Learning is about more than fractions and history facts. Now is the perfect time to prepare your kids for life with some other lessons.
Sometime near the end of our virtual school year, in the full swing of COVID-19 quarantine, the allure of at-home learning was fading and my children’s enthusiasm was waning.
I myself was pretty sick of lesson planning and printing homework pages and trying to entice them into yet another day of e-learning when the sun was shining and there was nothing on the agenda but, well, nothing. So, I decided that a pivot of sorts was necessary.
I declared that our next week of “school” would be spent learning life skills instead of more math and writing skills. Because if coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that one of the most important life skills you can have is the ability to adapt and be flexible when needed, right?
Together, my husband and I came up with the life skills that we wanted all of our kids — from toddler to tween — to master before “graduating” from the school of our kitchen table.
Here are a few of our examples — some life skills that you can impart in your own children while you’re all enjoying a little extra family time together. (And maybe especially when that “enjoyment” phase is not-so-enjoyable anymore.)
Put away their toys in a special bin
Toddlers love putting stuff in baskets, and one of my go-to toddler entertainment moves is to fill up a bucket or basket just so my daughter can empty it. The key? Once they fill it back up, and it’s time to put toys away for the day, pop a lid on it and call it good.
Put dirty clothes in a hamper
I’m sorry, is this also a life skill for husbands? (OK, OK, generalization, but the struggle is real in our house.) It can help if you designate just one hamper for each kid so even your toddler (or, ahem, spouse) can learn to be responsible for their own dirty clothes.
I mean, if you’re spending most of your time at home anyway, now is the perfect time to let your little one practice independent dress. Who cares if they match, as long as they learn to do it themselves, right? And eventually, the matching ability will develop. Hopefully.
I’m embarrassed to tell you how poor my children’s table manners are, so this has been a big thing in our own household — even my big kids struggle with how to cut their own food.
So learn from my mistakes and start ’em young! Even toddlers can practice cutting with a butter knife and using utensils properly.
Know how to ‘fill their bucket’
Along with picking up and filing a physical bucket of toys when asked, your little one can also learn to fill their emotional bucket too. My daughter learned all about “filling her bucket” at school and I thought it was the most genius thing ever.
Now, whenever she is sad, or someone has hurt her feelings, or she just needs some one-on-one time, she tells us that her “bucket” is empty and needs re-filling. If only adults could do the same, right?
Know they can say ‘no’ to tickling
Tickling is all fun and games — until it’s not. The second your child says “stop” when being tickled is the same second the tickling should stop. Because they have the right to control who touches them, and that shouldn’t be a weird concept.
Know they can say ‘no’ to kisses and hugs
Same rule applies here: Your child should learn from a very early age that they don’t “have” to kiss or hug any family member or friend if they don’t want to. Period.
Run away from guns
Children of all ages — even toddlers — die from unintentional shootings annually in the United States. Children as young as 3 years old may have the developmental ability to pull a handgun trigger.
Your child’s exposure to guns may depend on where you live and the households they spend time in. If you can, teach your child that if they ever come across a gun, the only thing to do is run far, far away, immediately tell an adult, and never touch it.
Wash their hands properly
Sing that “Happy Birthday” song, everyone! Need we say more here? This is a lesson that maybe your toddler can teach other adults too, so bonus.
Speak for themselves as they are able
Obviously, this applies for older preschoolers, but whenever possible, encourage your preschooler to speak for themselves.
From someone asking a question such as, “How old are you?” to the waiter asking what they’d like to eat, it can be helpful if your little one learns they can speak up in their own voice. (And of course, this will look different for all abilities!)
Brew a mad cup of coffee
My 7-year-old son prides himself on making the best pot of coffee in the world, and I pride myself on training him how to make said pot. Because not only will this skill ensure that they can brew a beautiful cup of joe someday, but it also means that you will have successfully ensured that your kids can bring you a cup in the morning too. So definitely a win-win.
Also, pro tip: Grinding your beans is way more fun for kids, and it’s better-tasting coffee for you.
Laundry pods = laundry fun
If I have succeeded at nothing else as a parent, I will rest easy knowing that all of my above-toddler-aged children know how to do laundry, right down to the 5-year-old. The secret to my success? Laundry detergent pods.
My children, for a reason I’m not going to look too deeply into, delight in the squishy, palpable pods in between their fingers and it makes laundry the most coveted chore in our house.
Of course, you know your own kids best. Be sure to discuss that laundry detergent pods aren’t toys, but chemicals that can be dangerous and even fatal if swallowed. Don’t risk allowing access if you think your curious child isn’t ready for the responsibility. They can still help with folding, putting away clothes, or learning how to hang clean laundry.
Handle an emergency
Does your child know what they should do in case of a fire? If there was a medical emergency and you were incapacitated, do they know how to get help immediately?
Many major phone companies, like Verizon, offer simulators so your child can actually practice calling 911 without you know, actually, calling 911. It’s super helpful to have them physically go through the steps of calling so in a real emergency they aren’t scared to do it for the first time.
Know your phone number
I mean, really, how many of us remember phone numbers anymore? They are programmed into our phones so there’s really no need. But if something should happen, like your child gets separated from you, knowing they have your number memorized could be crucial.
Have a safe word
Whether it’s a word just to express that he needs a little extra hug today, or a word to signal that he wants to come home from a play date, having a “just between us” word can be an easy way to help your child get help when they need it.
Make their own lunch
From school at home or school in-person, the ability to pack their own lunch is a helpful skill to have at this age. Establish food and snack bins in your house — like a fruit bin, a veggie bin, and a dairy bin, so even young kids can choose a food from each bin to assemble their own lunch.
Identify when they need a mental health day
I’m a believer in mental health days in my house, and I think it can be helpful for even young kid to be empowered to recognize when they just need a break.
Maybe you use a different name — like a “fun day” or a “Mommy and me day” — but the basis is still the same: helping establish that mental health is just as vital as physical health.
Stand up for themselves
Although you probably started teaching them at a younger age that they’re in control of their own body, elementary-school age is a great time to reinforce that if something feels wrong all they have to do is say “no.” They don’t owe others an explanation if they don’t want to be physically touched.
The same is true if they don’t want to go somewhere with a stranger, do something a friend is suggesting (that they know they aren’t supposed to do), or any other challenging situation.
Talk to your child about this ahead of time, so they know that just because someone is a grown-up or a friend they don’t have to do what they’re asking. Reinforce that you’ll be there to back them, and “no” is always a choice they can make.
Talk about race
It’s hard, but it’s also not hard to talk about racial diversity and racism. That makes sense, right? Prepare yourself with information, but let your kids lead the conversation, because they might just surprise you.
Build a ‘feel better’ toolbox
You won’t always be there to make your child feel better, so help them build a “feel better” toolbox that they can pull from on their own. It could include things like a favorite blanket or book, a stress ball or soothing rocks, a sketchpad for drawing out feelings or emotions, or an item that represents your spiritual beliefs.
Send a thank-you card
I have high hopes that forcing my children to handwrite an actual, physical thank-you card will earn them some respect when job hunting someday. Or make them appear obsolete. Either one.
Address a letter
And on a related note, can your kid actually mail said letter?
As in, physically write the recipient’s actual address in the right spot on the envelope? Do they know their own address for the return spot? Can they locate a stamp in your home? Are they able to affix it to the envelope? These are important life skills, people.
Identify their own emotions
I had a moment the other day when I was stressed about 8,074 different things and found myself hunched over a bowl of chips, shoveling them in as fast as I could when I realized something — I’m not very good at naming my own emotions.
So take it from me and teach your child to identify — and name — their own emotions. It’s a critical life skill that might just save your child from becoming a 34-year-old mother who eats her feelings in French onion chips, just saying.
When my 11-year-old daughter was upset that her favorite book series (the popular “I Survived” series) only featured boys as protagonists, I encouraged her to speak up about it — so she did.
We walked through how to look up the author online and emailed both her publicist and her contact. And lo and behold, the very next book the author released just happened to feature a female character.
Make a phone call
It could be to schedule a doctor’s appointment or it could be to order a pizza — we don’t judge. We just think it’s an important life skill to know and execute, and let’s be honest, it’s hard even for us adults.
Know how to say ‘I’m sorry’
Let’s be clear here: This is a very, very difficult thing for anyone to do, let alone a tween with all sorts of difficult emotions to navigate. And I hate to break it to you, but I think this one starts with modeling, so when you mess up, ’fess up.
I’m still working on this one myself, but my ultimate goal is to train my children that instead of standing in the pantry and randomly shouting, “Mom, we’re out of [insert any overpriced snack product that I just bought yesterday, and they ate in one sitting and nice try if they think I’m making that mistake again]!” that they can just use a little thing called voice technology to either 1) add it to my online shopping list or 2) directly insert said product right into the online cart themselves. Voila!
Identify a reputable source
Our kids are growing up online, so they sure as heck should be able to differentiate between a reputable and non-reputable news source.
Walk them through a quick checklist of how to vet something they read on the internet before they decide to believe it or not. Or use a resource like this one from Common Sense Media to help them practice being web detectives.
Change a diaper
I said what I said. Plus, babysitting is a marketable, employable skill.
Have the ability to recognize and celebrate differences
Seemingly “small” things matter in huge ways here. If you can make a habit of teaching your child to see the different ways we all move through the world, like how someone in a wheelchair might need wider doorways, or how someone with a hearing impairment might have added challenges due to masks, you can raise an adult who realizes that their own world viewpoint is not the only one that matters.
And we all know you can think of some adults that could really use this lesson too, right?
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer and a newly minted mom of five. She writes about everything from finance to health to how to survive those early days of parenting when all you can do is think about all the sleep you aren’t getting. Follow her here.