For many parents, the countdown to sending a child off to college has begun. Come August or September, they will be in charge of their health, safety and academics – not to mention being a good roommate. Now is the time to ask the hard questions: Do they know how to do their laundry? Can they schedule their own dentist appointments?
In her decade as a freshman dean at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims saw many first-year students come to college with a lot of academic knowledge – and big gaps in their life skills.
“You think they’ll pick (them) up at home the way you pick up language, but they actually don’t necessarily. We’ve sort of forgotten to teach it,” said Catherine Newman, academic department coordinator of the creative writing center at Amherst College and author of “How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Skills to Learn before You’re Grown Up.”
Preparations for college have changed culturally in recent years, said Lythcott-Haims, author of the books “How to Raise an Adult” and “Your Turn: How to Be an Adult.” More and more pressure has been placed on teens to get into highly ranked colleges – and the message they and their families are getting is that college acceptances come from the perfect application. And society says that comes from the “perfect childhood,” she said.
That perfect childhood, focused on top tier transcripts and the highest levels of involvement in extra-curricular activities, leaves little room for young people to learn (and parents to teach) how to care for themselves and others.
“Childhood is meant to be a series of 18 years where you are increasingly readying your children to leave you,” Lythcott-Haims said. “We are micromanaging them to get them to this place we call success, and yet in handling too much for them, we undermine their ability to thrive once they get there.”
So while it may feel like your teen getting accepted to college means that you crossed an important parenting finish line, in many families the race toward raising adults is very much still under way, Lythcott-Haims added.
For some of the basic skills, it’s not too late. Before your kids head out into the world, Lythcott-Haims and Newman both recommend dedicating time to a life skills crash course.
How to get started
It might be easy to get frustrated with your teen when they do things that seem lazy or thoughtless, but the most effective strategy is to start from the assumption that they might not know how to take care of the things they need to, Newman said.
Lythcott-Haims recommends starting off the conversation directly.
“I’d sit down with my kid and say, ‘Hey, you’re becoming an adult. We may have been a little more in the driver’s seat of your life to date than ideal, and it’s time to fix that,’” she said.
She suggests making a list of things you and your child both think they need to start taking over for themselves. It is important to ask them what of those things they think they already know how to do, Newman said, and take their word for it.
If your teen has some knowledge gaps in navigating the world and caring for themselves without you, walking back through steps for the items on your list can help, Lythcott-Haims said. Often, parents do things like laundry or cleaning the bathroom for teens when they are not around and not aware of the work involved, Newman said. Making those things transparent is a helpful first step.
As silly as it may feel, that means taking parenting back to something that mirrors early childhood.
Let’s take teaching a toddler to brush their teeth. The first stage of teaching kids is doing it for them.
Next, you do it with them, narrating what is happening, Lythcott-Haims said. Then you let them do it with help. For your teen, that could mean walking them through the steps to separate whites and colors, or that go into making a doctor’s appointment while they make the call.
Finally, you hand the authority over to them while offering a safety net. In the teeth brushing analogy, that means saying, “go brush your teeth and let me know if you need me,” Lythcott-Haims said.
What they need
What goes on your list of skills to learn before college?
There are independence skills, like navigating health insurance, managing a schedule and budget, cooking simple meals, and making calls to businesses or institutions, Newman and Lythcott-Haims said.
But there are also interdependent skills, Newman emphasized. Teens are not just being sent out into the world, they are entering communities. That means they need to learn roommate skills – like how to clean up after themselves, get up without hitting the snooze button a million times and negotiate boundaries, she said. Social skills like writing a gracious email, seeking advice, apologizing appropriately, and taking no for an answer are also crucial to teach kids before they enter a new environment.
You don’t need to have all the directions right away to address some of these complicated topics, Newman said. Getting your teen thinking about them, helping connect them to books or videos that can help and offering your support as they explore throughout their transition to adulthood is a great place to start.
Top topics for young adults
In her book “Your Turn: How to be an Adult,” Lythcott-Haims gives nine priority topics for students to brush up on as they transition into independence:
1. Attend to the care and maintenance of your body
2. Find work that pays the bills
3. Try hard
4. Make your own decisions
5. Get along with others
6. Keep track of your stuff
7. Reply and show up
8. Find your people and care for them
9. Plan your future
Getting it wrong is actually right
Handing over these responsibilities in a thoughtful way doesn’t mean teens will get them right immediately and every time, Lythcott-Haims said. In fact, it’s good if they don’t.
It has become a point of pride in many parenting circles to swoop in and drop everything to do anything your kid needs, Lythcott-Haims said. But that can harm their sense of confidence and resilience, she added. As much as we want young adults to learn to be independent, we also spend our whole lives asking for help.
Overmanaging your teen can send the message that you don’t believe they can try it out and resolve any failures, Lythcott-Haims said. But if you model enough confidence in them, they are more likely to think, “I can try to figure this out, I can ask a question, I can seek some advice and guidance … instead of, ‘I better text my mother and have her handle this.’”
And when they make a mistake or something doesn’t go right, the most loving and empowering thing to do is not freak out, but smile and say, “you’ve got this.”
“It’s the only way they grow both the confidence and the ability to do it and the resilience from screwing up,” Lythcott-Haims said.