Life Skills: Can Your Child Make It in the Real World?

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Some of the highest rated television series for adolescents and teens today focus on what would happen if society was suddenly thrown into the ultimate test for survival—like surviving the zombie apocalypse.

How would you stay alive if you had to hunt and grow your own food, search for fresh sources of water and live without electricity, using only your wits and skills? The truth is most kids don’t possess those extraordinary life skills, let alone the mundane ones we all need to make it in the real world.

If your 10-year-old child or grandchild has ever shown you how to work your computer or phone, you know that the generation we are raising now is bright and full of promise. Their skillset is often based in technology.

Those are great, necessary skills to have in today’s world. But what about those other skills? The ones that get us through power outages, budget crunches, stressful situations with people, and daily tasks that require perseverance and problem solving? How can we strengthen this generation’s foundation of life skills?

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A Culture of Caretaking

We used to expect more from our kids. Over the past several decades, our society has moved increasingly toward “doing for” our children rather than “teaching how.” Why?

Well, to start with, because we can. In the pre-modern times, children played an essential role in the survival of the family. They helped farm the land, took care of the younger children, gathered eggs, and prepared meals. 

Over time, though, a child’s role became less of contributor and more of receiver. What was once worked for as a family simply became Christmas and birthday gifts.

Schools began giving more and more homework, focused on the skills needed for today’s modern world (advanced math, computer science, communications) and there was a movement away from classes such as home economics and wood shop.

Meanwhile, our culture focuses less and less on teaching our children the skills we all grew up learning. They simply don’t know how to do some of the things we ask of them. And let’s face it, sometimes after working 8-10 hours, it’s just easier to clean the bathroom ourselves rather than try to teach a 15-year-old who cries, “But I don’t know HOW to clean the toilet!”

Related content: Motivating Underachievers: 9 Steps to Take When Your Child Says “I Don’t Care”

Assess Your Child’s Skills: It’s Never Too Late to Learn – or to Teach

Do a quick mental assessment of your child’s basic life skill knowledge. There are no set rules on what a child of certain age should know. It’s a judgment call.

As parents, we want to prepare our children for the real world. Although much of that world is dealing with technology, there is still a lot that isn’t. To start, you can pick a skill you think your child would be interested in or good at. What are his strengths or things she enjoys? Or are there some skills you think would be valuable for your child to have, that he or she hasn’t learned yet?

Here are some ideas:

  • Do laundry from start to finish. Learn to sort clothes, measure detergent, know what is washed in cold versus hot.
  • Making a sandwich? Chopping vegetables for a salad? Make dinner
  • Wash dishes and use the dishwasher
  • Do the grocery shopping
  • Using the post office to mail an actual letter. One mom we know expressed shock that her 23-year-old son had no idea how to make out an envelope: “He wasn’t sure where to put the address!”
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Think about what’s reasonable for your child’s age and be careful not to underestimate their abilities. Are there things you’re doing for your child that he or she is capable of doing for themselves? If so, the next time your daughter needs to return some jeans at the mall, instead of taking them up to the sales clerk yourself, consider coaching her through it, from walking up to the counter to showing the receipt, to actually making sure she gets the correct amount of money back.

Teaching the “how to” of life skills with your child not only helps with responsibilities at home. It helps your child in several other ways.

Benefit 1: Increases Capabilities

An obvious benefit in teaching your child life skills is in learning the task itself. It’s much better for your son or daughter to learn skills over time than to try to cram in everything they need to know at the age of eighteen (or older) as they prepare to move out on their own (and they become overwhelmed).

Benefit 2: Builds Confidence

The more capable a child or teen is at completing tasks, the more confident he or she will feel in a variety of situations. 

For example, teaching your 7-year-old son to go up to the McDonald’s counter to ask for ketchup (rather than expecting you to do it for him) can help him build confidence that he is capable of interacting with people in the public.

Years later, he is unafraid to pick up the phone and order a pizza or call a business to inquire about their moving van rates. This may sound simple, but it’s a great example of daily living skills, how they begin at a young age, and can be generalized to a variety of situations.

Many young adults we know experience anxiety about their abilities to talk to others effectively. They worry that they will look foolish or make a mistake. They get anxious and anxiety can lead to procrastinating. 

A young adult is more likely to postpone applying for a job if he is nervous about the interview or insecure about his capabilities. Life skills training can positively impact his or her ability to apply online for a job or walk into a store to ask for an application.

Benefit 3: Strengthens the Parent-Child Relationship

Teaching life skills is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your child. It’s time well spent and can lead to a stronger bond.

Many of us fondly remember learning from a parent or grandparent how to bake cookies, fish, or change a tire. 

Learning life skills doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be fun—an opportunity to spend time together, strengthening your bond through a shared experience.

Benefit 4: Teaches Us That Mistakes Happen

One of the greatest lessons we can pass on to our children is that we all make mistakes. Sometimes when we bake cookies, they burn. Sometimes when we fish, we accidentally knock over the tackle box. Changing tires can be tricky and lug nuts get lost or stripped. 

Practicing life skills such as cleaning, fixing, building, and cooking teaches us that sometimes we get it right the first time. And sometimes we don’t.

It teaches us to get back up and try again. It teaches us what to do differently the next time, so the dinner doesn’t burn.

Practicing life skills teaches us that mistakes are okay, even expected, when learning a new skill. Remember to be patient with your child. After all, it’s the process of learning that’s most valuable.

Benefit 5: Teaches Values

As your child learns life skills such as cleaning a bedroom or changing the oil in the car, they learn the value of taking care of our things. They learn that things don’t just take care of themselves and that to have nice things you have to exert some effort.

And they may come to appreciate the things you do naturally, as a matter of course, like make family meals and clean the house.

Skills that Make a Difference in the Real World

Let’s face it. Your child may never acquire the life skills needed to vanquish zombies. But he can learn a wide range of skills that will make him more effective in daily life, both at home and on the job.

So look for opportunities to teach your child how to cook, clean, do laundry, and talk to adults. And also teach him manners, how to apologize, how be assertive, and how show respect for others. Encourage your child to practice at being an adult. With enough practice, it will become natural.

By learning and mastering tasks, your child will gain a sense of confidence and capability that can last a lifetime.

About and

Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline® for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence™, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

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