Our kids are our future—that’s a truism, of course. We sign up for parenting posterity the moment we have children, don’t we?
But let’s think for a moment. Our future, the nation’s future, the future of the world—that’s a lot of hopes and expectations to place on young shoulders, right? And are they equipped to handle it?
This month’s Nest-Ed was sparked off by an interesting conversation we had with Meghna Panwar, innovation consultant and futurist in Mumbai, who works with the UNSDG’s UNLEASH programme, and parents two young children of her own. It all began when we came across this LinkedIn post, where Meghna talked of the challenges of homeschooling thanks to Covid-19, and tried to come up with a framework of the essential skills that our children will need to grow into the next generation of responsible adults.
Printable: You can download Meghna's chart of the skills your child needs to be future-ready here.
Now, as Meghna noted, this turns out to be a skillset that conventional schoolrooms in India don’t fully address, and yet these domains are critical for our kids to cope with the challenges of the future we now foresee.
In today’s post, then, we will talk about how we equip our children with the tools to build this future we all love to dream of. How do we raise future-ready kids, starting today—that’s the question we’re looking to answer.
We will discuss the challenges awaiting our kids as they grow up, and the importance of:
Life skills for survival
Language and communication skills
and, often overlooked, general awareness (not general knowledge)
And yes, we will take these up in even greater detail in future blog posts too. But first…
What’s the UNLEASH programme?
UNLEASH is a global platform for passionate young people to come together to solve the world’s pressing challenges through a structured innovation methodology. (You’ll notice we’ve linked the programme website above, if you want to delve deeper.) Meghna, who calls herself a day-dreamer, works with UNLEASH as an innovation facilitator.
So, as part of this active global network, why does Meghna think we need education beyond conventional schooling for children to grow up future-ready?
The biggest challenges our children face as citizens of the future
Now, we’ve talked of coping with homeschooling in lockdown, when it wasn’t your first choice for your family. Meghna had to take on homeschooling for her preschooler too, and found it difficult to accept the traditional division of learning into the English, maths, arts, environment, etc buckets. ‘I felt the need to start with the “why” and then define the “what”,’ she says.
Indeed, Covid-19 has underlined the need to equip our children to not just earn a living—the focus on much of the Indian education system today—but to live responsibly (something many of us fear is getting lost in the pursuit of academic and extracurricular excellence). What will make our children more responsive and capable to tackle sustainability and community welfare?
Because those will be the challenges of the future. How do we know? Well, because the world as a whole—as an international community—already acknowledged these challenges and set the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) for a sustainable future. The plan is to “transform the world” by 2030. And these were the areas we wanted to work on:
Good health and well-being (for all)
Clean water and sanitation
Affordable water and sanitation
Affordable and clean energy
Decent work and economic growth
Industry, innovation and infrastructure
Reduced inequalities (without which, many of the other goals can’t really be met)
Sustainable cities and communities—and this is a big one for us, here and now
Responsible consumption and production
Life below water
Life on land
Peace, justice and strong institutions
Partnerships for the goals
Do you notice a theme there?
Yes, we need math, science, languages and arts to get there; but the first step is actually acknowledging the importance of:
equity, inclusivity and equal rights for all
most basic, the willingness to help, to do better and continually improve
and realising we need to work to achieve these as a whole community.
Community-level responsibility and problem-solving together—that’s the common theme to make this happen. How does one make a single child into a responsible citizenwho thinks of the whole community, the health of the whole earth, though?
We start by nurturing a sense of personal responsibility and resilience. So that’s our next section, breaking down…
Children need to learn to maintain their physical and mental well-being. Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
The skills that your future-ready child needs
While Meghna had long had a passion for minimalism and sustainable living, it was her professional growth and the environment she had chosen to work in that likely gave her the tools to realize her vision in that very simple yet effective diagram.
The break-up of the key skill areas goes like this:
Life skills, covering...
ensuring physical well-being
taking care of mental well-being
tasks of daily life, aka ‘chores’
Language and communication skills, encompassing...
fine arts and performative arts
design thinking (an approach that relies on empathy to multiple perspectives and needs, collecting real insights, problem framing, ideation, prototyping, and driving consensus for a single solution as the way forward)
creativity and innovation
Critical thinking, applying...
scientific observation (what Meghna calls ‘how things work in everyday life’)
morality and ethics
generating insights (which shades into Awareness on one side and Problem-solving on the other side)
Because this pandemic is just a hint at the challenges awaiting our children in the future of this considerably overburdened world.
Even nations with high standards of living and universal education have been reeling in the Covid-19 context. The challenges of the future will be even more complicated, as Meghna pointed out to us.
“With estimates of world population peaking to 8 billion by the early 2040s,” says Meghna, “we envision our children facing the associated complexities by the time they start looking at earning their livelihoods in their early twenties.”
They can expect severe water scarcity, climate risks, adulteration of the food chain, cyberattacks in an increasingly AI-enabled digital world, and so on.
Add to this social unrest across countries, such as the recent anti-CAA protests in India or the Black Lives Matter movement in the US—movements that can only intensify until the SDGs are achieved.
Which is why our children will need to shape and execute out-of-the-box solutions. As their foundation, Meghna says, our children will need to use the skills of observation, empathy, problem framing, collaboration and execution—and call upon their resilience while appreciating how systems work.
Isn’t that what they are already learning in school?
Yes, you might think this should all be covered in the school curriculum—but what if they are not? We need to check and identify the gaps, because after all, as their immediate family members, we are our children’s first and last teachers.
Now, if you look at the expanded list, only about half of each domain is covered in the average school curriculum.
We see emphasis on sports and maybe some minimal chores and physical self-care, with often scant attention to mental health and relationship skills.
We see focus on reading and writing, but not necessarily any structured education on story-telling.
We may be lucky enough to see applied math and logical reasoning encouraged, but rarely encounter educational institutions that encourage innovation or design thinking, especially in young children—but where will they get the skills in adulthood, if they were not nurtured in childhood or youth?
Similarly, in discussions of science, rarely is the morality and ethics of applied science or even scientific observation brought up in classrooms—as though science can be entirely divorced from ethics (without disastrous results), and gaining insights will be automatic.
Awareness of current affairs may be promoted, perhaps some learning about the environment too, but rarely the global impact of choices and what makes not only a patriotic national citizen but a responsible world citizen.
Those then are the gaps, and of course, this was already on the table for homeschooling families. For the rest of us, we need to figure out how to bridge the missing steps for our children.
Picture - Meghna Panwar, and her young citizens of the future. Photo Credits - Meghna Panwar
So how do we nurture these skills at home and as a community?
The most important thing—as with all skills—is to start early and stay consistent in your values.
Focus especially on the skills that get overlooked, for your part. (Unless, of course, you are homeschooling—in which case you need to juggle the lot anyway.) For example, you don’t exactly see pattern recognition in a resume, do you?
Make it age-appropriate and break it down into smaller goals.
Notice how subsidiary skills overlap too, like pattern matching, and use that to guide a child across domains. For instance, the same pattern matching helps a young child to learn reading and writing! So once they have acquired the pattern matching skill with shapes, they can graduate to letters.
Don’t stick to introducing one skill at a time, because you want all of them to grow in tandem. For example, you want design thinking to grow alongside problem-solving, because that’s how your child will learn to solve problems not only for themselves, but others.
Before you get into design thinking, you will have started on basic design skills—maybe even as a toddler, ask them to design their own room and decide their reading corner, sleeping space, etc.
Then as a preschooler, they can help design their own ‘worksheets’.
As they start ‘big school’, have them arrange their own desk and pack their own bag—and ask why they chose to change the placement of a certain item, or put that bottle in this pocket and not the other. Notice when they change their mind about something, and delve into it.
At the same time, start asking them to problem solve on behalf of other people. Making grocery lists for the family, especially if someone has special dietary needs, for example.
Next, as they grow, invite them to think on behalf of the neighbourhood or the community you belong to.
Can it be donated for reuse, or should you throw it away? Ask your child to decide.Image by Wolfgang Stemme from Pixabay
Understand how each skill supports the others. Alongside design thinking, good problem-solving requires your child to think in terms of systems as the framework, that big picture around the problem. (Systems thinking can be a master’s degree programme, which is too late, Meghna points out, when it could have been ingrained from childhood.)
As your child grows, expect them to talk about the system that is framing any problem they are trying to solve—they should be able to tell you what the limits of the system and the solution are, and why.
Meghna mentioned how, after a greening workshop where she introduced her child and her child’s friends to the ill effects of plastics on animals, she noticed that her daughter stayed with the problem: “Each time she noticed a plastic item in her surroundings, she reflected and asked whether it was necessary, what was the alternative and how would we dispose of it.”
In doing this, Meghna observed that she was spending time with the problem and growing into an understanding of the limits of the system itself.
Over time, their discussions started leading to actionable solutions that they collaboratively came up with, and her daughter took an active role in implementing—something she could not have achieved without understanding the limits of the possibilities and the impacts together.
Play with your child. Collaboration and working together, friendly competition, are some of those social and emotional sub-skills that lead to good relationship skills.
As your child grows, don’t forget to keep reinforcing the fundamentals in fun ways. Offer more advanced pattern-matching challenges, say. No one is ever too old for a 1000-piece jigsaw or a strategic board game, or even Scrabble, right?
Speaking of choices, thinking and choosing independently of peer pressure is a critical skill in a world rife with jingoism, so teach them about choice and let them experience both power and consequences of choosing:
Talk about choices you make yourself. Discuss the choices your children make and their impact.
For your child, provide choices right from infancy, and accept it when they choose—that is, don’t offer false choices or rhetorical ones and then ‘coax’ a child to choose the ‘right’ one, or censure them for the ‘wrong’ choice!
Restrict choices to a manageable number of options at first—maybe just 2 for a toddler, 3 for preschoolers, and so on)
Keep the context and areas of impact age-appropriate—don’t have your preschooler plan their whole day’s menu (that’s your job, for both their health and your sanity!) but they can handle a choice in snacks.
Discuss feelings, their and also yours. Demonstrate managing emotions for yourself and supporting others in it.
Caring for family grows into caring for the community. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels
Specifically in the Indian context, try to resist the pressure of your (typically urban) milieu to enrol a child into a very structured learning environment with long hours at a very young age. We all know the norm of after-school tuition classes and such—but when is the child to fill those gaps we talked of, if all we offer is the space to reinforce the limited skills we associate with conventionally ‘secure’ careers?
Try and acknowledge our historical experience of a safe choice is now history! Notice how education is pivoting away from degrees to skills. Our children are likely to have multiple careers going forward, several of which may be in parallel and not consecutive.
Instead, safeguard your child’s time for free play and self-discovery in the after-school hours.
Allow children to take advantage of self-directed, continuous learning. Help them retain their curiosity, rather than redirecting their efforts towards parent- or teacher-led goals.
Teach children about responsible use of technology, including issues like data privacy and cyber hygiene on the internet, and learn enough ourselves to build some guardrails for ourselves and our families—including good practices like digital detox to balance out excessive screentime. Be careful of pursuing the perfect Instaworthy image always, and model enjoyment without recording every minute of it.
Meghna observes that Indian students often struggle with effective and confident communication on a global forum, despite our impressive vocabularies. What may be missing is sufficient exposure and empathy, as well as self-esteem. Protect your child’s confidence against the strictures and sanctions of authority figures; nurture resilience and give them space to speak, loudly.
Listen to your child’s ideas and encourage them to try these out and observe the impact, rather than judging them as an authority figure.
Applaud small ideas for improvement and every little gain. “It is the incremental ideas that can be implemented in everyday life that help drive ongoing change,” says Meghna.
At the same time, encourage dialog with a diversity of people—keep them talking to grandparents, neighbours, various service providers they see on a daily basis and model respectful listening as well as disagreement that does not devolve into resentment.
Make it your goal to ensure your child enters adulthood with a sense of joy and confidence, not a sense of pressure, overburdening responsibility and fatigue at the end of each day. That’s no way to start a professional journey or a personal one.
Tune into the future, as a family and as a parent, then show your child how.
One path is reading—news dailies, niche publications, books by future-focused thought leaders.
A second is to stay connected with folks within our ecosystem who are more attuned to the future, be it a friend constantly experimenting with technology in their daily life or a person who adopts practical ways to live a more sustainable life. These are the early adopters.
Third, take on focused learning through webinars and online courses that expand your worldview and challenge our usual ways of doing things.
Aren’t some of these skills quite traditional, and not futuristic?
Well, yes, because you might recognize elements here of India’s gurukul education, where the guru’s focus was not just specific skills but nurturing a human being who was ethical and capable at their profession as well as in their personal household duties.
As Meghna puts it,” A guru was more like a life coach, not just responsible for teaching but also someone who helped apply learnings across these areas in everyday life by bringing out interconnections.”
Indeed, it wasn’t just India. Many cultures around the world, from FarEast to Wild West, from frozen North to sub-Saharan Africa, have had mentorship-based and relatively informal education and professional systems, whose goal was to produce a whole human being—not just a cog in the factory machinery that the Industrial Revolution required and what ‘formal education’ has widely devolved into. This was even true of Europe, with its guild-basedapprentice system, where the master was as much the moral guardian of the youth as their family.
The rote-based learning model many of us grew up with, designed to mass-produce a standardized workforce for scale of delivery in specific defined job roles, is inadequate in our transformational times, Meghna argues. In a sense, we are reclaiming our roots here, and not reinventing the wheel.
That said, in the Information Age, some of these skills have taken on new importance. For example, when you are inundated with media and information, “the ability to cut through the noise with critical thinking, and manage our well-being” becomes indispensable, Meghna points out.
This matters not just at the personal level, but at the community level too—the spectre of fake news leading to panic, riots, lynching is all too obvious in our present. As parents, we will want to innoculate our children against a future where these are rife. In a globally connected world, “Our collective activity on social media influences the actions of others in an increasingly fragile world (even in contexts we may not be familiar with), so that places us in a position of responsibility towards others,” says Meghna.
Can we as parents get a headstart on the UN SDGs too?
Over 300,000 babies are born every day. Surely, that’s a sizeable population that could be making a difference! And critically, we are the population with the greatest stake in the future: Our children will live in it, make it their home.
“Choices parents make in providing for [children] determines the additional pressure on the world’s limited resources on a daily basis,” says Meghna. “As well, the outlook these children grow up to have as adults will impact the broader ecosystem, which includes forests, animals, birds, water, soil, etc.”
For more resources on this, look at the UN’s Good Life Goals, developed in 2018. This is a list of personal actions we can all take to support the the SDGs:
Help end poverty
Learn and teach
Treat everyone equally
Use clean energy
Do good work
Make smart choices
Love where you live
Act on climate
Clean our seas
As you can see, that list has some pretty simple and wide targets to hit—and some that might sound oddly selfish (“stay well”?), but actually have tremendous impact at the community level. For instance, an obvious example is vaccination—you might vaccinate your child for your personal and familial security, but the overall effect is herd immunity at the community level, that protects the most vulnerable (often youngest and oldest, but also otherwise ill) members. In turn, at the administrative level, the lack of pressure on healthcare services and researchers from communicable diseases or lifestyle-related issues, frees up welfare resources and funding for issues like genetically driven disorders, such as working on a cancer cure.
“For instance, I didn’t have the heart to generate so much waste daily in the form of soiled disposable diapers,” she says, so she chose cloth diapers, at a time when modern cloth diapers were just gaining a foothold in India, not yet widely known or available. Meghna did her research and managed to source them, raising both her kids without buying a single disposable—something we at the Nestery have made a little easier for you, hopefully.
reducing food waste at the business and consumer level
reducing waste through prevention, reduction, reuse and recycling
ensuring that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature
“All of these are areas in which we as individuals can play a role through simple behaviour change in everyday life,” Meghna says, “as well as taking on community leadership roles to make a bigger impact.” After all, she is doing it herself.
Because children learn by watching and doing both, this is what Meghna’s sustainability action plan as a parent looks like:
Both she and her husband practice minimalism in their own lives.
They refuse to contribute waste in the form of disposable diapers, as we have seen.
Rather than buy a lot of toys, they rent toys from libraries and refuse to buy much baby equipment.
They reused all baby equipment bought for their first child for their second little one.
They buy in moderation and resist the pressures of consumerism.
They encourage children to donate toys as they outgrow them, ingraining a culture of reuse and upcycling before recycling.
Living in an extended (cross-generational) family with their children’s grandparents, everyone’s well-being is prioritised.
Every family member follows an exercise schedule of their own.
Home-cooked meals for the whole family are a priority.
As a parent, she prizes mental health and allows space for healing from stress—even for her four-year-old’s mental health (she tends to go and sit by herself to draw and colour after a heated argument or role play, and is allowed to immerse herself till she feels like connecting again).
After all, for our generation, some of this personal responsibility is optional. It isn’t enforced at the national or international level. But we are starting to see changes, such as bans on smoking in public, car-free or very low-emission urban spaces, plastic bans and more. By the time our children are grown-up, these goals may have spawned legal requirements and sanctions.
May as well make it easier on them. Make their tomorrow everyone’s normal today.
Printable: You can download Meghna's chart of the skills your child needs to be future-ready here.