8 Vital skills to teach your children that will trump an Ivy League education

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A few weeks ago I was in a particularly depressed mood. That’s not the norm for me, but this time it was completely justified. I was pondering my children’s futures.

College prices have sky-rocketed, far surpassing wage increases. My daughter will be ready for college in five years. Will we be able to afford a college education for her or even pay a percentage of it?  And, if she does go to college, what will she major in that will provide a reliable career in a world whose future is increasingly unreliable?

Perhaps my kids should learn a trade that would provide a rock-solid income, but what would that be? As a mom, I want their futures to be as secure as possible, giving them a chance of achieving their dreams and a comfortable lifestyle.

As you might imagine, it was right around this point that my thinking got pretty muddled. Is there a career that’s EMP-proof? A job that will provide their families with an income even if the dollar goes belly up and America, as we know it, declines forever?

I’m still not sure what path they should take, and of course they have a say in their future plans! However, my brain lit upon something that gave me hope as I contemplated a dismal future.

What’s more important than a college degree?

The future job market may be bleak for professions from A to Z, but people will always, always, look for and need leaders. People who have the skills, confidence, and personality to stand up and lead. Isn’t that what our world is crying out for right now? Leadership?

My son could easily become an electrician, capable of wiring a building, knowing electrical code, and also able to give direction, focus, and encouragement to his peers and family. Perhaps my daughter will become a florist, but why can’t she also live her life with goals and a vision and inspire others to do the same? It’s those leadership qualities and skills that may very well trump another person’s Ivy League education.

I believe the future belongs to those who possess leadership skills and are willing to step out and lead. Leadership, though, is mostly taught and nurtured. Skills such as decisiveness, ambition, the ability to motivate and inspire are not taught in the public school. I spent 9 years in the classroom as a public school teacher and another 4 as a school district trainer. Trust me. There is nothing in the public school curriculum that teaches leadership skills. If your child is to become a leader in a tumultuous and unpredictable future, you will have to teach him or her yourself.

What skills and qualities should you begin focusing on? Here are a few:

Communication skills

From an early age, give your children practice speaking to and with adults. At restaurants, insist that they place their own orders with the waitress. Stand back and let them approach the librarian or store clerk with their questions. Be willing to sit and just listen to your child as they put their thoughts and emotions into words. Enroll them in activities that will require them to make speeches or presentations or communicate with the general public. Many adults shrink away from this themselves, but it’s impossible to be a leader without effective communication skills.

Even if there is no need for your child to earn money, getting a job is an excellent way to learn how to communicate with all sorts of people. My first job was at J.C. Penney and I had to work in the children’s clothing department. I learned how to strike up conversations with customers, ask my boss for help when I needed it, and not crawl into a hole when the store manager showed up! All lifelong skills!

Creating a vision

All children have fantasies and dreams for their futures. Encourage them to talk about what they want to be when they grow up, what they want to do, to build, to create. Nothing meaningful on this earth has ever been accomplished without, first, a vision. Our world has been greatly enhanced by people like Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison. They let their imaginations run wild, and apparently, so did their parents!

Setting and achieving goals

Once your child has a vision for something, help him or her break it down into smaller parts. Setting and achieving goals is an enormous confidence builder but too many people, including most adults, have no idea of the power of goal-setting. Start with a small goal, perhaps earning a certain amount of money or achieving some specific goal in a school subject. Write out the goal and what has to be done in order to complete it. This teaches kids to know what they want and what has to be done to get it.

Courage in the face of opposition

We live in a world where too few people have courage. They are too willing to behave like sheep and kowtow to the latest version of political correctness. A real leader stands up for what he or she believes in the face of ridicule, prejudice, and rejection. As well, it takes courage to finish a difficult task and overcome obstacles of every kind. Facing peer pressure is another chance to be courageous and do the right thing.


Confidence comes with competence. Require your kids to always to their best and to not make excuses. However, don’t expect them to succeed in something without thorough instruction. That applies to school subjects, athletic endeavors, and even household chores. I used to get frustrated at my son’s attempts to load the dishwasher until I realized that I had never actually taught him how to do it! Don’t demand a high level of competency without making sure your child understands exactly how to accomplish the task. Once they are competent and experience repeated successes, just watch their confidence soar!

Ability to encourage others

We all need a pat on the back, a word of encouragement, or a note of appreciation. Let your child see from your own actions what it means to encourage others and give them opportunities to do the same. Perhaps they could write a kind note to a friend who lost a pet or send a get-well card to a relative. Our culture encourages isolation and selfishness, but this will teach your kids a more rewarding way of interacting with others.


People will never trust a leader who they know to be dishonest. Honesty brings with it respect and admiration. Reward truthfulness and integrity every time you notice it.

Decision making

image by Ernst Vikne

I have a friend who decided what her daughter should wear each day until the girl was at least 11 years old. Yes, she was always perfectly coordinated, but without meaning to, I’m sure, her mother was teaching her to doubt her own decisions. Part of learning to make smart decisions is bearing the consequences of poor ones. When my kid spend all their money foolishly, I don’t slip them a ten when they see something else they want! Let your kids make decisions. Talk about what they give up if they make Decision A versus Decision B. It’s important to take into consideration the consequences of their decisions and learn to not rush into something without giving it plenty of thought.

How should these be taught?

  • Point out examples of leadership in movies, TV, literature, and real life. Be specific in explaining why that person, or character, is a good leader. For example, one reason many people look up to Ron Paul, regardless of political beliefs, is because he speaks his mind, even when his opinion is unpopular and he stands a good chance of being criticized. It’s important to actually label the specific leadership skill or quality.
  • Ask your child to look for examples of leadership among your circle of family and friends and tell you why that person is a leader.
  • Encourage your child to read biographies of famous people and then analyze their leadership qualities and skills.
  • When you observe these skills in your child, be sure to point them out and praise them.
  • Set family goals and track progress with a chart or a marble jar.
  • Family meetings can be helpful in discussing decisions, conflicts, and goals. They also give each family member the chance to express their opinions and feelings. In other words, they can help develop important leadership skills.
  • Give children an allowance in order to help them make decisions involving money. Teach them how to keep a ledger of income, outgo, and savings.

You and I have no way of knowing what careers will be “hot” in ten or twenty years, but in a way, that doesn’t matter. Young adults facing the future with the confidence that comes with these leadership qualities and skills are ready to tackle anything and succeed, even without that Ivy League education.

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I'm the original Survival Mom and for more than 11 years, I've been helping moms worry less and enjoy their homes and families more with my commonsense prepping advice.

34 thoughts on “8 Vital skills to teach your children that will trump an Ivy League education”

  1. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to ask… Should it have been 8 Vital skills, or should two of them be combined?

    Excellent post, ma’am. I see lists like that fairly often, but seldom are they accompanied by real life examples of how they can be applied in training and teaching the next generation. Without these basic building blocks, society ends up with what we see so much of now – “young adults” who cannot function in adult roles – but with no shortage of “self esteem”.

    1. Always the southern gentleman… :o)

      Yes, I added Decision Making at the very end and didn’t change my headline.

      Glad you liked the article and my thought process.

  2. You hit that one straight on the nail head. I thought you were going to speak about fire-making, water purification, etc. But the fundamentals of society and human existence do not change with turmoil in our society. In fact it only serves to more sharply define the need.

    We need people who can reason, lead, communicate a vision, and organize people back into a functioning society. We don’t have to be facing TEOTWAWKI to need this; it is still a skillset we need today very desperately.

    Having those skills doesn’t guarantee survival or thrival. But it optimizes the chances – not just for our children – but for everyone. And on the outside chance the worst happens, it is nice to know we can stand before God and give an account that says, “I did it the way you instructed us to”.

    As best as I understand it, there is no “End of The Eternal Kingdom of Heaven as We Know It” (EOTEKOHAWKI).

  3. I saw these truths as my son went through college (he will graduate in December).

    Although he has natural skills in computer science, most of the scholarships he has won was because of leadership abilities in extra curricular organizations.

    The Big Ten University he attends if full of brilliant students but few (especially in the Science field) have good communication and leadership skills.

    For this upcoming semester, which will be his final semester unless he eventually decides to go on for a Master’s degree, he was surprised to win a Dean’s scholarship for leadership that was worth thousands of dollars!

    For us I believe it was the opportunities homeschooling provided to encourage the above traits. While he had to take advanced math and science (at the community college) to be accepted at the University, we did not have to teach only to be tested.

  4. Great list! I so often fail in encouraging/teaching/modeling all of theses ideals, but I try. I can only hope and pray that my children grow up to be the best that God has made them to be. I’ve always told them to look someone in the eye when they speak to them, especially grown ups and that manners matter. Your list made good breakfast conversation! Thanks!


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  6. Nice column. However, having a college education and reliable skills and moral character traits are not mutually exclusive. One can have both. Thank goodness I returned to college in my mid thirties and got that degree because I never would have been able to earn the income I did, along with my husband, to enable us to attain our goals both financially and being self-sufficient. It’s not the path for everyone but it was a good journey for us. You can have that piece of paper and a reliable skill set together.

  7. You forgot more basic skills. Learn to read. Learn to study. Learn to take tests. Learn to think critically.

    1. You missed the whole point of this 1000+ word article, Ben. It’s about the importance of teaching leadership skills. Those don’t replace reading or multiplication, etc. but they ARE completely overlooked by the public school system, which produces the sheeple who populate the country today. I’m sure they can all read, study, etc., but they sure as heck don’t think critically.

      1. Are you sure they all can read, study etc. You need to take a hard look at the current output of our Schools.

      2. Donna, given the caliber of students the public teachers must deal with on a daily basis one can hardly place all the blame on the education system. Without a strong back up, as in parents, the teachers are left scrambling to teach students who cannot understand English, don’t complete assignments and if disciplined in school, face parents’ wrath.
        It used to be that parents would follow up on their children’s behavior. That’s not the case anymore. Perhaps if more parents were less self absorbed, stopped insisting that everyone get a trophy for participation and understand that there are winners and losers at every game(and that’s okay) and realized that little Suzie and Johnny isn’t as special as they think then leadership skills will return. As will critical thinking.
        I’m not that old(58) but the shenanigans that go on in public schools today would not have been tolerated in my day. For example, my youngest son is 28 and when he was in junior high he told me of a teacher that was slapped by a student. Wouldn’t you say that this was influenced by parental influence and not by the teacher?
        Parents’ insistence that their child not fail, when oftentimes they deserve to fail, has had a negative effect on public education. There are often cases when they feel their children should attend college when they simply are not cut out for continuing courses in academics.
        I’m a strong advocate of public education and feel it’s a worthwhile investment of my tax dollars. However I shudder at those who don’t take advantage of this gift and perpetuate the lifestyle of the generation that precedes them.
        Teachers aren’t babysitters. Let them teach and make the parents step up to the plate and teach those leadership skills, ethics and moral codes. Isn’t that their job?

        1. My job used to be going from classroom to classroom, observing the teaching skills of teachers. DO NOT GET MET STARTED on the subject of teacher competency!!!!! And this was in one of the largest school and most respected “conservative” districts in the Phoenix area, AND it was about 15 years ago! From what I hear and read, classroom conditions and student achievement haven’t exactly soared since then!

          1. Perhaps it’s because they are forced to teach to the test, as is the case with mandatory MCAS requirements here in MA. I happen to know several very good teachers and dislike the broadbrush statements against both public schools and higher education. As pointed out earlier having a college degree and general skills, morals and ethics are not mutually exclusive. Not trying to be argumentative but the onus of responsibility does not lie solely with the teachers or school systems.

          2. No. I was in classrooms from August through May, and saw all kinds of incompetence. There are some hard working, effective teachers out there, to be sure, but there are no easy answers. The problem has become too big to blame any one factor.

  8. Stealth Spaniel

    I just finished college and few of my classmates/teachers could
    2-Think or Create
    3-Justify or explain a point of view
    4-Form conclusions or judgements by facts or premise. Always fell back to the “it isn’t fair” argument.
    5- Change an opinion by clear, logical dissent. It usually ended up a screaming match over ethnicity, religion, or being one of the “haves”.
    6-Hard facts were irrelevant-emotion was everything.
    I wonder how some of those people are going to fair when they actually need to fulfill a job requirement. No wonder we are in the political/financial/world crisis that we are in.

    1. Back in the day, colleges were supposed to produce our, “future leaders of America.” It’s pretty sad that 16 years of public education has produced pretty much nothing but a huge herd of sheeple.

  9. What? Teaching a child firearms safety and marksmanship was no where on the list. It should be at or near the top of the list.

      1. I understand the point of your article, but I would like to offer this in Sam’s defense:

        “A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.”
        –Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 19, 1785

  10. Best leadership examples are set by parents in everyday life. Many times, I heard parents complain about what they have to get for their kids becasue all their friends families do. How then, can we expect our children act to their own minds, and resist peer pressure?!

    Knowledge can advance life, and characters building is the foundation. Without strong foundation, no house can last.

  11. None of that gets you hired.

    Being a member of the connected class gets you hired. That’s all it takes: being in. The rest of us are condemned to eat crap.

    Live it up, connected class. Revenge is coming. Justice is coming.

    1. Yeah, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Old observation. Excuses nothing. Get the book “Never Eat Alone” and learn how to meet and get to know the people who can assist you in life. And be one. When you meet people, be much more interested in what you can contribute than in what you can get.

    2. Yes and no. In my own experience, I have known no one of influence and yet have been hired several times in my career. On the other hand, I do know the One with the most influence, and doors He opens cannot be shut.

  12. The way things are looking, I predict that leadership will only be accepted if it is manifested within the construct established for us by the Powers That Be. So unless a budding leader uses his or her leadership to tout the party line, that leader will be branded a terrorist, domestic extremist, or some other moniker of national fright. E.g., discover a cure for AIDS and you will be hailed as a national hero; discover a cure for cancer and you will be assassinated. So any budding leader will also have to be able to decide between working within the establishment’s paradigm or against it — using his/her leadership skills to promote the state, its agenda, and dependence on it or to promote skills and mindset in opposition to it and its agenda.

    The skills most needed in America in our future may well be akin to those taught by Sarah Connor to her son, John Connor (Terminator films). I think it’s likely that people who sit in front of a computer all day are the ones who will be out of luck when the dollar collapses. Those are the ones who, as Michael Bunker put it in his book “Surviving Off Off-Grid”, will not be viable. I think the skills that will be needed most are things like farming (fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy), hunting, skinning, gardening, nursing/doctoring, herbalist, veterinarian, machinist, sewing, canning, electrician, plumbing, gunsmithing, carpentry, beekeeping, etc., …and TRAINING. An important aspect of leadership is that one must be able to do the things s/he proposes to lead others in, which is why having the right skillset for our near-term future will be important.

    And on that note, I agree that all the things you listed are great ideas to get the next generation moving in the right direction.


  13. Hello, Lisa. Great topic!! The issue/topic of leadership has long been near and dear to my heart. It’s a topic that ignites a passion in me and I absolutely love the privilege I have had through the years to work beside/under great leadership. I’m frustrated by your commenters who have missed the point of this article.

    First, I will tell you that I am a school counselor in a very diverse middle school. I’ve seen good teachers and I’ve seen teachers who should have retired after their first year and yet decades later are still in the classroom. THIS IS CHANGING, halleluiah. I also work with phenomenal teachers who only continue to get better. Unfortunately, so much of teaching now is about teaching to the test or to improve the test scores. There is so little focus on learning and the joy of it. I concur almost 100% with commenter, Lynda, and see what she sees daily. I see great teaching every day, but I also see kids with no desire to learn. It is so hard to instill that desire in a person who wants everything handed to them, rather than working for it and knowing the joy of having done so and succeeded.

    I have long desired to focus on teaching kids leadership skills and how to be leaders and do so, yet am limited in what I am able to do because of the fire constantly under public education. The public is not interested in the work I do around leadership because what they look at are the Math and English scores. I keep fighting the fight, but you must understand that it is an uphill battle and I have to work hard to convince others that this is a topic worthy of focus because they don’t have the foresight to see that this, too, can positively impact test scores.

    This article is exceptional and I would like to steal from it, if I may, as I start developing a webpage for our counseling program. I would use bits and pieces, giving credit where credit is due, and would seek your approval of the final product. Please email me if this is acceptable to you.

    I would also like to respond to those who say it’s who you know, not leadership that gets the job. Phooey. Like others said, that’s just an excuse and gets one nowhere. Over the course of 30+ years since high school, eight big moves across three states and 1,000 miles, and at least nine job changes, NOT ONE JOB was gotten as a result of who I knew. I got the jobs because of my common sense, integrity, enthusiasm, carefully honed skills, and my leadership ability. I worked hard to be exceptional and it paid off.

    Thank you.

  14. Lisa, this is a great article. Remember no matter what this world dishes out we have a God who can sympathize with our weaknesses when we feel the sting of this world. I love this song, “This world is not my home I’m just a pass-in through my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue. The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” by Jim Reeves. As a Christian, the world is not my home but I’ll do the best I can while I am here.

    I feel instilling in our children the heart of Godly leadership is so important. My two older boys are attending Boy Scouts and one of them is working toward Eagle. I love how he is learning so many things as a scout including leadership. They are also teaching so many life and survival skills too. I personally feel for this generation growing up. They face a world unlike anything we’ve seen. But I know I will fight till the end to give them the best chance possible. DisasterMOM

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  16. Great article. I agree that leading your child to lead will allow them to be the best they can be. Seems that now I have turned 30, I continually analyze and adapt my parenting methods. Thank you for your thoughts! Too often it seems parents are just trying to keep behavior in check and not making the time to work on these other types of skills.

  17. I absolutely love your article and think your conclusion that learning leadership skills is the one thing they can benefit from no matter what path they take. I have battled the same dilemma regarding my 7-year-old son and added that he also needs to know how to make good decisions and know right from wrong. While he will learn Biblical right from wrong at church, I also want him to know how to do so in less blatant ways such as in everyday situations. There is an amazing site (http://www.sfk.org) with free lessons in doing just this – basically in helping children reach their full potential by mastering the rules of life as they put it. We have a lot of fun watching the video lessons and doing the activities after.

    I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

  18. Susan Espinoza

    What a great article! I love the topics that you covered and how to follow through with them in our daily lives. However, in my experience most of society considers leaders to be bold outgoing people. I disagree with this. While a leader may be outgoing and social it is not needed. Some of our best thinkers are those who shut themselves away before coming up with something world changing. My point being that introverts are just as valuable as our outgoing leaders are. Leaders need to recognize others strengths and weaknesses and how to utilize them and build them up. Just something to consider when teaching your children about this topic.

  19. Good article. I would only add that we should be careful when we point out examples of good leadership. Many of the examples of good leadership are ‘sanitized’ super-human versions of real people. In order for children, or anyone, to use an example, the example must portray a real person rather than the legend that is often provided in the media. We often excuse our own shortcomings by noting that we are not super-human.

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