7 basic life skills to teach your children

written by Rosina McAlpine

7 basic life skills to teach your children and why you should

Credit: Jude Beck

How confident do you feel as a parent? Whether you’re a new parent working out how to care for your tiny baby, taming your boisterous toddler or being baffled by your teenager’s erratic mood swings, every stage of parenting can be challenging.

When I became a mother, it was clear I didn’t have all the skills and knowledge I needed to support my child’s physical, emotional, psychological and intellectual development. Neuroscientists know about supporting a child’s early brain development to provide the foundation for lifelong learning and growth. Nutritionists and other health education specialists know how to nourish and exercise a child’s growing body so that it thrives. Psychologists know the best ways to support a child’s emotional and psychological development so they grow into well-balanced, capable and resilient adults.

If you’re like me, you don’t have qualifications in even one of these important areas of child development. Wouldn’t it be easier if you could base your parenting decisions on the best information available to help your child thrive?

Most parents model their parenting style on how they were parented, which in turn was influenced by the parenting skills of the generation before. How are parents going to develop their skills if their only education is their own experience of being parented? As a society we seem to accept the notion that just because you can have a child, you know how to parent. While this model of parenting might have worked in the past, when parents could rely on help from extended families and communities, this may not apply in today’s fast-paced society dominated by nuclear families. So is our current model of parenting working and are our children thriving?

The need for parent training

Unfortunately, as a society we’re not doing very well when it comes to our children. Statistics show ever-increasing rates of attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other behavioural problems. Crime rates for children including violence, drug and alcohol abuse are on the rise. Childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes are increasing among our youth. Mental health issues are becoming more prevalent, with increasing rates of anxiety, depression and even suicide. We need to do something different if these alarming and heart-breaking statistics are to change.

As a society we seem to accept the notion that just because you can have a child, you know how to parent.

As a parent or primary carer, you have the greatest impact on your children. From the time your child is born it relies on you for nourishment, love, protection and learning. While parenting styles differ, one thing is clear: informed parenting requires knowledge and skills and it’s important to remember the old saying, prevention is better than cure. Don’t wait until your children have emotional issues to get help; rather give them life skills so they can deal with life’s challenges and avoid becoming anxious, depressed and suicidal. Why wait until your child is overweight or develops childhood diabetes to seek help? Teach them now about health and wellbeing.

Lifelong learning

As a parent you need to be motivated to learn more about parenting. Think of it this way: Would you take your child to a school where they didn’t have qualified teachers? When you take your child to school you expect the teachers to have completed their studies and have training and experience.

Almost every job requires training and experience, but for parenting — one of the most challenging and important in the world — parents do it mostly by trial and error. Imagine how successful and empowered you’d feel as a parent if you took a lifelong learning approach to raising your children, in the same way you take a continuing professional development approach to your career. It is possible and it doesn’t take up too much time because you only need to know what’s necessary for now. When your child is a toddler you don’t need to know how to support a teenager.

The key to your success is to start small. Learn, then implement one thing at a time. Begin with wherever your child is developmentally, whether a toddler, tween or teen. If possible, begin early as the younger your child is, the better. Be a role model; be the person you want your child to grow into and create a routine around your parenting education and your child’s life-skill development. Over time, you will learn as your child’s needs change and you’ll be in sync.

Where to begin?

Start with just ONE thing. Work on the life skills that are most important to develop right now or focus on the skills they are struggling with. For example, if your child is overweight, work on life skills around health and wellbeing. Find resources on diet and exercise for children. Get your child involved in all aspects of food preparation — menu planning, sourcing food and the cooking process. If your toddler has tantrums and emotional meltdowns, find resources to help them manage their emotions and regulate their behaviour. These are life skills you can help them to learn.

Start early

Parents sometimes think their children are too little to learn, but it’s best to help your children develop life skills when they are young. Their brains are more receptive to learning at a young age and by five years old, about 90 per cent of brain development is complete. Remember that you read to your children well before they could read. This was important for them to appreciate books and eventually learn to read themselves. It’s the same with life skills. Obviously you won’t give a toddler a sharp knife, but when the time is right you can give them a child’s knife and let them start poking at soft vegetables while you prepare dinner. As they get older and more proficient, allow them to do more as is age-appropriate.

Most importantly, it doesn’t have to be a chore — you can make it fun. For example, when my son was a toddler he learned to separate the washing into black, white and colours and then enjoyed “shoving” the clothes in our front-loader washing machine. His favourite part was putting the powder in the drawer and pushing the buttons (supervised of course!). He’s now well on his way to developing a skill for life and he’s not yet even five. Starting early makes it a “normal” part of your child’s life which can be continued into teenage years.

Research shows that the life skills children fail to develop when they are young continue into adulthood. As a university teacher for more than 20 years, I constantly hear my first-year students saying that the hardest thing about going to university is not the study, but leaving home and having to do the washing and cooking for themselves. I’ve heard stories about ruined clothes, cases of salmonella poisoning, inability to cope with loneliness and failure, inability to manage finances and the list goes on.

The younger you begin, the more likely your child will develop the many skills they need for navigating pre-school, primary school, high school, university and the big wide world.

Model skills and behaviours

Children learn most from what you do and say, so use that to your advantage. If you model the life skills and behaviours you want your children to develop, they will mimic them. For example, if you’d like your children to learn the art of calm conflict resolution and negotiation, it’s really important to be aware of what you are role modelling for your children. If you spend most of your days screaming at your kids when they are doing something you disapprove of, they will learn that screaming is the right way to communicate. How many times have you heard your swear words come back at you or seen your child do exactly as you’ve done? Show them what you want them to copy and the life skills you want them to develop.

Routines, programs and themes

Like anything in life, if you are not committed to it, it won’t happen. If you’re passionate about helping your child develop life skills, having a regular program of easy-to-complete activities will help. Obviously, it’s most effective if the activities are fun and part of your family’s weekly routine. In this way, little by little, your children will learn a skill at a time.

Without a plan and a program, even those with the best intentions may get nowhere. I know that’s true so I decided to make sure I am always learning something new about parenting, one book or resource at a time. I then create a program for my son based on what I am learning. We have a theme for the month and we develop two life skills a week.

If you’re passionate about helping your child develop life skills, having a regular program of easy-to-complete activities will help.

For example, this month’s theme is about developing his persistence, tenacity and resilience. Based on the research I read in Dr Martin Seligman’s book called Flourish, I learned that one of the most important keys for a child’s life success is persistence and delayed gratification. To develop these skills, we have a project we work on each night as a family. The project is to build a structure using every one of the thousands of pieces of Lego we own. We have been working on it for three weeks and have an amazing building so far — a car wash, a café and a car repair shop in one. Awesome!

This exercise has given us so many opportunities to develop our son’s life skills. Imagination, persistence … working on it every night even when he doesn’t feel like it, stopping when it’s time to bath, even when he wants to keep going, repairing things that fall over, and of course managing tears. The key is to be really explicit so we talk about everything. That way he learns a lot from one simple project. For example, we talk about how the most successful people in life work hard, never give up, and that if he persists with a project he’ll feel proud of himself and his achievements in the end.

Life skills

You can base what you teach your children on seven basic life skills. We do two simple life skill activities every week which only take about 10 or 15 minutes. The skills come from one or two of these seven life skill areas:

1. Personal power — self-esteem and resilience
2. Health and wellbeing
3. Education, career and money
4. Social and environmental understanding
5. Communication skills and relationships
6. Relaxation and play
7. Inspired creativity

Personal power

Personal power is about self-esteem and resilience and relates to how children feel and what they believe about themselves. Self-esteem, resilience and optimism can be learned and developed through simple activities like the Lego project. You can help your children develop a positive can-do attitude by asking them to list three great qualities they have, or three things they can be grateful for in their life. Martin Seligman’s book Learned Optimism is a great resource.

Health and wellbeing

Improve your child’s understanding of exercise, nutrition and personal and home cleanliness through simple activities such as learning about the five food groups. When you prepare a meal, explain to your children that you used a variety of food groups to help them have a balanced diet which includes proteins, carbohydrates, grains, vegetables etc. You can also teach your children how to make a healthy after-school snack so they avoid eating foods that are high in sugar and fat.

Education, career and money

Introducing children to a range of vocations enables younger children to understand how the world works and invites teenagers to consider possible career paths. Explaining how education opens up life possibilities provides motivation for learning. Andrew Martin’s book Building classroom success: eliminating academic fear and failure is a great resource for supporting your child’s education. An easy activity is to find topics your children are interested in and let them research, then tell you about them. You can also introduce activities that explore finances and money, like how to earn, save and spend money thoughtfully.

Social and environmental understanding

We all need to care about the environment to sustain our planet for future generations. Help your children develop the skills and personal attributes to make a positive difference. Use short activities to help them understand how to act ethically and be aware of social and environmental consequences of their and others’ actions. A simple activity to help your child become a responsible global citizen is to practise recycling and take action locally — such as going for a walk down your street with a large garbage bag and a pair of gloves and picking up the litter in your local area.

Communication skills and relationships

People are essentially social beings, so effective communication skills and an understanding of the dynamics of social relationships are essential life skills. Help your children develop supportive relationships with family, peers and friends by helping them to learn to cooperate and work in a group and to understand when to lead and when to follow. Practise remaining calm and learn about conflict resolution skills when arguments arise in the home. Use them as teaching opportunities.

Relaxation and play

Almost everyone today is busy and rushing. People are generally overworked and lack work/life balance. This is true for our children, too, who are often overloaded with school, homework, social networking, sporting activities and more. Introduce activities that help your children identify when they are overworked, tired, or simply need to rest and teach them techniques for relaxation. Maggie Dent’s book Saving our children from our chaotic world helps parents understand the dangers of stress on children’s health and provides practical solutions for overcoming stress. Research shows that most diseases stem from stress so it’s vital to help our children know how to relax and play in order to live a long, happy and healthy life. Something every parent can do is take time out to play with their children; this is great for both adults and children.

Inspired creativity

The ability to set and achieve goals is a fundamental life skills that will help your child achieve their dreams and experience success in life. For example, if your child is struggling with something, having the skills to clearly identify the source of the problem, the ability to set goals and to feel capable of taking the necessary actions to overcome the difficulty can turn a challenging situation into a positive one. This helps children feel empowered and encourages them to be resourceful, develop imaginative skills, discover what inspires them and take action to achieve their goals.

Completing short activities every week helps children develop key life skills that will support them in becoming well-rounded and capable adults. Imagine how good you’ll feel knowing you were a proactive parent and that when your child leaves home they will have all the skills they need to live a happy, successful and fulfilling life.


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Rosina McAlpine

Dr Rosina McAlpine is a parenting expert, author and creator of the Win Win Program.