The pace of summer gives the perfect opportunity to tackle new life skills with your kids, especially after long weeks of quarantine. I kept this as a summer goal when my kids were younger, and I’m happy to report that these lessons seem to stick. Two of my three children have reached age 18 and successfully lived on their own. Other than occasional texts for recipes, my sons have managed personal finances, groceries, cleaning, laundry, and even living in another country whose language he did not speak.
I created this checklist that you can download (for free!) to gauge your child’s progress. The book What Every Child Should Know Along the Way by Gail Martin helped inspire the checklist and was a great resource for my husband and I as our children grew. Keep reading for more tips on teaching independence.
Start at an early age. Children learn by modeling and can follow simple directions from an early age. By the time the child is a toddler, he or she can put dirty laundry in a basket, go get diapers, and help pick up toys to put away. In my work as an adoption social worker, I’ve seen how being trusted and included in family tasks facilitates bonding, attachment, and a sense of self.
Begin with a night check habit. Borrowing this idea from a friend, we implemented the habit of “night check” when our boys were toddlers. Night check is a proven method to handle the endless toy clutter. Before a bedtime routine, set a timer for an age-appropriate length of time and play the game of putting everything away. Use large baskets and low shelves with bins so kids can easily be part of this process. After the children are asleep, the house will be tidy, and each day begins with a tidy house.
Keep a room time habit through elementary school. One of my kids napped daily until kindergarten, while the other two quit napping at age two. However, “room time” was a daily routine we kept through the elementary school years during summer. Room time is 30 to 60 minutes until age three or four, and then 60 to 90 minutes thereafter. The children don’t have to sleep, and can read or play quietly with their toys. If they come out to ask how much longer, extra time can be added. Room time gives everyone time to regroup, breaks up long afternoons, and teaches children that they can entertain themselves.
Harness their desire to help to give a sense of responsibility. My husband and I were latch-key kids at young ages. We cared for ourselves, made snacks and easy meals, did simple cleaning, and handled our own schoolwork. Times have changed, and I chose to be a stay-at-home mom. But we parented with the knowledge that our children were capable of learning responsibility from early ages. Nurturing this while harnessing their natural desire to help is a lifelong gift. Parenting for the long game is seeing children as adults-in-training and teaching gradually toward the idea of independence.
Stick to a summer checklist. Having a list of skills by age is a starting point to teach responsibilities. Begin with the skills that either most interest your children or are most important to your family. Building on these “wins” gives traction to keep going. Encourage your children’s maturity and ability to learn new things.
Giving them opportunities to be in charge encourages leadership and teamwork. There’s momentum in community and mutual support, so join with mom friends who are teaching the same skills. Get together so your children can practice together. One of my daughter’s favorite memories was joining with a close friend to plan a meal with a set budget, go grocery shopping and handle all purchasing, and then cook a meal for both families to enjoy.
Keep practicing the skills. When school time rolls around, the new skills should be practiced. Not only is the load lightened for parents, but children also gain confidence to try new things and move toward the ultimate goal of paving their own paths after high school. Teaching life skills is a practical way that children learn to be accountable and take ownership of their own lives. I speak from experience when I say that it’s well worth the effort.