Kids start building life skills and coping strategies pretty much from birth, with each new developmental milestone laying the foundation for the next, as they learn how to relate to others and to problem-solve in evermore complex ways. As they get older and start school, kids learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. But what are the other essential life skills to teach kids?
There are all sorts of life skills for kids — some basic, some fairly complex — that require mastery in order to have the sort of social, emotional and practical wherewithal to be good at life. According to child development experts, career planners, and business leaders, here’s where to start to ensure your kids are well-prepared for whatever (and whoever) the world throws at them.
1. They can use a map and compass.
Spatial awareness isn’t just a key part of STEM education. It also prevents us from getting lost. Start by teaching your kids how to mentally map their neighborhood, school, or favorite playground. Then break out the old-fashioned map and compass and go on a hike in the woods, challenge your kid to navigate your drive to school one morning. Although every kid should be able to function navigationally without the use of a device, it’s a good idea to also have them learn to follow navigational directions on phones, a critical modern skill.
2. They can carry a conversation.
Here’s a troubling statistic: More than half of teens today use texting to regularly communicate with friends, versus only a third who consistently talk face to face. That’s a problem, because kids need to know how to carry on a one-on-one conversation not just to ace college and job interviews, but also to develop lasting, honest relationships. Help them out by banning devices from the dinner table.
3. They have a solid handshake.
Shake hands, make eye contact, listen attentively and don’t cut people off — these are skills that are more important than ever, given our many screens’ attention-grabbing abilities. Why? They instill confidence, earn trust, and are a solid foundation for a healthy social life. Start by teaching them an old-fashioned hand shake:
- Step 1: Make eye contact with your belly button and toes pointing towards the person you’re greeting.
- Step 2: Smile and squeeze the other person’s hand like you’re grabbing a gallon of milk — not too hard and not too soft.
- Step 3: Shake up and down no more than three times while all the while smiling and maintaining eye contact.
4. They know how to be alone.
If a kid can’t hang with their own thoughts, alone, without friends or family, they will have serious anxiety when they are left to their own devices. Given the stratification of work and family, this is bound to happen. To change this dynamic, why not devote a nook in your house to a “quiet corner,” featuring a comfortable chair, a small work table, and a few calming toys and activities. While they’re enjoying alone time, you’ll get a break, too.
5. They can swim.
While toddler swimming classes are all the rage, the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend swim classes for kids under 4, since there’s little evidence such programs decrease the likelihood of drowning and could lead parents to develop a false sense of security. After your kid’s 4th birthday, get them in the pool.
6. They can care for another living thing.
Caring for a pet — and keeping it alive — helps kids learn to be empathetic, one of the most important skills they can develop. If you’re not ready to give in to their pleas for a family dog, there are easier options: hermit crabs, a goldfish, butterflies, or even a house plant.
7. They can sort through online facts.
Kids don’t just have to know how to avoid dangerous content and individuals online. They also need to learn how to be sensible web consumers and creators, especially given the troubling rise of fake facts and misinformation. One recent study found that less than half of kids ages 10 to 18 say they can tell fake stories from the real deal, which is likely why only one in four of them have a lot of trust in journalistic organizations. To help your kids navigate the confusion, focus on reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. One way to do this outside of actual reading together is to play “spot the mistakes” with a Wikipedia entry or online article, then launch a family blog.
8. They can make change.
Since we yet don’t complete all of our purchases using our smartphones, kids still have to know their way around quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Run some practice transactions by them, with an added incentive: Every time they give you the correct coins back, they get to put the change in their piggy bank.
9. They know how to save.
Saving money is hard for the best of us, so it’s important to start early with your kid’s weekly allowance. At first, allow them to spend half on anything they want, then put the rest into a piggy bank. Once they have enough saved up — say, $150 — go to the bank and start a savings account. Be sure to log into the account online, show them how to manage their money via browser, and help them build out a long-term savings plan.
10. They can chill out.
Kids shouldn’t be overstimulated all the time — or feel like they need to be. Studies have shown that mindfulness practices can help kids become more attentive, respectful, and focused, while reducing stress and hyperactive behaviors. To get your kid into meditation, start easy: Ask them to sit still, relax, and focus on the process of breathing. It’s a useful education on the important art of sitting still.
11. They can clean their room.
Cleaning teaches kids how to value their possessions and organize their space. Let them experiment with sweeping, mopping, and dusting, but more importantly, make sure they understand how to organize their room on their own — and then to declutter.
12. They know how to write a letter or email.
In the era of emojis and selfies, kids’ written communication skills are in danger of atrophying. They need to know to compose a formal letter (heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature), and should learn that an e-mail, and even a text, can be written formally.
13. They have proper table manners.
This knowledge could pay off years later at an all-important lunch or dinner job interview. Kids need to know how to navigate the dining room table: Napkin goes in their lap and then on their chair if they need to be excused. No reaching for food, no interrupting, no chewing with their mouth open. Plus they should be able to set the table: From left to right, it should go fork, plate, knife, and then spoon, with the water glass above the knife.
14. They exhibit good manners overall.
The days of finishing schools have come and gone, but that doesn’t mean we should be raising uncivilized bores. Start by modeling proper etiquette yourself and focus on the six most important phrases in civil dialogue:
- “Thank you.”
- “May I…”
- “No, thank you.”
- “Excuse me.”
15. They can dress themselves.
We’re not talking about how to put on shirts and pants. We’re referring to helping kids learn how to dress nicely: picking out weather-appropriate options, mixing and matching colors, pairing prints with solids. It’s a great way to help your kid express themselves, create their own style, make decisions, and feel confident.
16. They can reach you.
For safety reasons, kids should have their home address and phone number memorized. A 10-year-old should also know relevant email addresses and cell numbers. Work the information into a song, use rhyming games, or post the information prominently around the house — whatever it takes to make this information stick.
17. They can tell one good joke.
Laughter is incredibly helpful to a person’s life, and someone who can tell at least one good clean joke, really well, will never want for something to say, or lack the ability to break the ice. Here’s a favorite joke requires their full story-telling capacity:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went camping. They pitched their tent under the stars and went to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes woke Watson up.
Holmes said: “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied: “I see millions and millions of stars.”
Holmes said: “And what do you deduce from that?”
Watson replied: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth out there. And if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”
And Holmes said: “Watson, you idiot, it means that somebody stole our tent.”
18. They can react to an emergency.
Your kid doesn’t have to become MacGyver, but they should have a handle on essential first aid skills that will help them in an emergency:
- Apply pressure to a bleeding wound;
- Use ice on a swollen injury; run cold water over a burn;
- Pinch nostrils for a nosebleed;
- Stop, drop, and roll if clothing catches on fire;
- Know when to dial 911.
19. They can cook an egg.
Learning to cook offers all sorts of benefits: It teaches kids how to be creative, how employ real-world math, how to use sharp objects safely, and how to appreciate nutritious foods. Just make sure the first recipes they try will earn them something delicious. Here’s how to walk them through cooking a scrambled egg.
- Have them crack eggs into a bowl and whisk with a little cream and salt.
- Help them pour the mixture into a non-stick pan over medium heat and wait 20 seconds until the edges begin to set.
- Have them use a spatula to push the edges into the middle, then have them repeat this motion until mixture is nearly set. Then eat!
Always supervise them (there is a stove involved), but gradually allow them to take over the process until they can do it from start to finish.
20. They have good hygiene.
We can nag our kids all we want to brush their teeth and take a bath, but if we want these concepts to stick, kids have to learn to embrace them on their own. One way to do that is to turn skin care, oral hygiene, and bathing into something fun. The shampoo Mohawk never gets old.
21. They have a robust imagination.
Being able to make up a story and imagine something impossible will be key in future endeavors. Creativity is becoming one of the top skills CEOs are looking for at major companies. There are many ways to foster this — games like “what’s in the box?”, setting aside time for drawing and creative writing, and being sure to have a free-flowing storytelling time every night before bed.
22. They can ride a bike.
Learning to ride a bike is one of the best things kids can do. It keeps them physically fit, improves their balance and coordination, has been shown to improve mental focus, and as they get older it’s a great, environmentally-friendly way for them to get around their world. To help them learn, forget about those training wheels we all used. The best way to turn your kid into a biker is to invest in a balance bike (or remove the pedals from a regular small bike), then have them learn to balance in an area that’s flat, paved and traffic-free.