Two days ago, I posted an article entitled Nine Skills Worth Learning for Any Career – and How to Learn Them. The goal of the article is to point to some fundamental skills that have value in almost every professional situation and offer some suggestions in how to cultivate them for yourself.
As I was putting the finishing touches on the article, my oldest son walked up behind me. He’s a middle schooler these days and is beginning to really think about the world and his place in it in many interesting and surprising ways. Anyway, he asked me what I was writing about and I summarized it for him – it’s all about skills that are useful in professional life, regardless of your job.
He looked at me for a minute with that look in his eye that he gets when he’s thinking, and then he started asking questions. In his roundabout way, the idea he was trying to seek out was this: what skills should a kid growing up have to be able to be a successful adult? He didn’t state it in those words, but that was the output of the conversation.
I gave him some ideas and then turned back to my laptop to finish the article, but in my mind, that question started to float around. What skills should he really be learning to be ready to become a successful, financially independent, and personally independent adult? Even more than that, what can I be doing right now to start teaching him these skills?
After some thought, I came up with a healthy list of skills that I felt I could help build in my children (or, more accurately, I am actively helping them build) with the end goal of helping them to develop into financially and personally independent adults. As with the previous article, I combined them down into nine skills that can be built in older children, preteens, and teenagers, each of which sets them on a path to financial and personal independence from their parents.
What’s the value in this? If you are a parent, the independence of your children has a huge bearing on your financial future. If you continue to provide housing, clothing, food, and utilities for your child into adulthood, you’re incurring a great deal of financial expense during the years when you’re really going to need to be preparing for retirement. This is true even if it extends to “financial outpatient care” – in other words, giving your children money during their early professional life.
The best possible financial outcome for a parent is a fully independent child who may actually be able to aid the parent in the future. To achieve that, parents should be taking action now to develop traits of independence and self-sufficiency in their children.
Here are nine skills that you should be helping your children and teenagers to master, along with two or three specific tactics for bringing out those skills.
Skill #1: Project (and Time) Management
This is simply the ability to take on a task that will take longer than one work session. It’s something that you’ll have to put down and come back to later, and perhaps come back to again and again.
To an extent, children get a taste of this through things like music lessons and sports training, but it doesn’t prepare them for things like writing a report (in college or in an office environment), finishing a work project, or taking on a home improvement task.
This ties deeply into time management, something which will come somewhat naturally once they have a grasp on the idea that big tasks should be broken down into smaller ones and tackled one at a time. Once that concept becomes second nature, time management fits well right on top of it.
So, how do you help your children develop project management and nascent time management skills?
Strongly encourage them to take on large scale challenges in their hobbies and areas of interest.
If your child has a particular area of interest, encourage them to take on a project within that area of interest that’s bigger than what they can finish in a single sitting. This requires them to break down the project into smaller pieces to be able to complete them successfully. Using a hobby or area of interest helps your child find the focus and purpose needed for such a project.
For example, all of my children have taken on large-scale LEGO building projects. My daughter has taken on some elaborate art projects that have taken several sessions to complete. This summer, my son is taking a course on his own – without parental or classroom encouragement – to master cursive handwriting. Those types of things encourage the ability to handle large projects and break them down into simpler pieces.
As they grow older, give them large scale tasks to work on and let them develop a plan on their own (with some gentle guidance from you).
For example, I might give one of my children the task of redecorating and cleaning their room so that guests could potentially sleep there. I might give one of them a task such as reorganizing the children’s book collection and figuring out which ones to keep and which ones to donate to the library such that the collection fits on one shelf. At that point, I leave the child to complete the task on their own, letting them know that if they run into difficulty, they are quite welcome to ask for guidance.
With those kinds of tasks, they become responsible for coming up with a plan for success on their own. The solution is not ready made for them and the plan is going to take some time to complete.
The interesting part? They’re drawn to these kinds of independent tasks. They’re almost always much more interested in taking on tasks that allow them to be independent and to effectively control this larger task. This teaches them the value of autonomy and also helps them master it in an environment where they can ask for help easily if they get stuck.
Skill #2: Work, Money, and Negotiation
The basic concepts of working to earn money, paired with the fact that negotiation is a key element of improving the work environment and improving one’s pay, is a key part of a financially and professionally successful life. Money will not be handed to you in life, and the financial rewards you get for your work will be low if you don’t advocate for yourself.
Putting your children in a position to intimately understand the connection between hard work and reward is a key part in helping them build a work ethic. Encouraging them to negotiate on their own behalf and giving them opportunities to do so is helpful, too.
How do you help your children develop these kinds of professional skills?
Give your children the opportunity to earn a little money by taking on additional chores beyond the normal requirements.
One great way to do this is to have a “jobs board” where they can take on tasks that you list for a financial reward. These should be tasks that go above and beyond normal household chores – you shouldn’t be rewarding them for taking out the trash or loading the dishwasher. Instead, rewards might be put in place for weeding the entire tomato patch or paring down their toy collection or thoroughly vacuuming and dusting a room and cleaning the windows.
If they take on such a job, you can and should judge the results for quality, pointing out areas where they need to improve. In fact, most of the time, the first result isn’t “accepted” unless they did a truly stellar job. The purpose is to teach them that a quality job is necessary to earn pay.
Encourage them to negotiate better terms on their own behalf, and give them a mix of successes and failures.
When you offer a task for a certain pay level, that should be the starting point most of the time. Your children and and should negotiate for a better rate, because being advocates for themselves is going to be vital in navigating the adult world.
Encourage your children to negotiate for a better rate. Guide them when it comes to negotiation, using techniques such as basic persuasion and use of evidence that they deserve a better rate. They don’t always have to be successful here, and they shouldn’t be, but they should see some success when they come up with a persuasive argument. You should also counter-offer sometimes, adding additional factors to a chore for that better offer they’re seeking.
Enforce some basic budgeting constraints on all money that they earn (and allow those to be a bit negotiable, too).
When they earn money, this is a perfect time to teach the basics of budgeting and the value of saving. Rather than simply allowing them to spend the money freely, you should act as a “401(k)” for them and put some of the money away for a future goal. Perhaps you can incentivize this and offer matching funds for what they save out of their income (though my children really figured out how to maximize that one).
You can also use this opportunity to encourage self control by encouraging them to save money for short term goals in a piggy bank, so that they know there’s money sitting right there and have to exhibit some self control to achieve the goals they want. My oldest son’s experience in saving up for a Nintendo 3DS was very valuable in this regard, as was my daughter’s efforts in saving up for a tablet.
Skill #3: Character and Integrity
Having a good reputation is priceless, and character and integrity are the foundation of a good reputation. Having character and integrity means that you don’t have to “fake it,” but that a good reputation comes completely naturally.
A good reputation makes it easy to fit in well in the community. It becomes so much easier to make new relationships, to find help when you need it, and to help steer a broader community in a positive direction when needed. It can keep coworkers on your side, encourage positive office politics, and make it much easier for you to earn raises. Plus, it simply makes the world a better place.
It’s up to you as a parent to teach your children integrity and character. Here are two key things you can do to relay those characteristics.
Value elements of strong character – honesty, empathy, responsibility – over perfect obedience and perfect choices, and don’t punish when those elements are present. When your child shows character, reward it. When they’re honest in the face of being in trouble for a mistake, be lenient with the punishment and laud the honesty. When your child mildly disobeys you in order to show empathy for others, like being slow in returning home because they were helping someone in the moment, compliment the empathy rather than punishing the tardiness. Put a heavy value on responsibility and reward it when they show it.
Be an example of character and integrity in your own life so that your child sees character and integrity at work. Children learn many elements of character from their parents, as you’re their primary adult role model whether they directly admit it or not. Thus, it’s up to you to demonstrate character and integrity in how you live your life. Strive to be the best person you can possibly be in all avenues of life so that when your child is looking for an example of how to act, they see a person trying – and often succeeding – to act with character and integrity. Be honest. Be empathetic. Be courteous and polite to others. Be responsible. Own up to your mistakes. Be the person you want your child to be as an adult and they’ll do their best to mimic you, even if you don’t always see it.
Skill #4: Physical and Mental Health
Physical and mental fitness simply means taking regular action to maintain and improve one’s physical and mental state. You can always improve your body and your mind by taking action to exercise each of them and to remove burdens of stress from them.
Not all children are made the same way, of course, and your individual child may have different needs and standards for physical and mental fitness. Your goal should merely be to encourage their own efforts in improving and maintaining their own physical and mental health and fitness.
Here are three things you can do to encourage both physical and mental fitness in your children.
Encourage your child to participate in some type of regular physical activity as well as some type of intellectual hobby. For example, my oldest son enjoys taekwondo, soccer, and reading, a list that’s mirrored by my daughter, who also chooses to practice the piano. You’ll often find them practicing taekwondo forms on their own or practicing their soccer moves or curled up somewhere reading a book of some kind. We encourage these hobbies and try to discourage ones that are less mentally and physically engaging, like watching junk television programs.
Avoid overburdening them with too many activities. It’s easy to get into a pattern of “oversubscribing” your children, either to bolster a resume or to have them try lots of things. Having some free time and down time – and learning how to self-manage that free time and down time – is also a vital element of mastering the autonomy of the adult world. Rather than oversubscribing your child, limit the activities they’re in and encourage excellence in the areas they choose. This also eliminates a lot of stress from their life – and from your life, too.
Teach them how to accept and use failure rather than fearing it. It is often tempting to protect your children from failure, but learning how to fail is perhaps one of the most beneficial lessons a child can learn. When they fail, don’t try to remedy that failure, but also don’t strictly punish that failure. Instead, talk about what can be learned from that failure. You can teach this all the time. I often do it when we play a game together, for example. If I lose, I’ll actually say out loud, “Hmm.. why did I lose? What did I do wrong?” This encourages thinking and self-improvement rather than disappointment and self-doubt. It moves the locus of control inwards, which is a key part of managing successful independent adult life.
Skill #5: Social and Relationship Skills
One of the most powerful skills that a child can build is social skills and relationship skills. How do you go from a room of people you don’t know well to a handful of strong relationships?
In school, children often form friendships simply because of forced time together. They eventually have to get to know each other a little bit because they’re forced to do so by the constraints of school. To a somewhat lesser extent, this happens at college and in some workplaces, but in many careers and especially in the community, people are often left on their own.
Knowing how to build relationships and maintain them, whether it’s professional relationships or friendships or romantic relationships, is a skill that people often don’t master. For some, it comes naturally, but for many, it’s a challenge. One of the most powerful skills you can build in your child for a successful professional, personal, and romantic life is the ability to build relationships from scratch.
Teach by example by putting yourself in social and relationship situations with your children and show best practices in those situations.
You can start doing this by actually going to community events with your children and meeting people there. Go to a church and get involved, or find a civic group where your family might be welcome. Take that first step yourself, with your family in tow, and start building those relationships. One good way to do this is to explain, on the way, what it is that you’re going to do there, and encourage your child to watch. “I’m hoping to get to know some people in the community today. I’m going to do that by introducing myself to people and having conversations and, hopefully, connecting well with a few of them.” Then, actually do this. Your children will view this practice as normal and it will serve them well in future social situations.
Talk through common relationship and social situations at the dinner table, at bedtime, on car trips, and other situations. How do you handle abrasive people at work? How do you handle a friendship that’s drifting apart? How do you handle a dispute between lovers? Don’t be afraid to talk about these situations with your partner and with your family. Bring them up, go through some potential solutions, and talk about how they might and they might not work. Put those solutions into practice, if needed, and then relay the results later. These types of conversations can be the basis for powerful learning.
Skill #6: Emotional Awareness and Self-Control
One of the most challenging areas in adult life is emotional control. As we’ve all witnessed, many adults often fail in this area, but those that master it (at least most of the time) tend to find success financially, socially, and personally. They learn how to keep their emotions in check and make decisions rationally rather than emotionally.
This is a skill that children can and should begin to develop early on. Most parents do this to a certain extent to avoid things like tantrums, but that’s just the beginning. Learning emotional awareness and self-control is a lifelong journey and it’s valuable for parents to help their children on that journey beyond the toddler tantrum years.
Here are two simple strategies you can use to build this skill in your children.
Encourage them to step back when they’re feeling an emotional rush (whether positive or negative) and practice this yourself.
This is a practice I’ve found incredibly useful with my daughter, whose emotions often come right to the surface in many situations. I simply gently encourage her to “time out” of the situation for a bit; sometimes, I’ll go sit down with her somewhere, while at other times I’ll encourage her to just chill out by herself. This isn’t really a “time out” in that I don’t treat it as a punishment in any way, just a moment to calm down and make a better choice. She’s started to actually do this on her own, and I have spoken positively about her doing this on her own many times and have even lightly rewarded her for doing so.
Strongly encourage them to actively postpone decisions that are full of emotion so that they can be considered with a cooler head.
This is something of an extension of the above practice. Basically, if you’re in a situation where you’re making a decision and you feel a strong emotion – anger, desire, frustration – then it’s an indication that you should step back from that decision if at all possible and make it later after giving it some thought. Again, I do this myself in front of them when possible and I strongly encourage them to do it as well. My oldest son has become a master at this – he rarely makes any sort of meaningful choice until he’s had a chance to calmly think about it. This didn’t come automatically for him – it’s something he’s learned and built over time – but it’s something that’s going to be very valuable for him going forward.
Skill #7: Shopping
This skill is a highly practical one, but simple mastery of this skill will save your children a tremendous amount of money in their life. Simply knowing how to plan ahead a bit for shopping and how to shop around and compare items on the shelves (virtual or otherwise) is an invaluable skill to have, one that will keep you from buying a lot of unnecessary things and will help you find good prices on the things that you want.
Shop together for things and use smart shopping techniques so they can see the benefits of them.
Quite often, I take my kids to the grocery store on small trips and literally talk through the entire process. I explain why I’m going to the store, what items are on my list, and how I decide which ones to buy. This is a great time to show off comparison shopping, like comparing two boxes of garbage bags in one store and then comparing that price to the price in another store to figure out which one gets us the cheaper bags.
I often do the same thing when shopping online, especially when it’s a purchase that may be relevant to them. For example, if we’re selecting a gift for their mother on her birthday, we’ll discuss what to buy first and then look for that item in various places to compare prices. Sometimes we find a new idea, but we don’t impulse buy – instead, we research the new idea a bit and shop around for that item. My favorite result here is showing them how much money we’ve saved by shopping around rather than just clicking buy or heading to the checkout at the first store.
Openly discuss purchases before going into a store so that you have a plan before you ever enter the store.
This is the “grocery list” part of going to the store. Before we ever set foot in any store, whether a brick-and-mortar grocery store or Amazon or anywhere else, we have a plan for what we’re going to buy. We’re going there for a purpose, not just to browse, and that purpose is set before we ever visit the place, ideally with some specific detail of what we’re looking for.
Why? Doing this cuts off a lot of impulse purchases. When you go to a grocery store with a list, your focus is on the list, not on the variety of items on the shelves. If the list is thoughtfully created, it contains everything you need so you don’t have to debate whether you should buy some random item you spot on the shelves. This is something I point out to them – if they spot something on the store shelf that’s not a part of our plan, I can simply say that we didn’t plan for that item and maybe we can think about it and get it next time.
Skill #8: Meal Preparation and Planning
This actually runs in parallel with the above skill. Again, I consider this a skill of high importance during the early stages of independence – knowing how to feed oneself inexpensively can make an enormous difference when it comes to surviving independently on that first entry-level job, and it can make a huge impact on financial success later on, too. It’s a skill that will serve them throughout their independent life, and it’s one you can start teaching at home right now.
Doesn’t this fall into typical household chores? For some families, it does, but for many families, the routine is oriented around going to restaurants, picking up takeout food, or making prepackaged meals. That’s an expensive (although convenient) routine to fall into, one that will add greatly to the burden of the early steps of independent living. If your child knows how to prepare meals efficiently and at a low cost, they’re going to have a much lower food budget and will find independent living, particularly in the early stages, much easier.
Here are two things you can be doing right now to teach this skill to your children.
Let them handle meal planning and preparation entirely on their own (within a reasonable budget).
Just hand the entire meal plan over to them for a week and see what they come up with. Guide them through the general process – look at a grocery flyer, see what ingredients are on sale, think of meals that use those ingredients, find recipes, plan the meals, make a grocery list from that meal plan, buy the groceries, make the meals – but let them handle all of the specifics along the way. Give them a reasonable budget to work with.
This is a great exercise for a week during the summer when your children may have more time for pulling these things off. Naturally, you can help as much as possible, particularly in terms of suggesting recipes or showing them how to find recipes, and also in some of the food preparation.
Let them try doing this with some budget constraints or ingredient constraints once they become adept.
Once they’ve managed to pull off the previous project a few times, add a few constraints. Make them come up with meals that take fifteen minutes or less to prep. Have them use a slow cooker. Have them use some of the ingredients already in the pantry to base their plan around. Have them make a meal plan on a very tight budget.
All of those things are valuable learning experiences. They’ll learn to be resourceful with their food. They’ll learn lots of ways to cook different things. They’ll end up feeling like they can handle almost any food situation. When you feel like that, dinnertime becomes inexpensive and rather fun.
Skill #9: Self-Reflection
This is the last skill on the list (well… sort of), but I consider it to be the most important. It’s a skill that my parents and my grandmother embedded in me in their own way growing up and it’s the single most powerful skill I learned from them.
Self-reflection simply means that you are willing to step back from your life regularly, look for areas where you can improve without beating yourself up, and then strive to improve upon them. It’s a constant honing of yourself into a better person, step by step. It’s a way of evaluating your mistakes and making sure you don’t repeat them and making sure that they don’t turn into large disasters.
Here are two techniques you can use to turn this into a regular practice for your children (and for you).
Have thoughtful dinner table and bedtime conversations that encourage introspection.
Almost every dinner we have together as a family involves some sort of introspective question. “What was something you wish you had done better today, and how can you do it better next time?” “What did you do today to make yourself better?” “What relationship in your life did you improve today and how did you do it?” Everyone shares something around the table and it ends up being a learning experience for all of us because many of the stories launch great conversations.
If you’re not sure how to do this, just think of something you’d like to reflect on a little bit in your own life, reform it into a question, then ask it at the dinner table and get it rolling by volunteering your own story. I often think about this before dinner, where I come up with this kind of introspective question and my response to it. Responding first gives people an example to think about and gives them time to think about their own life a little bit.
Encourage setting aside a bit of time for daily self-reflection.
Most nights, I encourage our children to each write in their journal for a little bit before bed. I often do it with them, if it works out. I just have them write down a couple of things they’re grateful for, one thing they messed up on today, and how they can do it better going forward, and one thing they want to remember about today if they want. Four or five sentences is plenty, because the valuable part is the thinking.
Simply add this into your nighttime routine. Your children really don’t have to write much here, just enough to record a piece of their thinking. It’s the reflection that counts.
The Final Lesson: Less Helicoptering, More Free Range
If you hope that your children will one day be truly independent, you need to give them progressively more control over their choices, their actions, and their day-to-day lives. They need to learn how to manage their own time, make their own choices, set their own priorities, and navigate their own difficult situations. As they grow, you need to gradually become the copilot and then the flight instructor and then something more akin to the air traffic controller, and the earlier you begin that transition, the better.
Yes, they’re going to fail. Yes, they’re going to make mistakes. Your role should be to show them how to make better choices and how to stand back up when they make mistakes and fail. You should not give into the temptation to make those choices for them or to shield them from failure, because if you do that, they won’t be prepared for the real world.
Here are five things you can do to foster that kind of independence and self-reliance.
Let them handle the details as much as possible, only asking you for help when they need it. Let them dress themselves. Let them manage their own laundry. Let them manage the state of their own room, only requiring a cleanup when presenting it to guests. Let them decide how to manage their homework, only requiring them to have a homework “session.”
Encourage them to ask you for help, but don’t provide that help unless they ask, even when they seem to be headed for failure. Naturally, you’ll want to teach them at first, like a child learning how to ride that bicycle, but when you start removing your hands from the handlebars, let go. Don’t keep holding on because it feels good to you. Let them ride freely.
Don’t punish them for honest questions. Encourage them and reward them instead.
When your child tackles a challenge on their own, figures out where they’re stuck, and then independently asks for help, that’s a moment to be rewarded because that’s a moment they’re acting like a functional adult. That’s the model of behavior you want to encourage.
Don’t ever discourage them from coming to you when they run into a difficult situation. Never, ever turn a request for help or a sincere question into punishment, even if it’s a confession of a transgression of some kind. The fact that they understand that they’ve made a mistake and they’re trying to fix it is evidence that additional discipline is probably unhelpful.
Rely on natural consequences as much as possible.
Quite often, parents rely on discipline of various kinds to enforce certain behaviors. The truth is that those disciplines rarely work in terms of correcting those behaviors. What truly works is the natural consequences of bad choices.
This isn’t to say that discipline isn’t sometimes warranted, but quite often the natural consequences of a bad choice, on their own, serve as punishment enough for a bad choice. Many children (including myself, when I was a teenager) are more bothered by the fact that they’ve disappointed a parent than they are by any punishment that’s doled out.
The most effective punishment that was ever given to me wasn’t a punishment at all. I borrowed my parents car one evening and stayed out far later than I should. Rather than grounding me, my parents simply showed their disappointment. When I asked to borrow the car the next time, they simply said no, because they didn’t trust that I would bring it back when I said that I would and that they couldn’t trust my word now. That made me rethink things far more than any “punishment” ever could. Why? They treated me like an adult and let me see the consequences of violating their trust as an adult, rather than resorting to “grounding” which amounted to treating me as a child.
Have lots of open and honest conversations about how to navigate daily life as an adult.
Don’t be afraid to talk through your thought processes as you figure out how to handle something in your life or as you work through a normal process. When they’re younger, talk through the steps of doing dishes or doing laundry. When they’re older, talk though the thought process of paying bills and whether or not you can afford to go out to eat.
Bring your children into these decision-making processes, too. Don’t just provide an answer; let them make up their own answers and then talk through them, whether they’re right or wrong. Let them see the results of their attempts at solutions to adult dilemmas, as often as you can.
Be a “good adult” yourself.
This is the best advice of all. Even when you think they’re not watching you, your children are observing you and using you as a role model for adult behavior. What kind of model are you?
Be the kind of adult you want your children to become, as often as you possibly can. If you’re doing something that would bother you if you saw your children doing that same thing as an adult, stop doing it. That’s an indication that you’re not acting like the kind of adult you want your children to be.
Be the person you want them to become and they’re much more likely to become something like that person.
Some Final Thoughts
The key thing to remember about this list is that it’s intended to give children the functional foundation they need to be financially and personally independent. There are many life lessons that they will still need to learn to achieve a high level of financial and personal success, such as money management, retirement savings, and so on.
The important thing to remember here is that with these skills, they’re going to be prepared with the underlying elements they need to want to learn things like money management, like retirement savings, and so on. These skills are all about introspection and independence and planning, which are the bedrocks of personal finance. Once those things are at the core of who you are, the ideas of budgeting and saving for retirement come naturally.
My goal, as a parent, is to raise truly independent children, both for my own sake and for their sake. This means leaving them in a position where you feel as though they’ll make it just fine when you drop them off at the door of their first apartment. Will they have mastered everything they need to know? Of course not. Your job was to give them the tools they need to survive at first and also to pick up the other things they need as they go.
If you can do that, you’ll have independent, successful children. My own experience with my parents, my own experience so far with my own children, and the research I’ve done into successful parenting points me toward these strategies as being the most efficient way of achieving that goal.
Good luck on your own parenting journey!