Learning Life Skills, Part 1

by Kathy Kuhl

Are your children learning the life skills they will need when they are on their own? Imagine your child, grown up and moving out. As the car pulls away, you call, “Wait! I forgot to teach you how to… file your taxes” or “…find a good repair service” or “…change a flat tire!”

Life skills are easy to overlook. As parents of students who struggle in one area or another, it’s easy for us to concentrate on academics. When we have children with learning challenges, we want to fix those problems, or at least to to find accommodations to help them thrive. So we focus on the areas of greatest need.

Meanwhile, we may neglect some of the skills they’ll need most as adults: life skills. Since our children’s learning challenges can affect some of these skills, we may need to teach them more intentionally and carefully than other parents.

What are life skills?

Life skills are the abilities you need for everyday life: cleaning, laundry, cooking, meal planning, budgeting. As a child, you learned from your parents how to brush your teeth morning and evening, make your bed, and comb your hair.

Other skills you learned later. Did someone teach you how choose a ripe avocado, how to address an envelope, or how to sew a button on a shirt? Maybe your grandmother taught you to make lasagna or her best cookie recipe. Perhaps your mom or dad sat down and helped you fill out you first income tax forms or guided you through changing a tire.

These are all life skills–easily taken for granted once learned, but things that need to be taught in order to ease the transition to adulthood.

Where do I find the list of life skills?

There is no single list. Google “life skills list” or “living skills assessment,” and you’ll quickly see that everyone has different ideas. For some, choosing that ripe avocado makes the list, while mowing a lawn doesn’t rate. Others will show different priorities.

You might find a list you like, or you might cobble together your own list based on research and brainstorming. 

Your list won’t be like mine

The life skills you choose to teach your child won’t be the same as the ones I prioritize. Our lists will vary based on:

  • The age and developmental level of the child, teen, or young adult.
  • Your child’s personality and interests. My first child got serious about sewing. Not only can she mend some clothes, she has designed and sewn costumes. My second child barely got past sewing on buttons. But he has skills she lacks—if you ever need to survive in the woods, he’s the man you want.
  • Your personal priorities. You may want your kids to learn how to change the oil on a car. Your friend may think it’s more important to learn to clean the attic fan. (My neighbor taught her teen this skill. I still don’t know how it’s done. I guess I could hire that teen!)
  • Your particular circumstances and environment. My kids’ cousins learned to feed the chickens and drive the feed truck before they were twelve. By contrast, my kids learned to use public transit and be comfortable in a multi-ethnic community.

General life skills resources

As a very good introduction for parents of kids age 12 and under, I recommend Christine Field’s book Life Skills for KidsHer ideas are helpful and practical for any family of any faith or none, although Christine writes from a clearly Christian perspective. Her fourteen basic principles are sensible and powerful.

Christine does not simply cover cooking basics and writing checks; she gets into relational skills, too. She writes:

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the knowledge that the universe does not revolve around them…. We tend to indulge our children out of love for them, but love is not indulgence. Love is training your children and sometimes being tough with them, asking them to learn unselfishness, being strong enough to tolerate their not liking you when you try to do the right thing.

The Mothers’ Almanac, Revised was published in 1975, and revised in 1997, but still has many very good ideas for parents looking to teach life skills. I’m indebted to authors Marguerite Kelly and Ella Parsons for recipes a small child can prepare, but even more for encouraging me to start my kids helping out at a much younger age than I otherwise would have done. Thanks to them, my kids were making place cards for special holiday meals as soon as they could write legibly, and making homemade gifts even sooner.

How learning challenges relate to life skills

First, understand how your child’s difficulties or disabilities relate to real life, not just school subjects. It took me a while to realize that my child’s learning disabilities explained why it was hard for him to visualize and recall which part of the floor he’d mopped. If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t just tell him to imagine lines on the floor. I’d put masking tape on the floor to divide it into squares, about three or four feet across. I figure the tape would catch some of the crumbs, too! Then I would have had him sweep or put away toys and clothes from one square at a time.

If you don’t know how your child’s learning disabilities affect daily life, ask the specialist who tested them. Also look at websites aimed at adults who share the challenge your child faces. See what those adults are dealing with, and how they do so.

For kids and teens who are distractible, impulsive, or have ADHD

How do we make these vital lessons interesting and engaging? Here are some thoughts and suggestions:

  • Don’t try to teach when either of you is very tired, hungry, or stressed. This is a recipe for frustration.
  • Start teaching these skills early, while they are interested. If your child never sweeps until he is sixteen, he won’t be interested. But if you give him a broom when he’s three or five (or whatever age he first seems almost capable), he’ll feel like a grown-up and be excited to help. Just watch that broom handle!
  • Your kids and mine will be ready to learn different skills at different ages and in different ways. When my son was thirteen, for example, I started having him wash his own clothes. I supervised a lot a first, then I backed off. I was grateful that he reduced my workload, and I told him so regularly as he was mastering the skill.
    A friend with five kids gave each one his or her own laundry day, when no one else could use the washer and dryer. That taught laundry and planning.
  • Make these lessons as real as possible. Distractible or not, all kids prefer hands-on skills. So don’t start with a workbook, but with a real life situation. Then move to the workbook or owner’s manual when needed. For example, don’t just talk about economy and turning out lights when leaving a room; let them write real checks to the power company for a few months. Don’t just talk about nutrition; let them plan a meal, buy the food, and prepare it. Start simple, but also start with healthy food they like.
  • Remember to train them when you’ve got plenty of time so you won’t be stressed. It will take much longer—just like when they were learning to tie their shoes. A crockpot meal may be a good place to start, or a dish that must be prepared ahead, like fish or meat that needs to marinate. Then dinner won’t be two hours late, to everyone’s annoyance.
  • Remember that some younger kids like gross stuff: this can provide learning opportunities. For example, recently we realized that the coffeemaker needed cleaning. You could show your children what’s growing in there before you clean it out, so they know why it’s important. Even more basic, do they know how and when to use a toilet plunger? And why they need to not be too enthusiastic with it? (Hint: practice before the toilet gets clogged!)

For kids and teens who miss social cues

Developing socials skills are also vital life skills, but beyond the scope of today’s blog. If you’re curious, see my review of The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, by Temple Grandin and Sean Barron. And search my blog for “social skills” to find much more information.

Very basic skills

Some kids need help with still more basic skills than the ones we’ve discussed here. Woodbine House publishes many good books on basic life skills:

Next time, we’ll look at teaching life skills to teens and young adults. Meanwhile, please share your thoughts, tips, and favorite resources below. Thank you.

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  1. Great post! My son has focusing issues. They think he has Asperger’s. We spent time on life skills. He’s graduating this year.

    1. Congratulations, JoJo! Thanks for writing. What helped him learn those skills?