“Well, you’ll have six hours to teach her everything she still needs to know,” a friend joked before I drove my newly minted freshman to college. I laughed. And then I freaked a little and started a mental inventory. Wait, had I missed anything important in the past 18 years?!?
Truth is, our kids need to learn some basic life skills long before they leave home. Skills that:
- Aren’t usually taught in school
- Are often overlooked at home
- Can make or break a child’s future (in large and small ways)!
“When it comes to getting ahead in life, skills like getting to places on time, being in charge of your own backpack, and knowing how to cook turn out to be as important as schoolwork, piano lessons, and competitive sports,” says How to Raise an Adult author Julie Lythcott-Haims. As former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford, she couldn’t believe, she says, how many helpless, hapless kids she saw who were anxious and struggling unnecessarily as a result.
Even kids with perfect SAT scores who can build their own computers aren’t real-world ready without mastering these basics:
1. How to give a proper greeting
Before you say goodbye, make sure they can say hello. Like it or not, a great greeting—looking someone in the eye, giving a firm handshake—is a big part of how we humans subconsciously size up one another and form first impressions. And it happens in nanoseconds. Especially at this point in life, all those new faces your child will be encountering will shape his or her future.
For practice: Follow the simple steps in this how-to guide. Even the youngest kids can start learning how.
2. How to do laundry
It’s no joke that college freshmen return home with lots of pink clothes (from not separating whites and colors) and shrunken sweaters (oops, forgot to check the label). Half of 18- to 25-year-olds in a recent British survey didn’t even know how to use a dryer.
For practice: At least by middle school, if not sooner, give each child the responsibility for his or her own dirties. All those filthy uniforms. The umpteen changes of outfits that get tossed on the floor. Personal bedsheets and towels. There’s no better incentive than needing clean stuff.
3. How to manage their own banking
Let’s add up all the skills this might entail:
- How to work the ATM
- How to write a check (yeah, they still might have to) and make a deposit
- How to draw up and stick to a budget
- How to read a bank statement
- How to pay a bill
- How to use credit wisely—they’ll get plenty of credit card offers
For practice: Help your child manage an allowance or job earnings by going to the bank together to open checking and savings accounts and then mapping out a viable budget. Worth your investment: New York Times money columnist Ron Lieber’s The Opposite of Spoiled for his wealth of practical tips. The give-save-spend jars pictured on the cover are themselves a great starter idea for young kids.
4. How to speak up for themselves
You can’t be there when your college student has trouble understanding a class assignment or disagrees with a boss or colleague. Being able to self-advocate and ask for help are essential skills that experts say help kids develop confidence, self-esteem, and independence. Better yet, it lets them solve everyday problems before they become big problems.
For practice: Start early. When thorny situations arise at school, for example, brainstorm with your child about the best way to handle them. Should she email the teacher? Visit after class? Talk about what she might say. But make it her responsibility, suggests psychologist Brendan Pratt. A confidence-builder: Start with a “nice,” supportive teacher or coach who knows and is liked by your child—someone who’s apt to be empathetic and cooperative, he adds.
5. How to cook
Eventually the day comes: They get sick of pizza. Or too broke for take-out. (Or they move out of the dorm.) In that same British poll, almost half of students couldn’t make spaghetti, and almost a third couldn’t bake a potato or boil an egg.
Provide basic cooking skills, and you nudge your child toward healthier eating patterns for life. People who cook at home eat more nutritiously and consume fewer calories than those who cook less, recent Johns Hopkins research found.
For practice: Work up to having your child be responsible for fixing his or her own breakfast and lunch. To build dinner-making skills, invest in a good starter cookbook, like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: The Basics (its 1,000 photos help the hyper-visual generation) or The Food Network’s How to Boil Water: Life Beyond Take Out.
6. How to make a doctor’s appointment
Sure, kids can stay on parents’ health insurance until age 25. But do you really want to be making appointments for a 25-year-old? What happens when he or she turns 26? During college, kids may need to visit a clinic or the dentist, as well as make appointments for things like haircuts or the DMV.
For practice: Not only can a high-schooler start to schedule doctor visits, but you can prep him or her in another important way once you get there. Keep mostly quiet. Let your child check in, fill out questionnaires and other paperwork, explain symptoms to the intake nurse, and answer the doctor’s questions. That’s another giant leap toward self-advocacy and independence.
7. How to put gas in a car (or recharge it)
Some lucky ducks do manage to glide through life in taxis and on ride-sharing services. But if your teen has a license, he or she should also be able to gas (or charge) up. Bonus points for checking the oil and knowing how to change a tire and call for roadside help.
For practice: Lythcott-Haims quotes a step-by-step teaching method borrowed from the special-needs community that works for teaching ALL kids ALL KINDS of skills:
- First we do it for you
- Then we do it with you
- Then we watch you do it
- Then you do it completely independently
8. How to make the bed
Granted, this one’s pretty basic. And that’s the point. If you (or someone else) is still doing even the simplest chores for your child past early elementary school, it’s a good sign you might want to pause and take inventory on what else you’re overdoing for him or her. How the experts define “overdoing”: doing things for our kids that they can easily do themselves.
And if nobody’s making the beds? It’s your housekeeping call. But your child might not be the most popular roommate. Just saying.
For practice: Call it “straightening the bed;” no need to harp about hospital-corner perfection in a world where fluffy comforters can be smoothed out lickety-split. Make this the one thing your kid has to do before leaving the bedroom and he or she will already be starting the day with a jolt of confidence from having accomplished something.
9. How to find her (or his) way around
When you’ve been carried, driven, and escorted all your life, you tend not to pay attention to details like, oh, where you’re going and exactly how you got there. When your child lands at a college campus or visits a new town for an internship, there won’t be official greeters and hand-holders for them to follow day after day.
Though it’s not hard to figure out in most places, it does require a skill-set that we grown-ups take for granted but kids have to learn: how to read a map and a timetable, plan your route, figure out the timing, have a back-up plan if something goes awry (like when your phone’s battery runs out).
For practice: Take mass transportation together sometimes even if you mostly drive. Then let your child go solo—long before graduating. Make sure he or she knows where and how to access travel info, too, by downloading relevant apps, for example.
Expressing gratitude is both skill and art. Most audiences who aren’t your child’s peers—teachers, supervisors, coaches, family friends, those who share their time, knowledge, or connections—all merit a little more than a hastily thumbed “thx!”
For practice: Check out the genius Froh Formula for what to say in the perfect thank-you note. What works for acknowledging Grandma’s presents now will work just as well for thanking future networkers, colleagues, and others.
The ultimate skill
That six-hour drive to college with my daughter? Mostly I nervously zipped through my Greatest Hits of Mom Advice: Be yourself, be nice, be careful walking alone at night. I had to just cross my fingers and hope that I’d covered all the rest. (It’s hard to teach someone how to bake a potato when you’re driving on the freeway.)
One of the key life skills our children must develop, after all, Lythcott-Haims adds, “is the ability to live without us.” And hey…maybe someday our kids will write us nice thank-you’s for that.