Teach your teens basic life skills


Giving kids a run for their money: Students from a middle school in Fairfax, Virginia, participate in a financial-literacy program that includes exercises on mortgages, paying bills and applying for credit. Here, they gather in the Volkswagen storefront for information on car-buying. | THE WASHINGTON POST
Giving kids a run for their money: Students from a middle school in Fairfax, Virginia, participate in a financial-literacy program that includes exercises on mortgages, paying bills and applying for credit. Here, they gather in the Volkswagen storefront for information on car-buying. | THE WASHINGTON POST


WASHINGTON – Everyone graduates from high school knowing how to read, write and do basic math (you would hope). But to be a self-sufficient adult, those skills are not enough. In fact, they’re nowhere close to enough.

Advanced skills in academic areas aren’t going to help young adults out of every jam they are likely to face in the next few years. Most of those predicaments probably will have nothing to do with Shakespeare, trigonometry or world history. What will they do when their cars break down or they get sick? Do they know how to navigate a job interview or a lunch with coworkers? Are they responsible with money?

Schools teach many of these skills, either directly or woven into other academic subjects. But it’s up to parents to make sure their teens can take care of themselves in the world.

Here are some of the skills educators think are crucial to becoming an independent adult and how to teach them to your teens.

Budgets and money

It’s important for teens to know how interest works and how to track their bank accounts online, said Maril Jackson, supervisor of school counseling for Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia.

“Make sure your teens have their own bank accounts, and if they don’t, take them to the bank to open one,” says Neale Godfrey, president and CEO of GreenStreet Commons (www.greenstreetcommons.com) and chairman of the Children’s Financial Network. “It is important for kids to know how to use the bank in person before they start managing accounts online.”

Help young teens practice managing money by giving them a quarterly clothing budget, Godfrey suggests. Have them come up with a list of what they need, where they will buy the clothes and how much they will cost. Then go over the budget and make adjustments as necessary. Agree on a spending limit for that quarter, and load it onto a debit card for them to use to purchase their clothes.

“(It’s) the concept of ‘This is it; this is your amount,’ ” Godfrey said. “And with the clothing budget, if they want to spend $150 on designer jeans, fine, but you’re not putting any more in there. The kid is holding the debit card, and they have control of it.”

Give them a monthly budget instead of one that lasts for a semester or longer, she added. Handling monthly expenses will help your teen learn how to set a household budget and work within it. Managing home finances is a key skill, according to Andrea Bechberger, a career and technical education specialist for Virginia’s Prince William County Schools.

“It’s going to affect their financial welfare throughout their lives, being able to make good decisions,” Bechberger said. “I can’t tell you how many kids say, ‘I’m never going to have a child’ when they see the cost. It’s a real eye-opener for them.”

Handling emergencies

Many teens have never dealt with insurance without their parents’ help. They need to know what to do if they get in a car accident or have to make a trip to the emergency room, Goodwin said.

For doctors appointments or emergency-room visits, Goodwin said, explain any health-insurance co-payments or other billing procedures to your children and make sure they know what kind of identification they will need to provide.

With fender-benders, the car-buying website Edmunds.com says to tell your teens to call the police and move cars to the side of the road if possible. And give them a list of what information they will need to exchange with the other driver: name, address, phone number, insurance information, driver’s-license number and license-plate number.

Godfrey recommends taking your teens to the insurance agent when you add them to your policy. Then have the agent explain what they need to do in an accident.

She also recommends a trip to the police station, so an officer can explain what happens when you’re in an accident or if you are caught with alcohol in your car.

Digital kids, analog skills

Teens should practice basic skills that have nothing to do with technology, says Carrie Schaefer, a counselor at Annandale High School in Virginia.

Make sure that your teen knows how to read and write in cursive and that he can sign his name, she said. Everyone needs to be able to address an envelope and write a check, as well.

While every child is taught how to read an analog clock in elementary school, many rely so much on their phones that they forget, Schaefer said. So continue to practice that skill with them as they go through middle and high school.

And have your teens write and speak in complete sentences without using the shorthand that goes with texting or social media, she said.

“They’re shortening everything they do with technology these days, sending little messages where everything is abbreviated,” Schaefer said. “They need to get out of that habit because when you’re emailing your professor you can’t do that.”

Developing people skills

Your teens may know their way around an iPhone blindfolded, but to be successful in the workplace, they will need good manners and to be able to communicate and collaborate with others, according to John Brewer, a principal of Dominion High School in Virginia.

“Many of the 21st-century skills that kids need to be developing are not things we traditionally think of as things schools ought to teach,” Brewer said. Key skills include being able to meet new people and have successful interactions with them, he said.

“(These skills) are in this big lump that you would call character education,” Brewer said. “Can you treat other people with respect? Can you pull your weight? It’s crucial to be able to do these things in a global workplace.”

Make sure your teen knows how to shake someone’s hand and look the person in the eye, Schaefer said.

Maureen McLaughlin, director of counseling at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, also emphasized interpersonal skills. In particular, she said, all kids need to have some public-speaking abilities. Parents can have teens read aloud or write a speech and present it in front of a mirror or the family. They need to practice making eye contact, breathing and speaking slowly.

“The individual who is articulate and can present himself to a group of people goes a long way,” McLaughlin said. “Most individuals will have to give a presentation at some point. Being able to defend a belief of yours is a skill you need for the rest of your life.”

Managing time

Teens should be able to use a personal calendar by the time they graduate, Goodwin said, in order to track appointments, important dates and assignments.

Have them start using a calendar app or an online calendar while they are still in high school to get them in the habit of keeping track of everything, he said. The earlier they start, the better.

They also need to be able to plan their study time, Goodwin said.

“There’s often a really protected environment in the household, with a set study space and time for the kids, and when they get to college, they’ve got a messy, noisy dorm room,” Goodwin said. “How are they going to handle that?”

Running a household

Some basic home skills such as taking care of your laundry may seem simple, but they are not.

Teach your teen not only how to sort out laundry but also how much detergent to use, how to treat stains and how many items of clothing to put in the washer at a time.

“Parents make a lot of assumptions (about what their kids can do) and don’t realize how much structure they’ve provided for the student before he or she leaves,” said Alan Goodwin, principal of Walt Whitman High School in Maryland.

“We do all of these protective things when they are in high school, and then a lot of them end up partying more and forgetting to do laundry, forgetting to study, especially because they’re not in the habit of doing these things and no one is telling them to do it. None of these things are particularly earth-shattering, but they do add up.”

4 thoughts on “Teach your teens basic life skills”

  1. This topic is of particular concern to me. Way too many kids are leaving home not know these important skills and many others. My concern led me to develop a website on the topic. I still have a lot of work to do and would love to hear your comments and suggestions as well as those of your readers. Thanks for addressing this!

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