Kids who feel useful are happier as adults

There are no blue ribbons for parenting, so it’s hard to know what to aim for. I have talked about grit, perseverance, and expertise. But as I read more about what people need as adults, I see that we completely underestimate usefulness.

I am starting to focus more on that for my own kids, and here’s why:

1. School creates a chronic sense of worthlessness.
In a post I wrote about trusting oneself I focused on the problem that people in their twenties are chronically lost and doubting themselves. Karen wrote this comment:

“People spend two decades in our education system being infantilized and talked down to, and that destroys self-confidence.

“It’s not how humans evolved to be. For virtually all of our history, the average seven-year-old could contribute to the survival of the family unit (by foraging.) By their teens, they contributed as much as any elder. In our culture, we are “losers” until we hit our strides well into our thirties.

“I think this makes for a lot of psychological sickness (that is all but invisible, because everyone suffers from it.)”

I was just stunned by this comment. Because it’s so true, but it was such a new idea to me.

2. It’s the human condition to want to be useful, rather than book smart.
People with Asperger’s have a social skills deficit. That’s why they are classified as disabled. However in many cases, a child with Asperger’s is so incredibly book smart that he looks fine to the non-expert.

The problems for people with Asperger’s explode as they grow up. It’s very difficult for people with Asperger’s to earn money or take care of children because people with Asperger’s need so much alone time. The crushing feeling that people with Asperger’s have is that they cannot contribute. (This pattern is so significant that places like Cornell University get funding to study how to solve the career problems in the Asperger community.)

So it makes sense that everyone feels a core need to contribute to the family unit, or whatever social unit they are a part of. People want to contribute and be needed. When people talk about “socializing,” what they really mean, without necessarily knowing it, is learning rules and customs so that you can contribute to society in a significant and productive way.

3. Concern over socialization is misplaced concern over usefulness.
It’s ironic that people are concerned that kids won’t get socialized if they are not in school. Because in fact, school forces kids to represses their natural inclination to want to contribute to the family unit alongside the adults.

The long-term study of whether or not Harvard graduates are happy produced little hard data about what makes people happy in adult life. But one thing that stands out is that kids who do chores are happier as adults.

So there is actually decent research that if you give kids responsibility in the household they will be happier and more productive as adults.

The biggest problem with school, curriculum, and learning assessments is that they are not relevant to the skills of adult life. The more clearly we can talk about what makes a good life, the more clearly we can understand how our kids need to spend their days.

So we have chicks. And they are super cute, but the kids want to play with them. They don’t want to get water and food. But I’m sure you know that nagging kids to do chores stinks so much that it’s easier to do the chore yourself.

When I read about the core need to be useful, it gives me the strength to nag the kids to take responsibility for stuff on the farm. They are useful for chicks. I am useful for nagging.

9 replies
  1. Lynn Lawrence
    Lynn Lawrence says:

    I agree with # 2 and # 3. #1 I think is for kids who have trouble with school. For those who excel in school, I think a false sense of expectation for a follow-on of future success in a world which is nothing like school can be just as damaging.

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      This is very true!

      I was so good in school with the good grades, driven for assignments, etc. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into success in “the real world.”

      It was so sad that every time I got told to continue to work hard in school and that’d get me into a good job later.

      Not everything was lost because I was able to translate my drive and discipline into things that I needed to be good at my job, etc. But it was very difficult.

    • Corey
      Corey says:

      hey, I agree with this to a point, I was quite good in school yet never enjoyed it much, especially as my maths teacher kept going on about how bad my writing was (despite me trying as hard as i could) but other issues came into it too, and so i was depressed on school days for most of the year until i quit school and decided i’d go to tafe later and do year 11 + 12

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really liked the post you linked to. Thanks. You describe those moments when we are teetering between giving kids independence and influencing them to use the independence in a way we like.


  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I would also tag this post as “fitting in is good” because really that’s the goal after contributing and making yourself useful. I went to school but it didn’t make me feel worthless so I can’t get behind #1. I think it’s because I had really great parents … even though there were times it didn’t seem so. Which is to say – I didn’t always get my way. My brothers, sister, and myself were expected to do chores and contribute around the house. Otherwise, my father would say something like – do you want to eat tonight? or do you want me to take you to wherever? or do you want your allowance this week? You know what I mean – he really made us feel like we were needed and belonged. :)

  3. Corey
    Corey says:

    hey, just reading this article, and I found it quite interesting, although I dont believe in evolution (an arguement for another time and another place and I feel the word evolved was meant to be used in a different way than that humans evolved, more to be like the human behavioural and psychological process developed) I do feel point #1 is SO true, especially as I have just dropped school half-way through year 11 and this was due to me feeling depressed so often (however only on school days) that all i wanted to do was sleep (again, only on school days) so I talked to a bunch of people who agreed i should leave school, including a friend who left for the same reason (the root cause he admitted was feeling useless and being seen as stupid and worthless) and I belive part of my root cause of being depressed with school was probably more feeling useless and like a baby, so yes I do agree with point 1 especially but the whole article – very interesting
    thank you

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