Some of my friends are sending their kids off to college this fall and discovering, with some shame, that their offspring—who can build Web sites, play stringed instruments, and locate Latvia on a world map—are deficient in other life skills. Basic skills. Crucial skills.
“We just got back from dropping Devon off for his first night in the dorm,” says my friend Tracy. A superlative mother, Tracy has taught her children to play cribbage, iron a dress shirt, and consider protein and fiber percentages when choosing their breakfast cereals. But that evening, while introducing her son to his new bedroom, she realized there are still some things she’s failed to demonstrate.
“They need to learn how to put sheets on their bed,” she says, describing a slapstick scene of mattress-wrestling that left her shaking her head. “Thank god he didn’t have the top bunk.”
We modern parents are great at teaching our kids the value of empathy, recycling, and broad bandwidth. But have we forgotten to school them in, say, soaping their skivvies?
A young woman I know admits she had no idea how to do laundry when she left home: “My mother always said she paid too much for my clothes to let me mess them up in the wash.”
Another says she’s flummoxed by grocery shopping: “I always forget to buy something important.”
How does this happen? How do our kids get to adulthood without knowing “prewash” from “permanent press”? Or the neat trick of making a shopping list?
Our first mistake as parents is assuming we have time to spare. Someday, we figure, we’ll show our kids how to start a temperamental lawn mower, or un-choke a vacuum clogged with pine needles. A couple of decades ought to be enough to impart all the things a grown-up needs to know. Somehow, though, it isn’t.
Another tactical error is assuming our kids will learn through direct observation. That may be true of some things—dispatching telemarketers or sending back food at a restaurant—but when was the last time your child pulled up a chair to watch you scrub mildew from a shower curtain?
Finally, we err in mothering them too much. Oh, save it; you know you do. We think it’s loving to make their beds, make their meals, make their lives hassle-free. We’re wrong. It’s a set-up for adult-onset incompetence, and it can be rather disastrous.
Take credit cards, for example. Some kids rack up debilitating debt when they first get their hands on the Great Plastic Genie. “My oldest learned a very hard lesson her freshman year,” says a mom I know. “It took her seven years to pay it off.”
Certain things are best learned—and remembered—through trial and error: Wet towels beget mold, duct tape peels paint off walls, being drunk feels good only until it feels very, very bad.
But there are other things we should really teach our kids before they step onto the fast-moving train that is Life. Here are a few:
• They need to know how to write a check, make a bank deposit, and manage their meager balance.
• They must know basic first aid, how and where to fill a prescription, and how to give a thorough health history to a doctor without Mommy standing there.
• They should know how to hail a cab, read a public transit timetable, and pay a parking ticket.
• They’ve got to be able to make a couple of decent meals for themselves—and on that same note, sorry, how to plunge a toilet.
And of course, teach your kids how to put sheets on their bed. Because adulthood is exhausting, and after all that competence, they’re going to need a place to lie down.