The other day I asked my eight-year-old son to take his baby sister’s dinner plate with some uneaten food on it to the sink. I watched him as he walked to the sink, placed the plate on the kitchen counter, and proceeded to pick the food scraps off the plate and place them one at a time into the garbage can. I was surprised (and a bit sheepish, I must say), but then realized that maybe I had not taught him any better way to do it. I approached and showed him the important life skill of using a utensil to scrape food scraps off a plate directly into the compost.
This seemingly harmless incident got me thinking about other life skills and useful habits my kids might not know. As parents, we have endless jobs when it comes to raising children—loving, feeding, and clothing them are the frontrunners. But beyond these basic needs, we also have a plethora of other life skills we are tasked with teaching our children. Many preschoolers automatically pick up on habits and behaviors their family members’ practice. My two-year-old knows that we take off our shoes when we enter our house—something I did not explicitly teach her. She simply observed that this is a habit we have, and one day, she started copying us. Other habits and skills must be taught and practiced outrightly (case in point: the food scrap incident!)
As we wrap up the year, it’s a good time to reflect on the important life skills and habits you’ll want to cultivate with your young child. Here are a few you could try:
- How to prepare a meal: When my first two kids were really little, I often felt like all I did was prepare food for them. When my third child was born, I quickly realized that I needed the older two to learn how to make their own snacks and help out in the kitchen as much as possible. Most kids feel empowered by helping out in the kitchen, so it is easy to involve them in washing and mixing ingredients (think of them as your little sous chefs) before teaching them simple tasks like making sandwiches or scrambled eggs. Eventually, they’ll move on to more complex menu items involving the stove or oven.
- Self-care and health: It’s never too early to teach children the importance of self-care. Purposefully incorporating healthy activities such as eating well and taking care of their hygiene will help your child grow up with these habits already ingrained in their daily life. Teach them to eat colorfully: tell them that by filling our plates with a rainbow of foods, such as varied fruits and vegetables, we are giving our body the fuel it needs to learn and “do all the fun stuff” we do each day. Explain to them why we shower, brush our teeth, and wear clean clothes: to be clean (or if you want to be more technical: to wash away sweat and dead skin cells, remove dirt, and prevent body odor). Now that they know why these habits are important, teach your child to do them by themselves and, little by little, let them take the lead. It’s helpful to have all the tools they need for these tasks easily accessible to them. Make sure your child can reach their towel, hairbrush, and toothbrush.
- Cleaning up: Cleaning up as you go is one of the best life skills my parents taught me. Putting your clothes where they belong right after you take them off will save you from the mountain of clothes that so often sneak up on us. Making your bed right when you wake up means you don’t have to do it later! If you make these rituals into habits for your children, they’ll do them for life. Be sure to model cleaning up your own messes promptly as well. Show them that every item has a place in the house, and when we all play our part in cleaning up the house will remain tidy. Chores such as sweeping/mopping, doing laundry, changing the toilet paper roll, and setting the table are all skills that young children are completely capable of doing. Make sure the laundry bin is accessible to your young child and that their clean clothes are in drawers within their reach. I taught my kids when they were 3 and 4 years old to fold and put away their clothes. Of course, they don’t always do the job perfectly, and I often have to keep myself from refolding their work. Letting them do it themselves sends the message that we trust them and expect them to take care of themselves.
- Agency and independence: Preschoolers have opinions. Strong opinions. Why not channel those opinions into helping foster their own sense of agency and independence? Let your preschooler choose their clothes or shoes for the day. Providing them with options (start with two) and letting them decide gives them a sense of agency. And we all know how much young children want to be the “masters of their own destiny” at every opportunity they get.
- Develop routines: Routines lead to independence. To instill a routine in your child’s day, start by thinking out loud about the steps you take to get ready for work or go to bed. A routine chart can help your child learn a step-by-step process, and as they practice them day in and day out, they begin to internalize the steps and are soon able to do them semi-independently. In education, we call this the “gradual release of responsibility”: Typically, it applies to teaching academic skills, but it also works for life skills. We model good habits, guide them through the steps, and gradually step back and watch as they do the tasks independently.
We often prefer to take care of household chores ourselves because it’s faster, and in our busy lives, we need to get things done efficiently. But if you are willing to give up a little efficiency for the sake of guiding your child through these life skills, the benefits will pay off in time. Before you know it, you’ll have a teenager who is cooking a meal for the family and doing their own laundry!
By Audrey Lee, an educator with 20 years of experience and an expert on standards-aligned instruction and blended learning.