Life Skills For Teens To Learn Before They Leave Home

They might know how to heat a frozen pizza. But do they know to never put liquid dish soap in a dishwasher?

Originally Published: 
Learning to fill the dishwasher is a skill for your teen
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I had a lot of feelings when I dropped my firstborn at college, or rather their first apartment, since it was 2020 and dorms were closed. Most of my emotions were sentimental but one was very practical. I was seized with a panic of, wait, have I taught you how to do this? Does 18-year-old you know how to be an adult and not wreck this rental property or live in filth?

In the endless parade of raising my children, and as the default parent, I focused more on reaching each evening rather than preparing my two kids for adulthood, which felt far away. We got through elementary school and into coveted activities and studied and took SATs and applied to colleges and managed to turn in yearbook money. Every day was hitting marks and trying to stay on top of whatever was going on. I realize now that I forgot to tell them so much adult stuff. Like make sure a friend has a spare set of your keys. Wait, I did tell them that, but they ignored me and then needed to call a locksmith.

The Basics A Young Adult Needs To Know

Author Catherine Newman’s book, How to Be a Person, includes dozens of practical things for your kid to learn, from how to be a good guest to how to manage money. It’s aimed at the middle-school set, but plenty of parents gift it to high schoolers and even college kids. One chapter I wish I had shown my firstborn: How to plunge a toilet.

After she wrote the book, Newman realized other, more obscure things that her kids didn’t know. They literally had no idea how to visit a doctor, for instance. They had never seen a medical “portal” because their mom took care of appointments. Scheduling a well visit is not the kind of skill you’re going to teach a 7th grader, and it’s not one of the practical skills outlined in her book, but it does get you thinking about all the parenting tasks we do behind the curtain that our kids don’t grasp, even once they are out of the house.

When I called Newman, not so much to interview her as to strategize with her so I don’t make all the same mistakes with my second child, we talked about these gaps in our kids’ knowledge and what other parents might do. We came up with three suggestions.

Narrate Your Parenting Tasks

Remember how you talked to your baby pretty much nonstop? “Mommy is looking for your bananas. I found your bananas! Want me to cut a banana?” It’s how we taught our babies about their environment—and how we taught them words.

Now, talking to your eighth-grader like that the entire time you emptied the dishwasher would be insane. But, Newman points out, you can verbalize what you are doing so that your kids might take note. (“These are dry, so I’m going to put them away.”) That way your work is not “behind the veil” so to speak. Saying, “I’m online right now to book your well visit with the doctor which requires a name and password, so it takes a minute,” might lodge somewhere in the recesses of their brain. Or saying, “I’m making a grocery list and thinking about what we want for dinners next week” at least introduces the idea of meal planning. Too often the adult things we do are done in silence, which doesn’t help our kids even notice that the tasks exist.

Newman says that during the pandemic, she began to narrate her normal adult struggles out loud, too. “I don't want the kids to be stressed about me or my life, I just want to normalize things,” Newman says. “Like, ‘I'm having this conflict.’ The kids would hear that and talk me through stuff. It was modeling problem-solving.” Less suffering in silence, less complaining out loud, and more sharing the stuff we all have to work through! (It relates to her newest guide, called What Can I Say, which guides kids through useful social skills.)

Reframe Chores And Teach Kids To Ask: What Can I Do To Help?

“My kids had a couple things that they were responsible for and that was great,” Newman says. “But, by and large, the way our family has worked is everyone's available to help and everybody asks for help.”

The “we’re in this together” idea, where anyone can be called on at any time to sweep the kitchen or take out a bag of trash, sets your kid up to be a great roommate, housemate, and significant other. “Creating a culture where we help each other is, to me, a perfect way to live,” Newman says.

What I love about Newman’s philosophy is it’s less about asking for help and more about teaching the kids to jump in and offer. “What can I do to help?” is the number-one phrase she insisted they learn and practice as young people. “I want them to walk into a room and say, ‘What can I do to help?’ in nearly any situation. It's a great mindset. I feel like it makes their lives so much better to have that vibe of being helpful,” Newman says.

Let Kids Make The Mistakes

During a family reunion last summer, my nephew, just graduated from college, helped out by running the dishwasher after a big family meal. He filled the chamber with liquid dish soap—not the dishwasher liquid—and hit go. Suds began to fill the kitchen. It’s a lesson most of us learn, as they say, the hard way.

With some things, screwing up is how you learn,” Newman says. “Then you really understand and won't do it again.” Giving young people the opportunity to try a chore and miss is important. We’re pretty far past the days when one red T-shirt could ruin an entire load of whites (both dyes and laundry detergent are better than they used to be), but I have watched my firstborn struggle and then succeed with other things, from cooking a successful breakfast to working out scheduling consequences when they double-book themselves.

You Won’t Be Able To Teach Them Everything

Obviously! And that’s okay. It’s a little zany to me that kids today learn coding but so many high schools don’t teach driver’s ed anymore. Hey, you will teach them as much as you can, and they will pick up and learn other things on their own. The important thing is that you’re always available to share what you can and help out without (too much) judgement.

I really did kind of lose my mind when my kid locked themselves out of their apartment and revealed that every spare key was also behind the locked door. But then I talked them through the (disastrous) locksmith appointment and, like with so many things, we eventually laughed about it. And I know they learned a life lesson.

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