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What Skills to Teach Your Children

Robert Heinlein, speaking through his character Lazarus Long, said:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

I've always thought that was a pretty good list, although I've never had cause to conn a ship or plan an invasion. I definitely agree that all humans need some basic life skills, and I believe that parents have a duty to see that their children acquire them before going out on their own. Please note that I am discussing skills here —not values. That's a different article.

Of course, figuring out which skills are important is going to vary from family to family —sometimes even from one parent to another in the same family. Part of conscious parenting, though, is to think about those skills and deliberately, methodically make sure your offspring master them throughout their childhoods.

The benefits of passing on these skills are many. True competence gives you self-confidence and self-esteem that's based on something real —not the puffery of gold stars and certificate that ultimately mean nothing. Kids know that they mean nothing —but knowing that they can cook a decent meal means something. Knowing that they can take good care of an automobile means something.

I took as my starting point a list printed in Marilyn Vos Savant's column a while back. It was forwarded to many homeschooling lists, and I found it very thought-provoking. My list doesn't entirely match hers, although there are some commonalities.

Perhaps because we are homeschoolers, and view everything as education, I don't really separate academic and "practical" skills as much as Vos Savant does. In fact, I don't see that the really important academic skills (as distinguished from knowledge) can be separated from everyday competencies.

Basic Communication Skills

  • True literacy in at least one language —preferably the one most commonly spoken in your country of residence. By true literacy, I do not mean the ability to simply read at a basic level. I mean true facility in reading, writing and speaking the language in casual, business and formal situations. You need to be able to read anything from a restaurant menu to an IRS publication to a college textbook to an automobile manual without feeling overwhelmed, confused or needing an explanation from someone else.
  • The ability to confidently address a small gathering or a large one, either extemperaneously or with a prepared speech. Obviously, we won't all be gifted public speakers —but being able to get your point across without stuttering, rambling, or simply staring in a terrified silence will prove valuable throughout life.
  • Knowledge of basic forms of written communication, such as business letters, simple reports, five-paragraph essays, letters to the editor, etc. While email is quickly replacing some of these for many of us, it is still useful to know how to create them when necessary.
  • Enough numeracy (mathematical literacy) to do basic operations mentally and to analyze information in a rational manner. That would include the ability to look at the odds of winning a lottery and knowing that you are far more likely to be hit by lightning than get any return if you buy a ticket.
  • The ability to analyze the slant inherent in a speaker or writer's words and to analyze what someone is trying to get you to do or believe through their use of words and numbers.
  • The ability and habit of listening to what someone is saying to you and mirroring their words back to them until both parties are clear that true communication has occurred.

Basic Social Skills

  • The ingrained habit of courtesy, such as saying "please" and "thank you" and "you're welcome." Opening doors and offering appropriate assistance to anyone who might need it. Simply noticing those around you and treating them well. Those kind of manners will be more important every day in dealing with family, friends, business associates, teachers and strangers than almost anything else your kids will ever learn.
  • Knowledge of appropriate dress for various situations.
  • Enough formal table manners that they can comfortably eat at McDonalds or the White House without embarrassing themselves or anyone else.

Basic Household Skills

  • The ability to feed themselves and their companions easily, healthily and economically. That means they'll need to have knowledge of basic nutrition, be able to cook (not just open a box or can), and to examine the economic and nutritional value of various dishes.
  • The ability to care for their own clothing. They should be able to do normal laundry, remove spots and stains, iron, store properly, and do minor repairs such as replacing buttons and mending hems. That should lead to more awareness of what they're buying when they acquire clothing.
  • The ability to take care of their surroundings. They need to know how to clean their own rooms, homes, etc., top to bottom. Anybody who has a toilet should know how to clean it efficiently, know how to recognize when it needs it, and be willing to do it.
  • The ability to change the filter in the furnace/air conditioning system, change light bulbs, clear clogged drains, repair small holes in a wall and hang pictures or shelving safely (without ruining the wall).
  • Knowledge of basic painting —walls, doors, trims, etc. —without ruining the flooring or your equipment. Wallpapering gets extra credit.
  • Assembly of a basic toolbox and the ability to use all the tools in it. Everybody needs a hammer, wrench, pliers, different types and sizes of screwdrivers, and so on. We find ourselves using a socket set, drill, wire stripper and other tools frequently as well, and we aren't really a household of handypersons.
  • Essential lawn care —mowing, raking, trimming, and so on.

Greg Banner—a father of six and retired lieutenant colonel in the Army—added in his letter that his West Point graduating class of 1979 and their spouses had compiled, through interaction online, a list of practical skills parents should teach their children. It included such suggestions as: how to climb a tree; how to ride a motorcycle (before someone else shows the kids!); how to haggle with the toughest car salesman in town; how to handle firearms safely; how to fight fires at home; how to be a gentleman or a lady; how to dress for success; how to use birth control; and much more.My own suggestions are [below]. But I'd like your ideas as well. Let's take advantage of the vast experience of PARADE's nearly 80 million readers and compile a comprehensive list.

—Throw and catch balls of all sizes without breaking your fingers.
—Swim half a mile, tread water for half an hour and float for an hour.
—Ride a bike with confidence.
Extra credit: Be able to get a kite up in the air, keep it there and bring it back down in one piece.

—Hang a picture straight without making extra holes in the wall.
—Paint neatly, including cleaning up the mess.
—Know which tools perform what functions and how to use them around the house.
Extra credit: Sharpen a knife without cutting yourself.

—Hike with friends all day without getting lost, bitten or covered with a rash.
—Bait a hook, catch a fish, reel it in, remove the hook, then clean and cook the fish.
—Plan and manage a weekend camping trip with friends.
Extra credit: Know enough about the wildlife in your area to recognize and feel like a friend to the animals.

—Type well with both hands in the normal manner.
—Set up your own computer system without help from anyone.
—Drive a car, including one with a manual transmission, and maintain it properly.
Extra credit: Change a flat tire.

—Create a budget. Note: It takes longer to earn money than to spend it.
—Balance a checkbook manually, even if you bank online.
—Maintain an address book and a personal appointment calendar.
Extra credit: Set up a filing system to keep all of the paperwork in your life in one place.

—Carry on a conversation for 15 minutes with a person you don't know.
—Speak before a small group of friends for a few minutes.
—Tell a joke well enough so that everybody gets it and maybe even laughs.
Extra credit: Learn enough ballroom dancing so you can have fun at parties. (Trust me on this one!)

—Draw an illustration at least well enough to get your point across.
—Have enough confidence to sing aloud, even when everyone else can hear you.
—Know how to play a musical instrument well enough to enjoy playing in a group.
Extra credit: Learn how to take a decent photograph, so you won't be disappointed later, when it's developed. For example, you can't shoot fireworks with a flash!

—Care for a dog, cat or other animal, including when it's sick.
—Baby-sit for children ranging in age from 6 months to 6 years.
—Aid elderly or handicapped people without looking superior.
Extra credit: Help a person in need without exposing either one of you to danger.

—Get around town on a bus, even if you usually walk or drive.
—Read a map, including road maps.
—Know what to do if you find yourself in a bad neighborhood.
Extra credit: Know which direction is north, south, east and west (without a compass) whenever you're outside.

—Play a team sport instead of just watching.
—Maintain a fitness regimen.
—Learn a game (like bridge or chess) you can play with friends for life.
Extra credit: Know how to ride a horse, handle a boat or enjoy a snow sport.

—Know basic first aid and maintain a complete first-aid kit.
—Know what to do if you get sick, especially if you're alone.
—Know when to defend yourself; then know how to be effective.
Extra credit: Know CPR. The life you save may be your father's or mother's.

Last updated November 1, 2001