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November, 2003

For Kids, Lessons in The School of Life
There’s More to Maturing Than Getting Good Grades

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg

Tami Parker, 19, earned good grades and served as captain of the varsity swim team at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring. But as a freshman last year at James Madison University, she paid full price for a prescription medication when it should have been a $5 co-payment. When Tami came home to Brookeville for the summer, her mother discovered that her daughter could use some cooking instruction to move her beyond her repertoire of pizza, macaroni and brownies, and that she needs to be reminded to wash lettuce before putting it in salad.

Tami’s mom, Mary Parker, who teaches parenting classes, realizes that she did not adequately instill life skills in her four daughters before they graduated from high school.

She is not alone. Across the country, many parents are not teaching teens enough of the life skills they need to become self-reliant in college and beyond, experts say. What types of skills? Those ranging from fairly basic—doing laundry, scheduling a doctor appointment, changing a light bulb or balancing a checkbook—to ones that are more encompassing, such as respecting oneself and others, problem-solving and cooperation.

“When children were raised on farms, they learned many life skills by working alongside their parents. Today, kids are not learning them,” says Jane Nelsen, author of “Positive Discipline for Teenagers” (2000, Prima Publishing).

The consequences of neglecting to focus on these skills during the teen years can be more serious than paying too much for prescriptions or eating unwashed lettuce. Kids may end up wildly undisciplined at a university, plagued with an eating or self-injury problem, depressed, or back home after a semester because they are unable to cope with the pressures of living on their own. Serious financial problems can also result, including large credit card debt.

Mary Parker partially blames herself for her daughters’ deficiencies in life skills. As a working mom (she retired from a full-time consulting job a year ago), she says, she “felt that when I got home I owed it to my family to do dishes and laundry and wasn’t comfortable spending our time together nagging them to do chores.”

But several observers say the problem is a cultural one, caused by several factors. Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Penguin, 2001), points to fierce academic pressure as one cause. In many homes, “using four magic words, namely ‘I have a test,’ gets kids ages 8 to 18 excused from family citizenship,” she says.

The predominance of families that are smaller today than in the past leads parents to need less help with household duties, Mogel says. “I counsel parents to pretend they have six children, because then parents couldn’t handle all the responsibilities and would have to divide them among the children,” she says.

A Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist, Mogel points to the current condition of the world in which “parents feel guilty that it’s so polluted and filled with war, so they want to be nice to their kids” by not requiring chores. In some communities, teens are handicapped by affluence: They have “too many material things, overscheduled lives, and too high expectations for perfect achievement in academics and extracurricular activities,” she says. The job of building ordinary life skills is squeezed out.

Nathan Dungan, author of “Prodigal Sons & Material Girls: How Not to Be Your Child’s ATM” (2003, Wiley), faults consumer-product companies, advertising agencies and the media for negatively influencing young people’s money habits. “Virtually every message coming toward them is to spend,” he says. From a very young age, kids receive messages to convince them that their wants are needs, and high schools offer little or no countervailing financial curriculum to teach kids that they must limit their spending, says Dungan, a Minneapolis-based financial adviser.

Many teens head to college “with an insatiable appetite to consume,” but without knowing how credit cards and interest rates work, Dungan says. The situation appears to be worsening: Average scores for high school seniors on a 2002 financial literacy test conducted by the Jumpstart Coalition were 50.2 percent, down from 57.3 percent in 1997.

Pikesville, Md., mom Nancy Medin wants her two daughters to develop good life skills before college. They know how to write a check and enter it into the checkbook, and when the girls research colleges, they factor in tuition and room and board costs. Elana, 17, has a part-time job as a restaurant hostess and is learning to budget her salary.

Medin, a part-time accountant, says she used to routinely make her daughters’ lunches and straighten their rooms. But when her older daughter got her learner’s permit three months shy of her 16th birthday, “it hit me that she’d be gone in a few years and I wanted her to learn skills that she takes for granted because we do them for her.”

Experts say there are several ways to inculcate children and teens with life skills. Parker advises parents to purchase a “life calendar” for teens to keep track of non-academic commitments such as dentist appointments, soccer practices and part-time jobs.

Author Nelsen, who speaks professionally on parenting topics, recommends holding weekly family meetings, in which kids are involved in planning the agenda, discussing meal ideas, receiving chore assignments and allowance, and finding solutions to family problems. “Any successful corporation knows it needs to have staff meetings regularly,” she says.

At other times, such as when teens arrive home after curfew or when they act disrespectfully toward adults, Nelsen says parents should ask “curiosity questions,” rather than boss them around. “We tell, tell, tell, when what we really need to do is ask what happened, what caused it to happen, what ideas do you have to solve this problem,” she says.

Dungan advises parents to “walk the walk” and review their own financial habits to see if they reflect the values they wish to impart to their children. He suggests talking frequently to teens about money, taking them along when applying for a house or car loan, and helping them make a distinction between their needs and their wants. “Never underestimate the power of conversation, a teachable moment or a financial experience on kids,” he says.

Dungan recommends instructing teens on how to budget money, perhaps in conjunction with income they receive from a part-time job; on how to choose and use a credit card, by signing them up for one while in high school; and on the importance of saving and sharing, rather than just spending it. “When you teach a young person to share, you’re instilling a sense of gratitude and awareness of need in the community, the country and the world—it helps ground them,” he says.

Mogel believes teens should experience various uncomfortable emotions and conditions in order to be able to fend for themselves later on. “Before going off to college, I want kids to be sad, frustrated, bored, cold, wet and hungry or they’ll come right back,” she says.

Parker’s 26-year-old daughter Jenny experienced a letdown at age 13 when her longtime high-level swim team disbanded. Parker’s instinct was to soften the blow by conducting an extensive search for a highly challenging team. Instead, she signed Jenny up for a lower-level team, and over time Jenny gained the requisite leadership and swimming experience to land her a spot on Boston University’s varsity team. “She experienced disappointment and got past it, which helped her in the long run,” says Parker.

November 4, 2003