Are your children too busy to learn essential life skills?

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As parents, one of our main jobs is to prepare our children for life. Sooner than we think, our little angels leave our loving care to make their own way in the world. So, how do we prepare them for life? If you take a moment to reflect, perhaps you’ll agree that your life skills play a key role in supporting you to live a successful and happy life. While we all know that life is so busy for both parents and children today, there is a way to ensure that your children develop the skills they need. It doesn’t take much time either. Interested? Read on!

I’ve been a university lecturer for over 20 years and I can’t tell you how many times I have heard my first year students say things like, “The hardest thing about going to uni is not the work, it’s that I’ve left home and…

  • Mum used to do everything for me and now I have to do it myself!
  • I don’t know how to cook. I’m sick of living off two minute noodles and takeaway.
  • I’ve given myself salmonella poisoning by putting raw chicken on my salad board.
  • I’ve ruined all of my clothes and all my white tee shirts are now pink!
  • I feel really lonely and depressed.
  • It’s all too much, I can’t manage everything.
  • I’ve just failed my exam and I’ve never failed anything in my life. I can’t cope.
  • I’m having trouble getting on with some people. I can’t tell them how I really feel.
  • I can’t manage my money, I’m broke.” …and the list goes on.

When I was a girl, I learned to cook, I helped with the cleaning and the laundry. I knew that I had to separate the whites from the blacks and I knew to be especially careful of washing red clothes with anything white! If I wanted to buy something special like a new pair of shoes, then I had to work out a budget. I made sure I included my day to day spending and the extra for the shoes. Then it was working out how I could do extra work to earn the money and save it until I reached my goal. I grew up in a family of six and so we all had to plenty of opportunities to learn about managing, delegating, sharing, conflict resolution and the art of negotiation.

As a mother, I am very aware of how important it is for my child to develop key life skills so he is equipped to lead a successful and fulfilling life. I was also very curious to understand why so many of the young men and women I come into contact with at university just don’t have basic life skills. As a researcher and a life coach, I had access to many parents and began asking questions. My research revealed that while there were unique responses, there were also common themes which could explain why children weren’t developing important life skills while growing up. The main themes included comments like:

  • When I was a child, I had to do a lot of chores and didn’t feel like I had a childhood, so I decided early on that I’d let my child be a child and play!
  • From when my children were very young, I had to work in order to make ends meet. Between work, getting the kids ready for school and taxied to all their other activities, taking care of all of the things at home, I had so little quality time with the kids to help them learn life skills.
  • Nowadays there is so much pressure on our kids to do well academically to get anywhere in life, they just don’t have the time to help around the house.
  • My children were so busy with school and sports I hardly spent time with them except when I was driving them from one activity to the next.
  • I never really thought about whether my kids were developing life skills, I believed they developed them at school.
  • I thought it was more important that my kids had tutoring for subjects they needed help with, so that meant no time after school.
  • Teenagers of today are in their own world, they don’t seem part of the family, they just want to listen to music, play video games, text on the phone and basically do their own thing
  • If my teenagers say they don’t want to do something, what can I really do? In my day, I got a damn good hiding if I didn’t listen and so I just did as I was told. Have you ever tried to negotiate with today’s teenagers?
  • I found it took too much time to show my kids how to do things around the house and I didn’t have the time. It was so much quicker and easier if I did it myself and so I did!

If you have children, do any of these themes ring true for you? While parents know that children need to develop life skills, both parents and children are so busy. So what’s the solution?

Here are some ideas that may help.

First, the best way to help your children develop life skills is to start as young as possible. It doesn’t have to be a ‘chore’, you can make it fun. For example, my toddler separates the washing into black, white and colours and then he “shoves” them in our front loader washing machine. His favourite part is putting the powder in the drawer and pushing the buttons. He is now well on his way to a skill for life and he isn’t even three yet! Starting early makes it a ‘normal’ part of your child’s life which can be continued into the teenage years. As all too many parents of teenagers know… it is very hard to ‘show’ them anything!

Second, you need to model the life skills and behaviours you want your children to develop. If you’d like your children to learn the art of calm conflict resolution and negotiation, then model that for them. Children learn MOST from what you do and what you say. How many times have you heard your words come back at you or seen your child do as you have done? So use that to your advantage!

Third, it really helps if you have a regular program of easy to complete activities for developing life skills. It’s most effective if the activities are fun and become part of your family’s weekly routine. In this way, little by little over time they learn. Without a program, something to follow, you know what it is like… you get busy with this and that and with all the best intentions in the world nothing happens. I know that’s true so I decided to create a program for my son, Cameron. We do two simple activities at the same time every week that take only take 10-15 minutes from one or two of these seven areas of life:

  1. Personal Power – self esteem & resilience
  2. Health & Wellbeing
  3. Education, Career & Money
  4. Social & Environmental Understanding
  5. Communication skills & Relationships
  6. Relaxation & Play
  7. Inspired Creativity

The activities help him develop key life skills and support him to become a well rounded person. Let me share an example. I believe it is important that Cameron learns how to protect our natural environment. So one activity we completed was to walk around the house wherever we use water and talk about how to make sure we don’t waste water. In the kitchen we talked about filling up the sink with soapy water to wash the dishes rather than letting the tap run. In the bathroom we brushed our teeth together and I explained how we don’t leave the water running so as not to waste water. In the toilet I explained how and when to use the half flush and when to use the full flush. You know what I mean! So as you can see, life skill activities can easily be scheduled into your normal family routine and in only one year, if you only do two per week, your children can develop over 100 life skills.

Too many parents feel so guilty about not being able to spend as much time with their children as they’d like and everyone who has had a child leave home says, “The time flew by and before I knew it they were gone”. Imagine how good you’d feel knowing your child left home with the skills they needed to have a great life!

Rosina McAlpine

Dr Rosina McAlpine is an internationally recognised teacher and researcher in higher education. She has taught at university for over 20 years and is currently teaching at the University of Sydney. Over her career she has received numerous teaching awards for teaching excellence and five international best paper awards for her research. Since becoming a mother in 2007, her research focus has expanded to include child development and parenting and she has developed practical and innovative approaches to parenting. Rosina is currently completing her forthcoming book entitled Inspired Children: how the leading minds of today raise their children. She has also developed a comprehensive program to empower parents to support their children’s development of key life skills.

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