Note to readers: You can listen to Kimball Lewis discuss this article in an interview on the Parenting ADHD and Autism Podcast with author and parent coach Penny Williams.
If your 10-year-old child 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. They’re good with technology—they know how to use phones and computers. But that doesn’t mean they have practical life skills.
For example, an important skill is for kids to learn how to talk with non-family adults appropriately. And they need to develop the skills that will eventually get them through stressful situations with bosses, customers, budget crunches, and tasks that require perseverance and problem-solving. Indeed, a major cause of behavior problems is the inability of a child to handle life’s basic problems. So how do our kids acquire these essential life skills?
You can start now by giving them responsibilities and letting them practice doing adult things. There are no set rules on what a child of a certain age should know. It’s a judgment call. The idea is to get them doing adult tasks early and often. Here are some ideas:
In determining the appropriate age for the above tasks, think about what your child is already capable of doing. Is working a washing machine more complicated than today’s smartphones? Probably not. If your child can figure out Fortnite, they can certainly learn to use the dishwasher or make a sandwich.
As you go through your day, be on the lookout for tasks that you take for granted but would be a new and useful experience for your child.
If you have a 7th grader, they probably have plenty of practice interacting with other 7th graders. But the socialization they get in junior high school doesn’t necessarily translate to the real world. Therefore, don’t rely on the kids at school to socialize your kids—you may not like how it turns out.
Where kids need practice—and this is critical—is interacting with adults who are not their parents, relatives, or peers. Learning to interact with adults is how kids will eventually learn to ask for a job, talk with bosses, and deal with the public.
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 making sure she gets the correct amount of money back.
Let your 13-year-old call the pizza place to order take-out. They will be nervous making the call at first, but they will be comfortable when they’ve done it once or twice.
When my sons were adolescents, we took several long car trips that required us to stay in a motel. As it got near the time to stop for the night, I had them call several motels nearby to inquire about vacancies and whether they allowed pets (we traveled with our dog, Tess). The boys didn’t want to make the calls—they were nervous and didn’t know what to say. But I had them do it anyway. I coached them on what to ask and taught them some motel terminology they would need to know (for example, vacancy, pet-friendly, continental breakfast, AAA discount). We then rehearsed a bit. The first couple of calls were predictably awkward. But, as they made more calls, their fears faded, their words flowed better, and just like that, they knew how to find a motel room on their own.
It was evident to the motel clerks that my kids were young, which I think helped the situation. In general, I’ve noticed that adults are much more patient with young kids who struggle to communicate than they are with other adults. Once a person reaches their twenties, people are much less forgiving if you don’t communicate well. A twelve-year-old who struggles with their words is cute. Not so for a twenty-year-old. That’s why starting young is an advantage.
You’ll be more patient and understanding if you initially set low expectations for your child’s communication skills. They may know much less than you realize, and they may need a lot of coaching. Most of us forget that there was a time when we struggled to interact with adults. Thus, we take communication skills for granted and have unrealistic expectations that our kids will know how to do this instinctively.
Most adolescents get anxious when they have to do something for the first time. They worry that they will look foolish, say the wrong thing, or won’t be able to think of anything at all to say. Their anxiety then leads to procrastinating and avoiding unfamiliar situations. This anxiety-induced procrastination explains why many adult kids are at home and not working—they lack the confidence and experience to ask a stranger for a job. And the older they are without having this skill, the more embarrassing it is.
I personally believe the esteem movement had done a disservice to many kids. It’s better to teach your child to humble themselves and learn to accept feeling awkward and embarrassed in new situations. That’s how real life works, and it’s not helpful to shield our kids from it. Their esteem will grow once they’ve gained actual skills and experience.
Don’t criticize your child when they mess up. For example, if you don’t like how your child interacted with an adult, gently correct them. If you get angry, it discourages them from talking with adults in the future, and they won’t get the practice they need. Of course, if your child is outright disrespectful (on purpose), then you should give them an appropriate consequence.
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. It’s an opportunity to spend time together, strengthening your bond through a shared experience. My kids loved it when I would take them to a big, empty parking lot and let them drive the car when they were age 13.
Even if it isn’t all fun, the memories can be valuable. Your child will look back with pride in overcoming challenges and doing difficult things.
Finally, expecting and encouraging your child to do adult things shows that you have confidence in them and care about their growth and development. With enough practice, it will become natural.
Kimball Lewis is the CEO of EmpoweringParents.com. In addition to his leadership and management roles, he contributes as an editor, a homeschooling expert, and a parent coach. He resides in Orlando, Florida, with his wife and two teenage sons.