Cassandra Harris, a business owner and mother of two says, “I could shop, cook, clean, travel and take care of my little brother when I was 12. Now kids can’t even think for themselves with today’s ‘smother mothers’ doing everything for them.
“There’s validity to the argument that too much responsibility too early can rob a child of their childhood. But my parents knew it was important to prepare us to handle life’s challenges. So I taught my kids to do the same when they were young because Mommy may not always be around, and I needed them to know how to take care of themselves.”
Harris’s approach may sound extreme, but some would say too many teens and young adults have no clue how to perform even the most basic life-skill tasks, which leaves them at a distinct disadvantage when they turn 18.
Sometimes we do too much under the guise of being good parents. However, you can be good while also preparing your children for self-sufficiency.
What’s the right age to begin teaching life skills?
Learning begins at birth. By two to three months, we expect babies to hold up their heads; by six months, to hold their own bottle. Every day we proudly post on social media new acts of independence. Our eyes dance with pride when they learn to go potty, tie their shoes and recite their ABCs.
But, as children embrace their independence, some parents aren’t ready to let go, so regression sets in.
“Children begin learning life skills very early, but parents underestimate how much they can learn and how soon,” says Dorothea Daniels, coordinator of Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program at Children’s Home Society in West Palm Beach, “Parents also tend to limit what kids and teens are exposed to because of their own discomfort with certain subjects, and this is detrimental to them in the long run.”
Do we give our kids the tools to grow up?
Sadly, the answer too often is no, says Cheryl Checkers, clinical consultant at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Palm Beach County.
“We spend so much energy protecting our kids from dangers seen and unseen, that they rarely get the chance to test their mettle or develop coping skills,” she says. “When we do too much for them, they don’t learn from examples, are ill-prepared for work or social environments, and things like depression and esteem issues set in.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Checkers says. “Parents can decide today to start preparing kids for independence, so when they reach 18, they have a clear understanding of basic adult responsibilities.”
When asked, “What should all children know by age 18?” Harris, Daniels and Checkers all agree: They should know a little bit of everything.
“In our Teen Outreach Program, we have a full curriculum designed to teach independent (life) skills,” Daniels says. Parents can learn more by contacting the Children’s Home Society or Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, which funds the program.
“As parents, we have an obligation to prepare our kids to thrive,” Harris says. “Anything less jeopardizes their future ability to succeed.”
Checkers offers a guide to independence in these eight areas:
- Education, career and volunteer interest: As early as 12, young people should understand the range of options and decision-making skills required to plan for high school and college. This includes how to apply for college/jobs and communicate appropriately in professional environments.
- Independent living: Before age 18, they should have basic life skills 101: how to find a job, grocery shop, cook, clean and do laundry.
- Housing: Young adults should know how to find housing, pay rent and understand lease agreements.
- Managing a budget: This one’s a biggie. Young adults need to know how to handle finances and pay bills if they’re going to make it in the world. For tips on teaching financial responsibility, check out the resources below. Check out Bankrate's Financial Literacy section for more info.
- Personal hygiene: Children should know correct names/functions for all body parts and how to maintain cleanliness.
- Traveling: They should know how to use public and personal transportation. This means learning how to use the bus system and navigate a map.
- Community participation: Does your child know how to address and mail a letter, go to the library and check out a book, deposit money in a bank account? These are essential life skills.
- Voting: Youth should know the importance of voting, how to register and vote.
• Cheryl Checkers, clinical consultant, National Alliance on Mental Illness in Palm Beach County
• Dorothea Daniels, coordinator of Teen Outreach Program, Children’s Home Society