Giving your kids the greatest gift of all: life skills

Life skills are more important than we might realise. I have had Year 1 teachers tell me they have some students who turn up to school at the beginning of the year who can read at a Year 3 level and yet cannot blow their nose or pull their pants up after a trip to the toilet. I have also been told about a 5-year-old boy who could not put food in his own mouth – apparently his mum decided he was a messy eater when he was a toddler so she proceeded to feed him directly herself from then on!

When I was teaching secondary English I had a boy in my top-level English class who never knew where to put a stamp on an envelope. These are all simple life skills and as parents and carers the seemingly never-ending teaching of these skills actually shapes our children’s capacity to grow up to be capable and confident. It matters and it starts early. I believe life skills are a huge contributor to building resilience, which is why I have included them as one of my 10 building blocks to building resilience in children in my book, Real Kids in an Unreal World, and the smaller pocket book version, Building Children’s Resilience.

Life’s little toolkit

The early years are when children begin to build a toolkit of life skills. As children grow older we simply put more and more life skills into their toolkit. The more tools in the kit, the more resilient a child will be. The first tools in a child’s toolkit deal with practical things like being able to dress and feed themselves, going to the toilet unaided, and being able to play with others. So many life skills that build emotional and social competence need interaction with other children through the medium of play to develop. It takes ages to manage losing well, sharing and taking turns and in this is just one of the many reasons why play-based early childhood education is essential to build the whole child.

All learning takes time to become solid memory. You will wonder why a child can drink capably out of a cup for weeks and then proceed to dribble everywhere or spill it for the next few days. Normal! The development of these early skills will take lots of patience, time and energy by parents or carers. Heck they are time-consuming, repetitive and let’s admit often as boring as the proverbial bat poo and yet so incredibly important on so many levels.

All children learn, grow and master life skills at differing rates. There is no competition in raising children.

The life skills toolkit starts from birth, and sometimes the little things, like getting a drink of water when they need to, are the big things. These small milestones build a child’s belief in their self-efficacy or their competence to finish tasks, which in turn helps build their self-esteem.

Modelling and teaching are definitely the best ways to teach life skills. Also chatting to kids about the how and why is really helpful. Conversational language is now seen as equally important as being read to in the first three years of life, for building the pathways to learning about life and literacy. It allows children to explore conversation and the hidden patterns within the spoken language. It also gives children a sense of being noticed and having value. This strongly supports the life skill of ‘having a voice’ and of being heard—attributes of assertive and resilient people. Anyone who feels unheard often struggles with their self-esteem and can feel isolated, unaccepted or undervalued. Don’t just rely on the how-to channels on YouTube. Learning from someone we love and respect makes the learning far more likely to become part of our life and yes we need to be reminded often as kids to ensure it is a life skill that has been mastered.

Essential practical life skills include blowing your nose, toileting yourself, using manners, etiquette, road rules, practising good hygiene (such as bathing and cleaning teeth), doing up buttons and tying shoelaces. These are little things that sometimes other children may use to tease another child who is not yet competent at them.Bullying and being teased are very painful and can leave scars that later impact on a person’s ability to be resilient.

Parents need to try and be proactive to help their children gain essential life skills so they are able to take care of their needs at an age-appropriate level. As a mum of four active sons I loved elastic sided leather boots because they were easier for the boys to put on by themselves and they lasted for ages!! Laces take some time to master.

Why developing mastery sometimes looks like ‘poor parenting’

It can also be helpful to assist your child to learn how to be a good listener before they go to school and also basic organisational skills like putting their coat in their bag, opening their lunchbox and managing water bottles. Allowing children to master some of these life skills, especially dressing oneself, can mean there will be times your child will look poorly dressed however the art of ‘doing it myself’ is incredibly important. They need to be given this golden opportunity and having boots on the wrong feet is a good sign that a child is building competence, not necessarily a sign of poor parenting!

The main pathways that allow us to understand and manage our emotions are created in early childhood. It has been shown that there are critical time opportunities for young children to develop the ability to be empathetic, gentle and kind. If a very young child is given an opportunity to interact with a small kitten or puppy with adult guidance, they can learn what being gentle and caring means. Children without this or a similar opportunity may be unable to care about being rough or hurting others. This inability to feel empathy is a significant behavioural deprivation and could mean that an individual may have difficulty in relationships in years to come, especially when it comes to intimacy. Many children who behave as bullies have problems with empathy. This emotional competency can be learned through life experience and the guidance of a caring adult.

Technology’s impact on emotional competency

Anecdotal evidence suggests that early years teachers are noticing more children with emotional incompetence. An increased amount of time in front of screens instead of playing in real environments with other children may be a contributing factor. Interaction with others helps strengthen a child’s emotional literacy and helps them to understand others and themselves. But this does not develop well if there is an over-reliance on the virtual world of television or computers. Teachers are finding that some children have poor impulse control and an inability to persist at challenging tasks. Reluctance or refusal to keep trying can impact enormously in the school environment and later in life.

There is a recent concern about some children’s TV programs that use relational aggression – name calling, put downs and exclusions – and the impact it can have negatively on how children socialise with other children. Good quality children’s programs can do the opposite. I share the concerns of many primary teachers who have noticed a decline in conversation skills and a discomfort of many children when working in groups. Too much time in the digital landscape can seriously impact the growth of these vital life skills.

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The same goes for the children who can be seen when out to dinner with family have their head down the whole time using devices – not being a part of family conversations. Over time this can weaken family linkages and bonds of love and affection. Please ensure they share the family conversations until at least after dinner. Human connectedness needs to be practised. Social anxiety is becoming more and more common.

Social awareness has a huge impact on our resilience and is a life skill that takes time to develop – we continue to work on it as adults. Relationships are essential in terms of strengthening resilience when things get tough. We only turn to those with whom we have been able to develop authentic, emotionally honest relationships. Loneliness and isolation are serious diseases of the mind, body and soul that can be factors contributing to mental illness, homelessness, alienation and life disasters. It is always a reminder during times of trauma and tragedy that the only things that really matter are simply those who come home to us, those whom we love the most – not our jobs, house or car. Building connectedness is an essential part of the protective factors involved in being resilient.

Staying safe around tricky people

Teaching our children about body awareness and how to stay safe around tricky people are also essential today given our sexualised, ‘pornified’ world. This is an awareness that must become a life skill as children need to know they can speak up if they are touched inappropriately by anyone – child or adult. Over 90% of abusers are people children know so it’s important to not just talk about strangers. Over 90% of abusers are people children know so it’s important to not just talk about strangers. For example, I personally love the strategy of having a family code word if something comes up unexpectedly so a child will know if an adult who has come to get them has their parent’s permission. This way they know when it’s safe and when it’s not. Fortunately there are many excellent resources to help parents.

The strengths of having a heathy sense of humour

In global resilience studies, having a sense of humour is recognised as being a very valuable life skill. It is a huge protective factor in homes, sporting venues and especially schoolyards where it can protect children from unwanted harassment or bullying. There are so many benefits that can be gained on many levels from laughter. Laughter can transform negative emotional states faster than almost any other strategy or technique a parent can use.

Learning how to laugh ‘with’ rather than laugh ‘at’ is so important. A sense of humour in children takes time to develop and yes they can get it so wrong from time to times – especially our boys. One of my lads when he was in Year 1 told us a joke at dinner one night that showed how often they can get it so wrong.

“What’s the difference between changing a lightbulb and a pregnant woman?”

“You can unscrew the lightbulb!”

He had absolutely no idea why it was funny however his much older brothers and parents certainly did!

To help develop this skill I suggest fun facts books and fun quotes books as they can help grow a sense of humour using wit and irony. Also teach your children that sexist and racist humour is not appropriate.

Solution-seeking kids

An important life skill involves the art of finding solutions. This involves helping children to discover other choices that they could make in response to a challenge, whether a disagreement with a friend or a toy that has broken.

A commitment to search for solutions begins with the adult. Before you fix a problem for a child, help the child to explore ways to overcome it himself or herself. Children do not yet have a frontal lobe in their brains where reasoning and problem solving takes place but they can develop thinking skills that empower them to manage some situations themselves. There is a great temptation for parents to rescue their children from struggles and challenges however this denies them vital opportunities to learn life management skills for themselves.

Children who are surrounded by optimistic language, language that encourages thinking and decision-making, have the opportunity to become resilient when managing setbacks and challenges. They are much less likely to succumb to ‘learned helplessness’, where they expect adults to always be there to do things for them. There is a line between doing too much for your children and having expectations that are too high, and possibly inappropriate, for your children. Parents need to be careful.

Sustainable life skills

A final note on important life skills is that we continue to face an uncertain future with depleting oil supplies and the effects of global warming. It is more important than ever that we prepare our children by helping them to develop life skills that build on environmental appreciation and ecological sustainability. That might mean making some changes in the way we do things ourselves – certainly food for thought and action.

Every year a child can master more and more life skills. A child who can do many significant things for themselves will develop a stronger sense of self-esteem. The mastery of being able to conquer the monkey bars, climb a tree or ride a bike without training wheels are significant moments of success that really impact a child’s capacity to grow, stretch and take risks.

Teaching children to grow veges, to cook, to manage chores responsibly, to help the neighbour take bins out and make your mum a cup of tea are all examples of the gradual increases in life skills.

If a parent keeps doing something that a child is capable of doing for themselves – even if you do it out of love – you may be holding them back from growing into the best expression of themselves. As I mentioned earlier, learned helplessness is sadly a more common phenomenon than it needs to be. Children as young as 6 can learn to use tools, use a sharp knife and become strong climbers – however they need guidance and practise. Adolescents need so many life skills before they leave home and that’s why the earlier you start the better and a checklist can be a helpful tool in helping them see what they might need to know about before they leave the nest.

The bigger the life skills’ kitbag the better for your kids and the better it is for you as parents. Focusing too much on passing tests and exams, which is just another set of life skills – and these obviously matter as well – can make other things more challenging. Life skills help our kids feel confident, capable and able – they will manage this strange dance called life much better than the kids who don’t have them.