Have you ever tried to list all the things kids need to know by the time they’re grown? It’s mind-boggling. No wonder it takes 18 or more years to form a full-fledged adult human.
Of course, not all things kids need to know are of equal importance. For example, your kid will have to learn advanced algebra at some point in school, but that won’t necessarily be an important skill in his adult life. (I know, math lovers. Algebra is beautiful, blah blah blah. I was an English major. The only time I’ve had to recall algebraic functions in my 20-plus years of adulthood is to help my teenage daughter with her high school algebra class. Go figure.)
Certain skills, however, are vital to becoming a well-functioning, successful, happy human being. Naturally, we need to make sure our kids have a basic grasp of cooking, laundry, cleaning, time and money management before they leave our homes. But there are other life skills—the ones that too many grown-ups are still trying to master—that I hope to instill in my kids while they’re still under my wing. Here are 10 of them:
1. Offering, Asking For, and Accepting Help
We tend to place so much emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency in our culture that asking for help can sometimes feel like an admission of failure. But we are designed to live in communities, to rely on one another. Sometimes that means giving others assistance, and sometimes it means asking for and accepting help yourself. I want my kids to know that they are capable, but also that there’s no shame in asking for help when you need it.
2. Saying No
Parents often teach kids not to say “no” to us, but maybe we should rethink that as a rule. Obviously, kids can’t go around refusing everything we ask them to do, but feeling comfortable telling someone “no”—from the total stranger to the co-worker to someone you love dearly—is a vital life skill. Is it something you’re really not comfortable with? Say no. Is it unsafe or unwise? Say no. Do you think it’s going to burn you out? Say no. Teach kids to say no respectfully, but firmly.
3. Saying Yes
On the flip side, there are many opportunities in life that only come along once. Teach kids to say yes when they recognize those opportunities. Even if they’re scared. Even if they think they might fail. Fear and doubt will try to keep them from saying yes to the awesomeness in their life. Teach them that taking risks, as long as they aren’t life-threatening, isn’t a bad thing.
4. Expressing Gratitude
Just like everyone else, our kids will have ups and downs in their lives. People will help them, and people will hurt them. They will experience the best of times and the worst of times. The one constant that will keep them afloat through any storm is gratitude. I want to teach my kids to be thankful for small things and content with what they have, even as they reach for more.
5. Admitting When They’re Wrong
Our kids will screw up sometimes. They’ll make mistakes, they’ll accidentally break things or hurt people, and they’ll need to own up to it. Unfortunately, some kids suck at apologizing. Teach them to admit what their mistake was, say they are sorry for it, and state what they’d do differently next time. A sincere, complete apology can go a long way.
6. Making New Friends
There’s a good chance that our kids will move someplace at some point where they don’t know anyone. Knowing how to start a conversation with a perfect stranger, figuring out where to find like-minded people, being open to forming friendships in unlikely places—these are all skills that will make a transition to a new place both easier and richer.
7. Avoiding Toxic Relationships
I want to teach my kids to make friends, but also let them know that certain people are not healthy to have in your life. If a friend or lover or even a family member is manipulative, abusive, habitually unkind, totally self-centered, or over-the-top jealous—or if you find that your relationship with that person drains you a whole lot more than it feeds you—that relationship is not healthy. There are 7 billion people in the world, and we only get to have relationships with a teeny fraction of those people. Don’t waste time or emotional energy being around people who are not good for you.
8. Standing Up for What’s Right
Whether they witness bullying on the playground, hear a bigoted joke, or find out a friend is breaking the law, kids have plenty of opportunities to practice integrity and justice that will serve them well throughout their lives. It takes courage and confidence to do the right thing when it goes against the crowd, so we have to do our best to instill in our children a sense of right and wrong and encourage them to stay strong when they have to choose between the two.
9. Always Striving for Improvement
I almost said “excellence” instead of improvement, but that word tends to trip up the perfectionists. Constant betterment is an easier pill to swallow. Strive to be a little better today than you were yesterday. Reach just a little higher. Push just a little harder. Give just a little more. Teach kids to keep that reasonable expectation of themselves, and they’ll be amazed at how much easier excellence becomes.
10. Being Able to Laugh at Life
If I were to name one quality that has gotten me through more rough patches than any other, I’d say having a sense of humor. Hands down. If you can’t laugh at yourself, at the absurdity of the world, or at the insane beauty in all of this, life will be much harder. Giggling with friends, or even by yourself, is as healing as it is fun. I am teaching my kids to laugh freely and often, even—or perhaps especially—during the tough times.
That’s my list of essential life skills. I know there are many more, and I’d love to hear what other parents would include as important skills for all kids have. (But I’ll still go to my grave insisting that advanced math isn’t one of them.)