Opinion: The Four Stages Of Teaching Your Child Core Life Skills

Here at How To Raise A Happy Genius, we’re very big on the need to teach children a wide range of core life skills if you wish them to grow into happy and successful adults. These core life skills range from things like being able to cook, knowing how to stay fit and healthy, critical thinking and problem-solving, reading and good financial management. You might think it would be impossible to come up with a single strategy that could be used to teach such a diverse range of subjects. However, while reading a rather brilliant book called How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, I came across a remarkably simple and easy-to-follow framework for teaching your child any core life skill you wish to teach them. This framework grew out of a community of parents raising children with special needs, but it equally applies to any child. So, what is this strategy? Well, it’s quite simple and consists of four basic stages.

  1. The Four Stages of Teaching Your Child Core Life SkillsDemonstrate The Core Life Skill You Wish Them To Learn: When it comes to core life skills, children will learn what they are familiar with, and this means that the first thing you need to do is to demonstrate the life skill you wish to them to learn. In this stage, it’s not enough just to tell them about it, or show it to them as a one-off example devoid from any real life context. Instead, you need to show it to them in action in everyday life, and on a regular basis. For example, if you wish your child to learn how to cook, the starting point is for them to see you cooking on a regular basis; If you wish you teach your child good financial management, then they need to see you being good with money; and so on. Why is this so important? Well, it’s all down to something called Modelling. Children learn by watching the adults in their lives and doing what they do rather than what the adults tell them to do, and it means they’ll struggle to learn skills that they don’t see adults modelling for them on a regular basis.
  2. Do The Core Life Skill With Them: Once a child understands what a core life skill is and how it can be practically used in everyday life, then you need to get them using it. This is because it’s only through regular practice that they’ll learn both how to do the skill, and the situations in which it can be successfully applied. This involves letting your child take the helm and get their hands dirty, both metaphorically and literally. If you want to teach them to cook, then let them help prepare a meal (learning how to make a pizza is always a good place to start); if you want to teach them how to keep to a budget, take them shopping with you and get them to help out with adding up the prices of everything you’re putting into your basket; if you want them to learn how to change a flat tire, then get them down beside you, helping to loosen off the wheel nuts as you do it. Just remember that the first few times, they’ll most likely do a horrible job and will need lots of guidance, so choose the time carefully as to when you’re going to let them work on a specific core life skill with you. This means you need to make sure that you don’t try to do it at a time when you’re stressed or rushed off your feet as this will just be a bad experience for both of you, and it’s really important that your child doesn’t get put off doing a specific life skill before they’ve even had a chance to give it a proper go (and even one bad experience may well be enough to do this).
  3. Watch Your Child Do The Core Life Skill On Their Own: Once you child had practiced the core life skill you wish to teach them under your careful tutelage, the next stage is to take a step back and let them do it without your input. This can be very difficult you do, and you’ll undoubtedly feel a very strong desire to step in and correct them if they start to go wrong. The rule for this stage here is that as long as they’re not going to get hurt, or do any serious damage, then don’t. One of the most powerful ways to learn in life is from making mistakes, and they’ll learn a lot faster from the errors they make when trying to master a core life skill than any amount of words and advice you can offer them. So, if they’re baking a cake on their own for the first time, then don’t step in when they mistakenly read a level teaspoon of salt in the recipe for eleven teaspoons of salt (it’s a surprisingly common mistake!). Okay, so the result will be inedible, but they’ll learn to double-check what the recipe says the next time they try to cook something.
  4. Let Them Do The Core Life Skill Completely Independently: Once you child knows, more or less, what they’re doing, the final stage is to walk away and let them practice their latest life skill all on their own. The critical thing here is that you don’t hover over them, ready to sweep in and rescue them if they go wrong. Instead, you need to consciously walk away and leave them to it. Yes, this will seem very scary, especially if the core life skill involves something potentially dangerous, but it’s very important that you do this. Walking away and letting them do it all on their own sends them the very powerful message that you have confidence in their abilities, and it also forces them to rely on their own knowledge to work out what to do rather than instinctively turning to you when they get stuck. Life, after all, doesn’t come with a safety net, and it’s better that they learn from their mistakes when they’re young, and the consequences are trivial, rather than when they’re all grown up and they’re not. For example, making bad financial decisions as a child will, at the most, mean they have a little less pocket-money to spend, while making them as adults can mean ending up under a mountain of debt from which they may never be able to escape. Once they’ve completed a specific task based on their newly acquired skill, remember to praise them appropriately. It’s unlikely that they’ll get it absolutely perfect the first time, and this is okay. Praise them for the effort and for the bits they did get right, and offer constructive criticism for the bits that didn’t go so well. The aim here is to encourage and guide them towards mastering the core life skill rather than to highlight their every mis-step and mistake.

I know this all seems simple to say, and it is, but actually applying it to teaching your child a new skill is not. In particular, while many people are great at taking their kids through stages one and two, they hesitate too long when it comes to moving on to stage three, meaning that their child remains stuck and is unable to actually do the core skill for themselves. If parents have a tendency to linger too long at stage three, the gulf between it and stage four represents an even bigger leap of faith, but what you have to remember here is that your aim is to raise a child that can be fully independent when it comes to using their core life skills, and they can never gain this independence, and the self-belief and inner confidence that comes with it, if you don’t take this plunge, and like pulling off a band-aid, the sooner you do it, the better. Yes, they might make a mistake or two, or twenty; yes, they might fail; yes, it might all go horribly, horribly wrong, but you can’t truly master any skill without making some mistakes along the way, and you just have to remember this is all part of the learning process. In fact, giving your child the opportunity to make their own mistakes and so to learn from them, is not letting them down. Instead, you’re giving them the chance to grow, and so to become the happy and successful adult you’d so desperately like to see them become.

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About The Author: This post was written by Colin Drysdale, the creator of How To Raise A Happy Genius.

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