Five Essential Skills That Schools Don't Teach

tools in a shed

Parenting isn't easy. There’s no magic formula or cheat sheet. We send our kids off to school but what then?

Teachers are overburdened and underpaid, trapped in an outdated system that too often rewards rote memorization and mediocrity.

Fortunately, there is hope, but it comes with one caveat: To move forward as parents, sometimes we need to look backwards first. That's right. Put away the screens, unplug, and slow down. It's time, parents, to get back to basics.



Yes, a cleat hitch. At some point or another, we all end up on a small boat approaching a dock. At such moments, there are two types of people—the feckless and the competent. The difference between the two: A simple figure-eight knot.

boat on a lake

Every Viking knew the cleat hitch as did every Greek. Odin taught it to Thor, Odysseus taught it to Telemachus, and you, parents, must teach it too. 

Tying a cleat hitch is easy, and there’s a satisfying beauty in its simplicity. Any child can master it in minutes. Good parents know not to underestimate its value.

More than a mere knot, it's a life lesson that translates more broadly into understanding how to be to a useful person, how to be assertive and take charge, and, most importantly, how to lend a hand.



These days, parents hardly let kids do anything unless it’s scheduled and carefully supervised. Schools are no different. Unstructured play, which fosters skills like creativity and problem solving, doesn't jibe in curriculums designed to measure success by standardized test results.

Tree climbing is the antithesis of sanitized playgrounds and classrooms, and that's precisely what makes it so invaluable.

kid climbing tree

Every tree is unique, parents and teachers don’t circle around them, and once a kid scrambles up one there rises an incomparable sense of triumph that cannot be conjured elsewhere.

Kids have been climbing trees for about six million years, which means that they are practically hard-wired for tree climbing.

The process is simple: Find a tree with inviting branches and let the kids have at it. The best thing a parent can do is stay the hell away. Is it dangerous? A little. But the potential benefits—grit, resilience, and bravery—far outweigh the risks.



In this age of driverless cars and global positioning systems, you would think that the days of being lost are behind us. But are they? Digital location tools rely on imperfect infrastructures. No matter where you live, city or country, you still occasionally need to rely on old fashioned trust-your-gut navigation.

boy with a map

Scientists have recently discovered that navigation is a use-it-or-lose-it skill; if we don't use it, the hippocampus begins to shrink, which simply confirms what good parents have long known: Teaching kids to navigate gives them a bigger brain. 

Navigation lessons are fun, as long as you don't force them down a kid's throat. Good parents teach navigations lessons gradually, often in subtle ways. They point out the north star, for example, or they use cardinal directions in conversations. Sometimes, they point out useful landmarks when hiking, driving, or walking. Eventually, when the time is right, they employ the find-your-way-home challenge (which can be as simple as "I'll buy you a milkshake if you can get us home from soccer practice"). Don't overdo it. That's annoying.

The ultimate goal isn't to turn a child into a Jason Bourne replica. It's simply to teach basic situational awareness, which in turn makes a child more cognizant and competent.



Fire has always been essential to the human experience. We rely on fire for warmth, cooking, and to light our way.

Wherever ancient humans traveled, they carried fire. There is also beauty in flame and comfort in the smell and sound of crackling wood.

fire is good

Some argue that an understanding of fire is in our DNA. I wouldn't know if this is true. But I do know that fire building, whether it's in our DNA or not, is an essential skill. 

And I'll add this too: When you look back on your life, will you wish that you had sat around fewer fires with your kids? I know I won't.

Fire is awesome, and its awesomness needs to be appreciated first hand. Obviously, fire building needs to be supervised until mastered, but supervision isn't a chore. It's fun. More importantly, a child who can build a fire is one step closer to self-reliance, and self-reliance is one of the greatest lessons a parent can teach.



The benefits of whittling are three-fold. First, whittling is an excellent way to introduce a child to an ancient and useful tool—the knife. For thousands of years, humankind has depended on the knife for survival and sustenance.

An hour with a knife teaches subtle lessons that can't be learned on a smart phone or in a text book. True progress requires that we reconnect with the parts of our ancestral past that are worth knowing. I contend the handling and appreciating a blade falls into the "worth knowing" category.

boy whittling

Second, whittling allows a parent an ideal opportunity to teach knife safety and, by extension, the joy that comes when a tool is used well and the danger when it isn’t.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, whittling allows a parent to sit quietly with a son or daughter and share an extended moment in time—a pleasure all too rare in our hyper-connected and fast-paced world.



Think of these lessons as heirlooms, old beyond memory and record, trustworthy weapons in the armory of parenthood. As simple as these lessons appear on the surface, a parent who attends to them conscientiously and with purpose will find that the benefits are profoundly rewarding.

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