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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