Why you need to make "life skills" your new parent project

What are we even talking about? How well does your teen know the basics? My 15-year old daughter can scuba dive, speak French, debate the pros and cons of beauty pageants and play the flute, yet she doesn’t know how to fry an egg or do online banking.

There is a basic level of life skills that I’m failing to impart – maybe we’re too busy, or perhaps I’m a rotten parent who thinks it’s more fun to teach my child about buddy breathing underwater than to stand in the kitchen watching her murder my frying pan.

If all this sounds unfamiliar, if your teen does their own laundry, reads ingredient labels on packaged food, and organise their schedule, you can give yourself a giant pat on the back and continue reading the rest of this article with a smug smile.

A true story with a point

A few years ago, my otherwise super-smart daughter (then 13) missed the school bus home. She phoned me close to tears: she didn’t know which “normal” bus to catch (answer: any), where the public bus stop was (answer: walk out of the school gate, turn either left or right, and you’ll find one), or how to signal for the bus to stop.

The very next week, her brother (two years her junior) had to get home from hockey training. I told him to ask one of his mates’ parents for a lift. That night, I enquired whom I should thank for bringing my son home. “Mum, I took the bus,” he replied. “I downloaded this public transport app, and it tells you everything: when to start walking, where the bus stop is, which bus number, where to get off.”

(Drat, why didn’t I think of that? Just download an app!)

No, it’s not a gender thing, more of a nature-over-nurture thing. My children had the same upbringing, the same opportunities, the same toys (my daughter dressed up the Barbie dolls, my son undressed them; and they were both equally meh about Lego). It’s just that some people are more practically-minded than others, more self-assured, more willing to experiment.

Moral of the story: if your teenager is a perfectionist afraid of making mistakes, they might need your guidance in acquiring life skills.

So what are the basic life skills?

I’m not going to even try assigning ages and stages here. Experts will tell you that, for example, your four-year old is perfectly capable of emptying the dishwasher, but, seriously, how many parents would actually want pre-schoolers to handle glasses and sharp knives? (Or am I just too much of a control freak?)

At some stage, your teen should be able to:

  • prepare a variety of nutritiously-aware meals for one (they don’t need to cook a 3-course family dinner, but if they make a baked potato with cheese, they must serve it with some green leaves; and that a sandwich with potato chips is loaded with carbs and does not make a healthy lunch, unless you’re about to run cross-country),
  • get around (be it on a bicycle, public transport, or driving) and read a map,
  • be financially savvy (budget, know how to pay bills, have an idea what things cost),
  • do laundry,
  • look after themselves when they have a cold or a runny tummy,
  • keep a clean-ish house (wash the floor, unblock the toilet, disinfect the kitchen sponge after each use).

Teach them to plan for contingencies, too: what to do if they get a flat tyre, or if the laundry load comes out all pink, or someone approaches them in a dark street and demands their wallet.

The more intricate life skills

Teenagers should also learn how to look after their mental wellbeing. It’s sometimes difficult to recognise that you’re unhappy when you’re busy being unhappy, so ideally they should have a buddy system (yes, just like in scuba diving): someone to check in with them regularly for signs of depression or self-neglect.

Your bog-standard feeling of unhappiness can be eased by going for a walk on the beach or among trees, petting a dog, doing something you like (coffee with a friend, shopping, playing squash). If the teenager can’t muster the energy even for that, they should seek professional help (Youthline: 0800 37 66 33; Free Text: 234).

What values?

It’s sad that sometimes in our super-rushed lives we forget to tach our children the basic rules of good citizenship: smile at the cashier, say thank you to the bus driver, be considerate to neighbours, care about the environment, and if a person seems intoxicated – do not have sex with them.

That last point is worth unpacking. In 2016, the media fumed against Brock Turner, Stanford athlete swimmer convicted of sexual assault on an unconscious woman. The outrage was prompted by lenient sentencing, but what caught my attention was that Brock blamed the fraternity culture, claiming he’d observed similar behaviours at parties and assumed that it was acceptable to engage sexually with a partner who had passed out. It’s not an excuse, of course, but I wondered whether Brock Turner was so busy training for the Olympics that his parents never found the time to explain consent (“affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity”), or show him this video about consenting to a cup of tea.

How do you teach all that?

Most life skills can be taught by example (this is how to cut an onion, come help me do the meal plan and then we’ll go shopping together), by empowering your children to have responsibilities (yes, that blessed dishwasher full of sharp knives) and making the Internet our friend (there are over one-and-a-half million YouTube videos on how to fry an egg; and for most other things, there’ll be an app). Whenever you’re doing something for your teenager or for the family, stop and think: could they be watching, helping or doing it themselves? Could they cook dinner with a friend who’s done it before? Teach your child to sort the laundry loads, but trust their common sense to work out how to use the washing machine.

Values are more complicated. “By example” is ideal, of course, but how many times have we fallen back on the old cliché of “do as I say, not as I do”? Fictional characters in books and movies can be of help, especially if you discuss them as a family (friendship, sacrifice and being money-poor in Harry Potter; having a boyfriend who stalks you and watches you sleep in Twilight).

You can also play what-if games with your teens. Experts suggest that visualising a scenario and imagining how you’re going to react, helps you make the same right decision when the situation is real, and you’re under pressure. Some scenarios to think though may include:

  • You’re at school. Suddenly the alarm sounds, the school goes into lockdown, but, what rotten luck, you are in the toilet. You know the classroom door won’t open to let you back in. What do you do?
  • Your friend is driving too fast. You’re in the passenger seat. What would you say?
  • Someone drops their shopping bag. Tomatoes and small change roll around on the footpath. Other people just walk on, undisturbed. Are you one of them?
  • Your friends are making fun of someone behind their back. What’s your position?
  • You are at a party and your best female friend is leaving with a young man you don’t know. Is it your business to interfere? How would you do it?
  • Still at that party, a girl you have a few classes with suggests you go explore the bedrooms upstairs. She seems intoxicated. What’s a good plan of action?
  • Strangers have gate-crashed that same ill-fated party….

Last thoughts

No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to prepare your children for everything adult life will throw at them. Teach them where to look stuff up, how to ask for help, and to treat mistakes as learnings. If you’re brave enough, tell them that adults don’t know how to do stuff either: we just have more confidence in our faking skills.

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