Three ways you give your kids outdated advice

We know that kids who cut corners and question the status quo are the ones who make a big difference in the career arena. 

Yet we keep focusing on the right way. The right answer. The right path. We buy lego kids with directions and we praise the kids for following them. Yet the real joy of Legos — and everything else — is watching someone ignore the rules.

Yet we so often give them the exact opposite advice. I find myself doing it as well. I start with advice that emanates from nostalgia for my own favorite experiences. And when I see it’s not working, I realize: duh. Of course this is bad advice for kids growing up today.

So I keep examples of people like Lego artist, Tary, who are amazing precisely because they defy expectations.

I am not perfect, but here are three examples of common advice we need to stop giving to kids:

Stop telling kids reading and writing long-form is important.

People do not write long papers in adult life, primarily because no one wants to read them. It’s an academic construct that most people have no need for. So it makes sense that kids would use a site like Bid 4 Papers. Essay writing arena is a $100 million industry. Kids have figured out that paying someone to do something you don’t want to learn how to do is not cheating per se but rather is a form of self-directed learning.

Another thing: I’m starting to think that the only reason people read literature in school is to write papers. And I say this to you as someone who went to graduate school to study literature.

I just wonder: why is reading literature from years ago so important?

Maybe literature is just another way to study history. For example, why is Dead Souls so famous? Sure it’s hilarious, and Chichikov is memorable, but it’ll take you two months to read its 400 pages. (It took me longer.) You can get that much joy from reading David Sedaris, who needs only ten pages to tell the story of Santaland, which is as memorable as Chichikov’s Russia.

Santaland is not as historically significant as Dead Souls. Because Gogol is indicting the whole system of feudalism. And his particular indictment is a watershed moment. But you could just read a history book about the watershed moment. We need to realize that we cannot make education about primary sources and writing papers about them. It’s too inefficient.

Stop telling kids that they must adapt to unpleasant environments.

I assigned my son to read Death of a Salesman. He is reading plays and he read No Exit and could understand existentialism. And he read Rhinoceros and understood the theater of the absurd. But he read Death of a Salesman and had no idea why the guy didn’t just get a new job. “He’s pathetic and boring,” said my son.

It’s incomprehensible to a kid today that someone would be such a slave to their job. So Death of a Salesman is a lesson in sociology, maybe, but it’s a slow way to get the lesson, so it’s only significant as a mellifluous lesson about the history of work.

In the real world career advisers say one and over again: play to your strengths instead of working to overcome your weaknesses. So why teach kids otherwise?

This is true for learning subjects that are not interesting. And this is true for sitting in classrooms that are not optimized for your learning preferences.

Example: At least half the world is introverted, which means they need quiet time to think. In most schools, quiet time is a punishment, not a privilege. And the workplace fetish with open-plan offices is a recipe for insanity for an introvert.

Susan Caine’s book, Quiet, goes a long way to show how important introverts are to our culture, and she’s turning that popular book into a movement. Quiet Schools Network is a more inclusive way to educate, and its coming to a school system near you. Hopefully.

Most of us, by the time we are out of our twenties, know what sort of environment we flourish in, and we find it. We would take much less time to find where we are comfortable if we didn’t spend our childhood being told we have to learn to deal with environments we don’t like.

Stop telling kids to use LinkedIn to transition into adulthood.

Sure, everyone you know is on LinkedIn, but not in a meaningful way. Young people are trying to hide on Linkedin because the format for talking about yourself favors a long career. And older people are “forgetting” to update LinkedIn because the site rewards people with linear, uninterrupted careers, and few people over 35 can say they qualify.

LinkedIn was launched with the profiles of a bunch of Harvard Business School grads, and more than a decade later, that’s still the only demographic that shines on LinkedIn. Biggest sign that Linkedin is over? Microsoft bought it. Biggest sign that we’ll be displaying our skills in other formats? New tools like The Document Factory’s Resume App are emerging to give people a way to shine, even without a cookie-cutter career.

Millenials will live until they are 90 years old. The resume format is for people who retire at 65. That 25 year difference is what will force us to come up with a new way to talk about work life.

We will need new metrics and new tools for figuring out how to pay for college it because the current model for funding school is not working. We already have a lot of reasons to skip college and a lot of reasons to make financial solvency the focal point of education. But now we need to evaluate education in the context of a 70-year career.

One long-term plan would be to pick up skills as you need them, instead of trying to guess, as a teenager, what skills you’ll want for the next 70 years, which is essentially what the extremely large investment in college turns out to be.

Upskilled offers single courses that focus on the meat of education — the learning — instead of the degree which has become only the veneer of education. And formerly old-guard companies like E&Y are supporting this shift by getting rid of degree requirements.

One way I get myself to look at things from a new perspective, is I ask why. A lot. I notice my son refuses to read about one tenth of the books I give to him. I ask myself why. Why would kids love that book for nearly a decade but my son doesn’t?

I ask myself why a given company is getting funded. If I don’t want a service I ask myself why other people are buying the service. What am I missing?

Forcing myself to see a different approach for learning actually helps me come up with a stronger approach of my own — one I believe in more.

20 replies
  1. Madeline Elster
    Madeline Elster says:

    You ask: “why is reading literature from years ago so important?”

    Because it can be art. A masterfully constructed story, a beautiful turn of phrase, and sentences that sing — they are no less “artistic” than any art work found in the Uffizi Gallery.

    Also, there’s a study that indicates that reading literary fiction (and not nonfiction or popular fiction) makes you more empathetic and understanding of other people’s lives. ( Here’s another article that says reading fiction in general can help develop empathy:

    Perhaps reading Gogol and “Death of a Salesman” can help someone with Asperger’s “read” people better? I don’t know the answer to that, but mainly, it sounds like literature can make you a better human being. Then again, maybe, being an English major, I’m just a little bit biased.

  2. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Writing longform essays is important if you want to go to college because as of right now you still have to write a billion papers in college. Including during some exams, most likely, so he won’t always be able to trundle off to the dorms and Paypal some money to someone to write it for him. It’s pointless, but colleges don’t care. I guess your son could pay someone to write the papers he gets as homework, but in his case he’d probably write better ones himself.

    Also, college essays are persuasive or expository or research, and if your son isn’t going into a humanities major, I’m not sure why you seem to be having him read so much literature. I don’t mean this in an accusatory way; I just wonder why this is. Anyway, your son is right on point that the Death of a Salesman protagonist is a pathetic loser. That’s kind of the point of the play. If you want him to write a good essay about it, have him write about all the ways Willy Loman is a pathetic loser and why. Maybe he should start a blog on why the books he’s forced to read suck and why he thinks the characters are stupid.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great blog idea.

      And it’s a good question why I have him read this stuff. We met with an SAT tutor. The kind that is super expensive and guarantees a given score. In order to do that, he can only take kids he knows he can get to that specific score. And he said a really good way to assess kids’ potential to score high is by what books they’ve been reading.

      I told that to my son, and he is generally okay reading the books I give him — a wide range of high school reading — as long as he doesn’t hate the book. Another one he hated, just for the record, is Frankenstein. The letter format really bugged him.


      • Blandy
        Blandy says:

        My own (unproven, N = 1) theory about reading is it enhances your vocabulary, and the SAT and its ilk are a treasure trove of lovely but arcane words. I have no doubt that my year of reading 18th and 19th century British lit, which was coincidentally not long before I took the GRE, paid huge dividends.

      • Wendy
        Wendy says:

        Oh, yeah. Frankenstein sucks. I had to read that in high school myself. I don’t blame your son for not wanting to finish it.

        Blandy is right, though, in that reading the classics enhances your vocabulary, which is a huge deal on the SAT. That’s a strong-enough argument for me.

        I got a pretty good score on the SAT and never had any tutors, special classes, or did any practice for the SATs (I came from a really poor family so we either couldn’t afford or had no awareness of all this stuff). The only thing I’d done that helped me on the SAT was that I was a really avid reader. So yeah, if your focus on having your son read classic lit is to boost his SAT score, it does help a lot.

  3. Prax
    Prax says:

    I understand his mindset because I also think reading a lot of things (especially fictional narratives) is an exercise in torture. I read out of necessity for the information I need and for things I have an active interest in.

    Maybe your son is similar. Just let him read whatever he wants. lol
    If he finds reading stuff he finds boring is necessary, he’ll probably do it to the bare (yet acceptable) minimum anyway, so there’s not too much danger he will be a illiterate. He will probably learn to read and write longform stuff as long as he thinks it’s necessary for himself as well. I think you giving him the opportunity and resources to pursue what he believes is necessary will turn out best for him.

    Then you can also just blame him for his own decisions. lol

  4. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    My son, the one who the doctors say is on the autism spectrum but I’m not usually so sure, found the joy of Legos being that if you follow the directions, you get the thing pictured on the box. That was hugely satisfying for him.

    He struggled with those models at first. His fine motor skills were so-so at best, and he struggled a little with not skipping steps in the instructions. He’d melt down in frustration. One summer I spent a fortune buying him Lego models and putting them together with him. It let him pick up the motor skills and ability to follow instructions at a pace that worked for him, and it gave me a ton of opportunity to talk soothingly to him through his strong emotions when things went wrong, and to talk with him about how he could do that for himself, too.

    This same son hates fiction. I gave up trying to make him read it after a couple huge fights, and for a while just read it to him instead. I read him all the stuff I liked. He wanted to gouge his eyes out over Fahrenheit 451, my favorite novel, and the only one I ever abandoned reading to him. He tolerated the autobiography of Helen Keller, a book that moved me deeply when I read it in elementary school. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really captured his imagination.

    I find that having a kid read a book with no context often spells disaster. In high school I had to read The Scarlet Letter. It was just handed to me and that was that. Yeccchhhhhh. Somebody needed to explain to me the historic and cultural setting in which this book was written. I’m not sure I’d have loved the book even knowing that stuff, but at least I wouldn’t have been completely confused by everybody’s behavior. I wonder if the same is true of Death of a Salesman for your son.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:


      I have a son who is something….not autistic but not clicking. Any way, I found doing the same lego approach helped his imagination. I also found doing EMDR greatly improved his concentration and imagination, along with emotion regulation. The therapist did play imagination while using the hand buzzers.

      • Betsy
        Betsy says:

        My son wasn’t on the spectrum; he had sleep apnea + dyspraxia. Looks very similar.

        Just sharing in case it helps. An internet comment like this changed our lives.

  5. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Classical books become out dated and are replaced with new classical reading- or soon in future generations, movies. Like Zootopia. Think about this: We don’t read scrolls from ancient egypt. If we could talk to people from the Mesopotamia period they would lament over our failings to read their classics. Their books died because new ones took their place. The older generation is always complaining the new are ruining their life for finding their own way, which is actually what the older generation did to their parents.

    My oldest reads what ever he finds. Some times its classics, other times a good book. At 8th grade he tested 13th grade english and 11th grade comprehension. I made him do 1 year of actual english – 6th grade. If you had your oldest tested on the basics you would find this true too: there is no need to worry.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      There’s a really excellent picture book series of “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. As a story it holds up pretty well after 5,000 years.

      When I was in college, I took a class in the 18th century British novel, which included background on the history of the genre as it came to be. The lesson I still remember, twenty years later: our classics were the pop-culture of their time.

      Penelope, I wonder if your son would have understood Willy Loman better if you had paired the play with Studs Terkel’s “Working”. It came out in the 1970s, but contains interviews with a lot of people who were in the workforce in the postwar/mid-century period.I agree with Jim that context is important.

  6. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    My problem with Death of a Salesman is that it is a smart-liberal-Jewish-kid-whose-dad-lost-everything-in-the-1929-Crash’s idea of a salesman. He wanted to show that the pre-Depression gung-ho success culture was finished. So Willy Loman had to be a loser.

    And just between you and me, I don’t think that Arthur Miller gets salesmen.

  7. Em
    Em says:

    Maybe only slightly related to this post but I’ll bet your son could do some real science right now that would be more useful for college admission than working as a low level intern in a university lab. There are almost endless opportunities on the farm for him to design a project he is interested in.

    For biology, I’m sure the farmer is constantly tweaking conditions for the animals. This could be documented to track how it affects yields for example.

    Plenty of chemistry in feeding and medicine. Physics/engineering maybe designing a new feeder. Computer science – create an algorithm predict how feeding will affect animal weight, for example.

    Do a scientific literature review, create a plan and write the results afterwards. There are probably even journals that publish high schoolers’ research. Being published in high school is quite unusual and would set him apart, especially if he initiated the work himself.

  8. Lanie
    Lanie says:

    Amazing. You make your son read a letter from a rape victim but fine literature he can pass on. Seems to me if you want something you push hard. You didn’t really want him to read certain books so you didn’t push. Mystery solved!.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think the best advice anyone can offer in terms of learning is that it’s a lifelong endeavor. Change is a certainty and a way to adapt to change is to be constantly learning. I believe how one learns is a very unique and individual process. A good indication of knowing if the information has been learned is if one is able to teach it to someone else. If the information isn’t clearly understood, he/she must be able to access it from another source that may present it in a different way or be able to know how to get help by asking good questions. What’s important for the individual is for them to develop their own self-awareness for learning styles that benefit them the most with different subject areas and situations. He/she will need to learn behaviors most suitable for themselves. School, whether it’s high school or college, is only a small part of a person’s education. I think you’ve done a very good job of making that point in this post. Also, I like your advice you’ve given in other posts and that is – trust yourself – because, really, it is yourself that knows you the best and that includes your learning style.

  10. Kate
    Kate says:

    This post, as is often the case, really challenged me- I love reading. It’s a real deep pleasure and joy to me and I think I learn more about myself and others and Life into the bargain. To ask ‘what’s the point?’ (Yes you were specifically referring to older publications I know but still!!?? I’m reeling) but I’m not articulate enough or mentally flexible enough right now (I’ve been ill, the baby is ill, the children are ill. Cringe-) to try to say anything very interesting on the matter. But after a little gap from reading the post I though. Penelope! Is there not a total personality type correlation here?? Surely? Sme people are simply not ever going to really get anything from reading (character led?) fiction? Or never from sci-fi/ fantasy fiction or… Etc. And some people are deeply fed by it? Has someone already done this study?? I’m INFJ and an empath. What’s the anecdotal?
    Thanks for always making me think. :-)

  11. Victoria
    Victoria says:

    I’m a little late to this but still wanted to comment. I have the opposite problem — I worry that my best (only?) talent is reading a huge possibly boring thing and writing an excellent essay about it. I was an English major; I’m INFJ; empathy comes naturally to me and I feel that activated through literature. I got great grades in school and have a high ability to concentrate and meet deadlines. How has this played out in adulthood? While I am not competitive in sports or games at all, my career has been essentially competitive writing. I write large, complex federal grant proposals for a nonprofit organization in competition for grant awards. On a good day, I see this as using my best God-given talents to help a cause I care about. On a bad day, I worry that I am still seeking the A+ from a “teacher” – it’s just switched to be the grant review scoring panel. I find writing well and reading literature to be intrinsically rewarding. I find some classic literature to be boring, but some has also opened up new vistas in my thinking in a way that the more modern, digestible style of David Sedaris never could. In reference to prior posts — I loved reading Frankenstein. There are a lot of layers of meaning in Frankenstein — are the kids reading ABOUT the work, for vital context, (or being taught) as they are reading?

  12. Alicia
    Alicia says:

    You really do have to do everything you can to get a leg up. It’s important to be realistic with kids instead of telling them everything will fall into place without persistence.

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