When my stepson moved into an apartment at a university, we went to the supermarket. Because he liked (and knew how to cook) chicken legs, I explained that if he bought a large package and froze a portion for a second meal, he could save money.
Several weeks later, he called in crisis mode. It was apparent he’d not heard the “freeze a portion” bit, and there was raw chicken in his refrigerator weeks past the “use by” date. No stomachs were harmed, but we did discuss how to clean a refrigerator heavily “perfumed” by spoiled poultry.
I’m not the only parent to be remiss in remembering all the things you need to teach kids before they head to college. That’s why the perfect time to start coaching them in a few life lessons is while they’re still living under your roof — long before they’re ensconced in the dorm and you’re waving goodbye.
Maybe some of these lessons are taught in high school. Maybe not. But by the time teens are navigating life on their own, that independence will come with new responsibilities, from goal-setting to budgeting to knowing when they need to see a doctor.
“Most of these kids have been under the watch of their parents, and they’re used to their parents handling everything for them, from doctor appointments to buying toiletries to balancing a checkbook.
“They’re used to Mom and Dad looking over their shoulder and taking care of them,” says Jennifer Wider, a doctor who co-wrote “Got Teens? The Doctor Moms’ Guide to Sexuality, Social Media and Other Adolescent Realities” (Seal Press). “This is a major, crucial transition in their life.”
“Goal-setting is a great skill that if you can get that down, where they set a few goals, it’s a pattern for life,” says Sean Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens,” updated for the digital age (Touchstone).
Covey offered his children planners and journals to help with the goal-setting and was (eventually, it’s important to note) delighted when one child was doing just that in a journal. He said he also found, by not over-planning their lives and pulling back a bit to teach them responsibility, “I’m teaching them responsibility and initiative by letting them run.”
Basic kindness, hygiene, financial management, “those simple self-management skills, those are keys to independence,” says Richard Greenberg, who wrote “Raising Children That Other People Like To Be Around: Five Common-Sense Musts From a Father’s Point of View” (New Generation Publishing).
“Before your kid goes to college, create a budget,” says Greenberg, and teach them how debit cards work, what a bank balance and interest are, as well as how that can impact their budget.
Not to mention credit cards and late fees. Wider is not keen on credit cards.
“The credit card is a perfect example of giving our kids a crutch rather than teaching them to fly on their own, which really is our job as parents — to foster a sense of independence,” says Wider. “Balancing a checkbook and learning how to deal with a budget is something that is a total necessity, because the next step is going out on your own.”
Parents need to set a good example, whether it’s teaching basic respect of each other or promoting cleanliness, adds Greenberg.
“As you do the tasks at hand, teach your children how to do them themselves,” he writes. “Gradually, slower than the proverbial molasses in January, they’ll begin to take over some of that work.”
Among Greenberg’s list of “Things to Remember” in his book, he includes this: “Five/Five/Twenty. When a hard decision needs to be made, remember this formula. For five minutes they’ll be angry at you. In five days, they’ll forget about it. In 20 years, they’ll thank you.”
Here are a few life lessons to teach teens before they head to college:
• Teach them to develop health self-assessment skills. “Kids need to know the difference between a sore throat and strep throat, where you might need antibiotics,” Wider says. “Spotting the signs of something more serious is something a parent should bring to their child’s attention throughout high school.”
• Teach them to cook, including food safety. “Pushing good nutrition and stress management is very, very important for good overall health and well-being,” says Wider. Teaching them to cook “is a skill you should be building throughout high school along with food safety.”
• Teach them valuable social skills. “You are the model for your children. By listening, you teach them to listen,” says Greenberg. “Teach them how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and how to introduce yourself. ... (it will) allow them to navigate the world in a way that’s better informed rather than pretending they know everything or are too shy to ask.”
• Hand them more responsibility. They’ll learn to manage their time in their own way. “Think about how you give them freedom to spend time on their own. If they choose to work during that time that’s their choice,” says Greenberg. “Everyone comes up with their own process. When you talk about freedom, you really need to talk about allowing your child to find their own successful process. If our children are reaching their goal, the way that they get there doesn’t have to be the same way we got there.”
• Help them learn to schedule. It’s good to take time for a timeout. “You need time to rejuvenate the best thing you’ve got going for yourself — you!” writes Covey, citing four areas: body (exercise, eat healthy, sleep well, relax); brain (read, educate, write, learn new skills, create); heart (build relationships, give service, laugh, learn to love yourself) and soul (meditate, keep a journal, pray, take in quality media).
• Help them believe in their skills. “One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is to help them find their talents,” Covey says. He uses a child’s poor test score as an example. “I say to her, ‘They can’t measure your ability to connect with people.’ I’ve been doing that for the last year, and suddenly I’ve heard (the child) say, ‘I’m really good at this.’ And she’s starting to believe it now.”
• Talk about taking responsibility for their actions. Talk about the responsible use of alcohol. “When you are drunk and not in control of your actions, your inhibitions are lowered and unfortunately we see a lot of bad decision-making,” says Wider. This can include unprotected sex, drunken driving and date rape. “I tell parents about a buddy system, which is lifesaving; never taking a drink from a punch bowl — ever; never letting somebody buy you a drink (and) always (be sure to) see the drink opened on your own.”