Over a Thanksgiving dinner our family hosted last fall with four international students from George Mason University, a female graduate student from Peru recounted her experiences as a resident assistant in a freshman dorm. “I had students coming to me with no idea how to do laundry,” she said. “I had to hold their hands through the simplest things.”
That anecdote is not unusual these days. Colleges and employers alike are reporting that young people can’t do life’s most basic tasks. With all of our emphasis on academics and what it takes to get into college, essential life skills, such as how to do laundry, balance a checking account or cook a meal, have been overlooked.
“Life skills are essential for your child to learn how to be independent and become self-sufficient,” said Lindsay Hutton, editor at FamilyEducation.com. “Appropriate life skills will also help your child feel empowered, help develop his self-esteem, and aid in socialization and reasoning skills.”
These essential skills, which used to be taught in home economics courses at school and by parents at home, have fallen off the radar.
“Classrooms have become so focused on preparing our children academically that life skills have been put on the back burner,” said Hutton. “Also, the helicopter-parenting trend has given rise to the fear that a lot of parents feel for their child’s safety. Many parents are overprotective of their kids using electrical appliances, knives and other items that could potentially harm them, which gets in the way of learning these skills.”
That has led to college students who are unable to do laundry, among other basic, yet essential, tasks.
What should kids learn and at what age? In general, children should know how to care for a house, yard and their belongings. For younger kids, break a larger task down into manageable chunks and gradually increase responsibilities until the child is doing it on her own. Role-playing scenarios and chores around the house are a safe and easy way for kids to learn these skills.
Here’s a partial list of those key life skills, suggested by Hutton and other parents.
Personal safety. There’s a reason kids are still taught to know their full name, address and phone number in elementary school — safety. Hutton said that knowing how to make an emergency call is also important.
Care of self. Children should know how to wash themselves, brush their teeth, get dressed and take care of personal hygiene in the early grades of elementary school. Bedtime and morning checklists can be helpful in keeping them on track.
Care of others. As children get beyond kindergarten, they should begin to learn how to care for others, such as the family pet. For example, our second- and third-graders take turns filling the cat food and water dishes each day, while their older siblings clean the cat litter boxes.
Talking to others. Children need to know how to look people in the eye and carry on a polite conversation. Kids can practice by ordering food at a restaurant, paying for items at a store and asking a librarian for help locating a book.
Being home alone. Hutton said knowing how to be safe when at home alone is one of the most important skills to teach middle-school-age kids. For a child not used to being by himself in the house, start with short periods, such as a trip to a neighborhood coffeehouse for an hour, to help the tween become more comfortable.
Kitchen safety. Kids should know how to use the stove and knives properly, as well as what goes into cooking a meal. Assign your tween one evening a week to cook for the family to allow him to practice these skills. Three of my kids — ages 13, 11 and 9 — each have a night to make dinner for the family, although I cook alongside the 9-year-old to guide him.
Label reading. How to understand a label, such as laundry instructions or the dosage on common medicines, is an essential life skill. Rather than reaching for the bottle yourself, have your tween read the instructions to you and let her ask questions if she needs clarification.
Managing social situations. Janet Perez Eckles of Orlando taught her children how to have positive social interactions in a three-step process. First: When meeting anyone for the first time, offer a firm handshake with eye contact and a genuine smile. Second: Show interest by asking questions about their work, family, hobbies, etc. Third: After listening attentively, give feedback about what was shared. “Beginning and maintaining good relationships are the key to leadership, growth and success,” she said.
Money management. Mary L. Hamilton of Waco, Tex., started teaching her children to be responsible with money by giving them an allowance when they were preschoolers. She built upon that foundation when her kids hit their teen years by setting up bank accounts for them, with both a savings and checking account. “By the time they went to college, they understood they could only spend money that’s already there, and all three are good money managers. This sets them up for financial success as they get into the job market and start earning bigger money,” she said.
Responsible driving. This extends beyond keeping the car between the white lines on the highway. Teens should know the dangers of texting (or drinking) while driving, how to pump gas and how to add air to or change a tire. They should also know whom to call in case of a roadside emergency (you, police, insurance company, etc.). Modeling responsible driving is the best way to teach them these skills.
Time management. Juggling school assignments, extracurricular activities and a social life can be challenging for any teen. Tips for managing time well include knowing your time wasters (social media, video games, etc.); assigning smaller, incremental deadlines for big projects; and scheduling down time to maintain a good school/work and life balance.
Getting and keeping a job. There’s more to success in the workplace than getting the right college degree. “From filling out an application to interviewing to follow-up, we walked our kids through the process of procuring employment,” said Jeanette Levellie of Paris, Ill.
Remember, it’s not how well they master the actual task; the act of learning these life skills also has far-reaching benefits.
“Problem-solving, time management, socialization, independence and learning about rewards and consequences are all skills your child will benefit from as she develops life skills,” said Hutton. “For example, learning how to clean and keep a tidy home can help with your child’s interpersonal relationships as she learns to live with a college roommate. Teaching your child proper hygiene skills can lead to better social confidence. Learning to cook can help your child learn to save money by eating at home.”