I taught my 12-year-old daughter to change a car battery at 8 p.m. in a grocery store parking lot.
It’s one of the many skills that I want her to know in case she ever finds herself stranded in a parking lot – just like her father at that very moment. I also wanted to get her familiar with a car engine, even though to me it mostly looks like metal spaghetti.
Parents know there is a whole host of life skills that our children need to learn, but my reasons date back to my childhood.
My father taught me how to do laundry, but no one talked about mental health – we covered up our issues with bro talk and the firm belief that real men don’t cry.
And no one said anything about finances. That might explain why I took out a 22% car loan when I was 24. To make it worse, both of my parents were accountants. Forty-year-old me cringes at that memory. (Yes, I’ve let them know I hold a grudge.)
Car repair, finances, cooking and mental health: There are so many skills we need to teach that it can often seem overwhelming.
Which ones can they learn on their own? How much do we teach versus standing back and letting them learn from experience?
I’ve continued these life skill lessons with my three children over the years – and I don’t split the chores by gender. A smart person once told me that “dishes don’t care about gender,” and I make it a point to give my sons – not just my daughter – the fundamentals they’ll need as independent adults.
Don’t fear if you didn’t start early with your children. I’ve found the middle school years are a perfect time to teach many of them. Here’s how I do it.
Life skills start in the home
I started my kids on household chores young because I refuse to send any of them into the world without being able to provide the most basic care for themselves.
We started small such as teaching them how to crack an egg or load the washing machine. We made a game of it and let it get messy. With these small exposures, the kids were able to eventually get comfortable with the chore, gain competence and then finally achieve confidence.
If there is pushback or lack of enthusiasm, don’t worry about it. Consistency and patience is the key. Keep at it.
Years into this experiment, my 13-year-old son can cook a basic meal and is in charge of cooking on Sunday nights. That means planning, shopping and meal prep. My 15-year-old daughter has her own night Saturday with the same responsibilities. She also does a lot of car maintenance with me. Everyone is responsible for their own laundry.
Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure,” advocates that we teach our kids autonomy so they will be more motivated to engage in the business of their lives and learn how to be competent.
We do this by giving them clear expectations and then stepping away after we have taught them. This allow our kids to take ownership of the task, and Lahey notes that they learn to solve problems and deal with failure.
Yes, we have had some magnificent disasters in this house – we all remember the great lemon tart disaster of 2018, and the banshee wail of the smoke alarms. Each one was a moment where we could come together as a family, figure out the solution and deal with the consequences.
One of my biggest moments of pride was when my eighth-grade son taught his older cousin him how to grill the perfect All-American brat. As a father, I’ll admit, I teared up a bit as he double-clicked the tongs.
It’s all about the bills
Money can be a taboo subject for many, as my own high-interest car loan experience can show. This skill is much harder to teach for me because I’m not as comfortable with it. But it’s important to get underneath the hood of financial literacy and make sure our kids learn it.
The Jump$tart Coalition CEO Laura Levine said that it makes a more lasting impact when a parent and a child learn together. The Jump$tart Coalition advocates for financial literacy in schools in grades K through 12.
She recommends, like Lahey, to start with small and controlled exposure for our middle school children.
“Practice by using an app or student debit card. Teach on a smaller scale, within safety, but with the consequences of their actions,” she said. “To gain your child’s interest, make sure the kids are presented with the discussion in a way that speaks to them. In a way that they can see themselves in the example.”
That means I don’t give my kids an allowance. There are chores they have to do because it’s expected as part of the family. But there are paying jobs around the home such as cleaning the garage and mom’s car after she’s had a long week at work.
With that money, the kids build up their vacation funds. This is money that they are free to spend how they choose. I find that when they are responsible for their own money, they are more frugal. We are also able to build savings habits that help them continue the practice as adults
I have begun to include my kids a little bit when I do my taxes as well. So far, their takeaway is that dad is going to have to go to court if I don’t pay my taxes (but it’s a start.) As they grow, they will become more involved so that the mystery of the skill is explained, and they will understand.
Teaching mental health management
Finally, like money, many parents have a hard time talking about mental health until it reaches a level of crisis. Learning to manage their mental health is a life skill that I cannot overlook.
It has a way of affecting every other area of their lives, including cleaning, hygiene and managing their money responsibly. From doubt and anxiety to more serious issues, they need to learn coping skills now.
How do we begin to broach these subjects? There’s a simple answer, but it’s difficult in practice. We teach our kids about mental health by being honest with them and showing them our struggles.
That’s not to say that we dump a parent’s pandemic year or two on our children. But we are honest that we are anxious at times, or depressed, or doubt our abilities.
Again, we start small in a way that they can understand. But we show them that not only is it OK to be vulnerable, but they are not alone.
We make it a point to treat mental health the same way that we do our physical health. Talking to a lot of fathers, most said that we lead by example. That means getting our own mental health checkups and being honest with those around.
In the middle school years, there’s such a wonderful opportunity to teach our children the skills they will eventually need.
Just remember to develop comfort by introducing them to the subject in short, small bursts, develop competence by guiding them and let them achieve confidence with the skill once they take ownership.
Shannon Carpenter is the author of “The Ultimate Stay-at-Home Dad” and co-host of the Dadhouse Podcast. He and his family live in Lee’s Summit, Missouri.