Parents are often tempted to take care of some of their kids’ everyday responsibilities—after all, it will get the job done more quickly—but doing so continually won’t help your kids develop basic life skills.
When some adolescents have limited life skills, Brian Powers, a Denver-area high school counselor and father of two, suspects their deficits might limit future prospects and functioning.
Similarly, “when we do a task for a child that they are capable of doing, we are communicating a subtle message that we do not think they are capable of it,” says Rachel Averch, president and head of school at Montessori Children’s House of Denver. “Let go of the need for perfection and for a certain outcome and realize that the process is more important than the product,” she advises.
The good news is, even the youngest family members can contribute to the household. Denver-area middle school teacher Molly Snell recommends singing songs, making it a game, or adding music, as you teach your children basic tasks. “Make it part of the routine such as, ‘After we eat, we use the stool to reach the sink and rinse our plates, then we put them in the dishwasher.’ There is an understanding of doing the job because it’s the next thing and not a punishment,” she says.
Not only will kids learn to do the actual tasks, but also the act of trying a task—and sometimes failing—can build a foundation of confidence and self-reliance. In turn, parents can build on those skills by teaching increased responsibility as the child grows. Here are a few growth areas to consider.
Cooking and Kitchen Skills
Jolene and Greg Picone are both small business owners. Out of necessity and “to ward off entitlement,” says Jolene, their three young daughters take part in meal prep, ready themselves for school, help with laundry, and more. When it comes to help in the kitchen, their two-year-old can put away silverware; a sister or adult will go back and organize if need be. The five-year old can pull dishes out and safely stack them on the counter, and the 10-year-old can put the dishes away.
“Our kids feel a sense of pride and confidence in themselves that they can do things independently,” says Jolene. “As they leave our home, we want them to know that they can do hard things.”
Younger children can add and mix (parent-measured) recipe ingredients. Averch is a bread baker; her youngest child helps knead the dough. They can also assist with setting the table and clearing plates. In addition, Averch believes that children being allowed to pour, and spill, is just as important as success. “The spill teaches a child that their mistakes are not failures to be ashamed of, but rather an important part of the learning process to be embraced and learned from in our pursuit of growth and excellence,” she explains.
Elementary school kids can help with cooking, learn to cut with a dull (or child-friendly) knife, and make basic meals such as sandwiches. They might also put groceries away and help wash the dishes.
Tweens and teens can read recipes, measure ingredients, and learn to prepare a meal. They can use a broom and dustpan, create a grocery list, and take out the trash. Teach them to plan and prepare a meal with several ingredients and use the oven.
Money management skills that are learned early on can have an impact throughout a child’s life. The New York Times reports that more than two dozen state legislatures are considering bills on financial literacy education in our high schools. High school students in 21 states (Colorado not among them) are required to take a personal finance course to graduate.
Greg Picone and his daughters launched Money Kids, a YouTube channel and social media think tank for kids to learn about money from other kids. The girls give short, kid-relatable talks about various financial topics, with dad lending a hand behind the scenes. “Kids can go through 13 years of schooling having learned pre-calculus and details about ancient civilizations,” says Picone, “but the basic language and ideas of money management can remain foreign to them—ideas that will place real-world demands on them immediately and daily as they become independent.” Picone also thinks that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. His hope is that by making the videos, his girls will have a deeper, emotional connection with the content.
Younger children can create three buckets for any allowance or gifts they receive: one for spending, one for saving, and one for giving. Let them choose how much goes into each bucket and give them autonomy (within household guidelines) to decide what to spend, what to save for, and where to donate.
Elementary school kids can be involved with saving up and planning for family vacations, or budgeting for groceries.
Tweens and teens who have demonstrated readiness can have their own bank accounts and then practice keeping track of their own money. Older high school students can reconcile their accounts and learn how to file taxes.
Learning to communicate, collaborate with others, and self-advocate are essential as we prepare our kids for a time when we may not be there to handle situations on their behalf. And no thanks to constant texting and messaging, our kids get less natural practice with communication than ever before. “We want them to feel confident to be independent, but be able to ask for outside help when needed,” says Averch.
Younger children can make basic decisions like which ice cream they want, which color socks they want to wear, or which toy they want to play with. Consider offering two choices, both of which you as a parent are OK with. Teach five-year-olds their full name, address, and a phone number to reach you, along with how to make an emergency call, if the need should ever arise.
Elementary school children can order for themselves at restaurants—it can be fun and builds confidence. Some restaurants have pictures on the kids’ menu, allowing non-readers to circle or color what they want to eat. Then, they can move on to verbally placing their order.
Tweens and teens can ask their teachers for help when they are struggling with an assignment, rather than the parent asking. Encourage them to ask store clerks when they are looking for an item, or call a business to ask about a product. If your tween or teen has a part-time job for a trusted friend or neighbor, encourage them to communicate directly with that adult about their work schedule and job duties.
As your kids grow and you’re unsure if the life skills lessons you’re teaching are sinking in, don’t despair. High school counselor Brian Powers says there’s another common outcome he sees when it comes to kids and life skills: Sometimes they mature a little later, and don’t notice the need for these skills until they leave the home.
“The opportunity that the ‘real world’ offers in tough love might be the first time that young adults see the value and the need for applying better life skills,” he says. “They find a natural motivation they did not have while living in their parents’ home.” That, too, is a good thing, and will allow you to relax when they come home to visit.
—Kelly Smith is an award-winning editor and writer who lives in Littleton. Her two 20-something daughters do all their own dishes and laundry.