an early age, and how it benefits them for their entire lives.

Critical thinking
Critical thinking is not just a way to immunize your kids against fake news—it is the fundamental skill that separates creators from mere users. In a now-famous video, Steve Jobs revealed his secret of life:

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

What Jobs leaves unsaid is that without critical thinking skills, you’ll never be able to find room for improvement. By teaching children coding, parents and teachers train young minds to look for these opportunities. In programming, looking for mistakes is natural. From debugging code to improving an app’s functionality, seeking out and finding room for improvement is a path to learning new things.

Many parents (and increasingly, schools) teach their children multiple languages at an early age, taking advantage of children’s flexible minds to help them reach fluency faster. The “bilingual advantages” that come with this are more than just multiple ways to communicate: they include better focus, problem-solving, and the ability to multitask.

While most multilingual children learn two or more human languages, code might be a better choice for kids today. In the future, our children will be working alongside both humans and machines, and their ability to interact with and communicate with robots and AI will be just as important as their ability to interact with co-workers.

By starting early, children more easily absorb and internalize the concepts of programming, allowing them to direct and work alongside machines as effectively as they communicate with their classmates and coworkers.

The greatest collaboration involves working with others who have different strengths and perspectives than you do. Creating an environment where that’s possible, both among humans and between humans and machines, starts when kids are young.

Parents who teach their kids how to work with technology make that kind of collaboration possible. Children are open to anything, and gender-neutral toys can introduce the concepts of coding even before first grade, teaching kids to interact and collaborate with technology.

Wait too long, however, and children’s identities settle into place. Trying to introduce technology in high school is a lot tougher than introducing it in elementary school. The parents and teachers who introduce science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) early help raise children more capable of collaborating not only with each other but with the automated systems and technologies that will dominate daily life in the coming decades. Working well with technology and others is essential to their future.

In one of the most popular TED talks of all time, Sir Ken Robinson breaks down how schools kill creativity. He says of children:

“They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original … And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

At a certain age, some students are afraid to raise their hand in class out of fear of looking stupid if they get the answer wrong.

Programming and working with technology take a different approach: finding mistakes is a good thing. Children’s creative capacity grows when they are able to experiment, review the results of what they’ve done, and then try something new. As Robinson notes, if children aren’t taught to embrace and explore mistakes, they’ll “never come up with anything original.”

What to do now
Whether you’re already teaching your children these skills or have yet to start, find ways to help them explore, experiment, and work with others on technology. Don’t just teach them to use devices or software, teach them to be creators. You’ll instill the 21st-century skills they’ll need in the classroom, and eventually, the workplace. Start now and they’ll reap the benefits for years to come.

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