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Useful Skills for the Next Generation

They say that college is a pivotal point in your life—you make lifelong friends, discover new things about yourself, get started with your career, and maybe even meet your future spouse. I can definitely agree with this, as all of those things took place in my life between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. I also discovered some things about the world around me and the people in it that were, to be honest, a little appalling.

One particular watershed moment happened as I was standing in the kitchen of my apartment one night, and my roommate expressed the desire for some late-night breakfast. I suggested IHOP, but apparently funds were low, so she decided she would make it herself. One problem—she didn’t know how. She’d never made scrambled eggs before. Or toast. TOAST. This girl was valedictorian of her senior class, had a full scholarship to a major state university, and intended to go to medical school, but she couldn’t make toast. After I scraped my jaw off the floor, I quickly gave her lessons in the fine arts of toast-making and egg-scrambling, but I still couldn’t help but stare quizzically at her for the next few hours.

The problem is, this is becoming all too common an issue. Kids with ACT scores in the stratosphere and seemingly successful young adults can’t even do their own laundry or cook a meal that doesn’t start with the directions “Remove tray from carton.”

As a former teacher, I absolutely believe that having a well-rounded education is necessary. Kids need to know their multiplication tables, have a basic idea of history and literature, and grasp the fundamentals of science. They also need to know how to function as independent adults.

Too often, parents take the approach of simply turning over their child’s education to a school or teacher and taking a step back. Not only is that approach not biblical, it’s a disservice to your children. Most importantly, your kids need you to provide a foundation of morals and values, but in addition, they need you to teach them how to complete necessary tasks. That’s something their homeroom teacher isn’t likely to cover.

The best way to teach your kids is by modeling. Yes, this may mean that it takes you a bit longer to complete certain tasks. Plan for it. Take the time to explain to them what you are doing. Give them opportunities to help, and even if they can’t help with something, they can still watch. Thanks to these strategies, my parents and grandparents were able to teach me how to cook, can, clean, sew, knit, and perform basic “handyman” tasks before I even had my driver’s license.

Cooking

Cooking is probably one of the easiest things you can teach your children how to do, even if you aren’t the next Paula Deen or Rachel Ray. The key is just starting small.

When your child is about three, they can start helping in the kitchen. Sit them on the table and let them pour in the dry ingredients as you make cookies or muffins. Once they have a decent grasp of hand-eye coordination, let them take a turn at stirring (just be prepared for messes).

As your child gets older, use time in the kitchen as a way to reinforce topics they are learning in school. Measuring ingredients is a great way to practice fractions, and reading the recipes will help improve their reading skills and vocabulary.

Use your judgment as to when your child is ready to move up to bigger tasks, but don’t underestimate them. Supervise your children with tasks at first, but give them some independence. They will feel proud of their accomplishments. By the time I was seven or eight years old, I was in charge of many tasks at dinner. I could mix up the batter for cornbread and put it in the oven. I could also open cans of vegetables and heat them on the stove or in the microwave, and I could cook rice. By the time I was ten, I could cook almost anything my mother could, with the exception of deep-frying things (I’m on the short side, and my mother was worried I would accidentally burn my face if the oil splattered). Again, you’ll have to decide when your child is ready for slightly more hazardous tasks like deep-frying or using sharp knives. Just don’t forget that you can also use this as a chance to teach safety as well.

Canning

Both my mother and grandmother canned, and I always loved to help them. It introduced me to a wonderful skill that is little known by others my age.

Just like with cooking, my participation in the canning process started gradually. At first, I would often just sit on a bar stool and ask my mother about what she was doing. Why do the lids have to be boiled? What is that tool for? Later, I would get to pour sugar into mixing bowls or mash strawberries for homemade preserves. I also helped shell peas and pulled the peels off boiled tomatoes. You may can different things, but you can still find tasks that your child can help with.

I always felt grown-up when I was put in charge of watching the canner. My grandmother would tell me where the pressure gauge needed to be, and my job would be to adjust the heat on the stove to keep it there. Now I recognize that my grandmother just wanted to get off her feet and out of the kitchen, but in the process, I got to learn more about canning. Consider a similar job for your child.

By the time I was a teenager, helping in the canning process had given me an appreciation for home-preserved food and an interest in doing it myself. In fact, my wedding present from my mother was a new canner that is all my own. I enjoy it more than all the matching saltshakers in the world. If you get your children involved now, odds are, they will feel the same way that I do.

Cleaning

Teaching your kids to clean means more than just telling them to pick up their room and fold their clothes. Show your children how to use a washing machine, load the dishwasher, and run the vacuum cleaner. Having someone do this for them doesn’t actually help them—you are actually doing a disservice to your child  (and potentially, their future spouse) by not teaching them necessary skills.

When it comes to laundry, explain to the kids how to separate the colors from the whites. Show them how much soap to measure, and make sure it’s in their reach (or even better, use premeasured tabs or sheets for younger children).

It works the same for loading a dishwasher. Show your children how to scrape or rinse off the leftovers, how to load the dishes without breaking them, and how to measure the soap. My mother had a wonderful incentive for my sister and me; whatever we couldn’t fit in the dishwasher had to be washed by hand. I tell you what—we quickly became pros at packing a dishwasher, a skill that our husbands marvel at today!

Even if your children are too young to help with these tasks, you can still have them dust and polish furniture. The earlier they start learning, the better!

Sewing and Knitting

My grandmothers taught me how to sew and knit as soon as I was not in any danger of seriously hurting myself with the needles. They started with basics and gave me scraps from various projects to practice with.

For sewing, find some old scraps of cloth that your child can practice sewing together. Let them try their hand at making pillows, clothes, parachutes, or the like for their dolls or action figures. They will undoubtedly look horrible at first, but they should improve with time.

Teach them how to sew buttons and mend holes in clothes. If someone has some old work clothes that have holes, this is an excellent way to let your child practice without it mattering if it looks a little lopsided. Another way I practiced was to open up a stuffed animal hospital for my sister. She brought me all of her treasured toys, and I fixed the holes in their ears and replaced their missing eyes with buttons.

I learned knitting through a very similar process. Once I had the hang of the basic stitches, my grandmother gave me scrap yarn to practice with. The first few inches were filled with dropped stitches and huge gaps, but I quickly got the hang of it. I enjoyed making scarves for my family at Christmas that year, and my dolls gained quite a few new blankets for their beds.

In my family, sewing and knitting were the main skills to be passed on, but it may be different in yours. Whether it’s sewing and knitting, or quilting and crocheting, the ideas are still the same. Teach your kids the basics, be prepared for mistakes, and give them lots of opportunity for practice.

Basic “Handyman” Skills

I sometimes joke that my dad wished I had been a boy because of the way he treated me when I was younger, but I now realize that he actually gave me a great gift. Every time my dad was out working in the shop on a project, putting new brakes on the car, or fixing a leaky faucet, he made me stand right beside him and help him. Sometimes I’d hold a flashlight, other times I’d find him tools, and in some instances I was sent to tell my mom she could to turn the water main back on. I’ll be honest—as a little girl, I was way more interested in getting back to my Barbies than standing around working on a dirty, greasy old car or a yucky old toilet, but I learned a lot in the process.

Today I can change my own flat tire, check all the fluids in my car, diagnose a bad alternator or battery, replace the hardware in a toilet, and hang sheetrock with the best of them—which took more than one boyfriend by surprise! I also spent a lot of quality time with my dad, which was potentially even more important.

Plenty of dads show their boys how to complete these kinds of tasks, but they shortchange their girls. More than likely, those girls will be just like me—completely uninterested. Some of it does stick though, and it’s good information for them to know—whether they like it or not.

Be careful not to shortchange your boys either though. One critical mistake I’ve seen parents make is that when they are working around the house, they operate with a “look but don’t touch” philosophy. How are children supposed to learn without practice?

When your kids are five, they probably need to stick to just holding a flashlight or handing you the screwdriver, but as they get older, they need to get a little experience. When I was fourteen and fifteen, I wasn’t handing my dad nails anymore while he built a new barn; I was given my own hammer and told to get to work. Sure, some of my nails were bent, and my dad had to add in a few more of his own behind me, but it was valuable practice. While it may be easier and quicker for you to do it all yourself, you are depriving your kid of important life skills if you take that route.

Hand your teenager the drill and let him hang those new blinds. Show your daughter how to crochet doilies to give Grandma for Christmas this year. Teach your kids how to run a washing machine and load a dishwasher. Let the little ones help shell peas and bake cookies. It may not seem like much at the time, but you are opening up a world of valuable skills to your children.

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