Nurturing Independence by Teaching Life Skills
When my parents decided to continue homeschooling me on through high school, the big question was whether I would be prepared for college. Accordingly, my high school years heavily emphasized academics—and I did indeed get into college.
HIGH SCHOOL IS A
BRIDGE FROM THE HOME
TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD.
But since leaving college, my biggest challenges have proven to be not academic, but practical: paying bills, grocery shopping, cooking, maintaining my car, building relationships, getting to work on time, attending church when there’s no one around to make me. Everyday living has taken the place that academics once held.
Parents homeschooling their high schoolers face a dual challenge. How can they cover their academic bases—ensuring that their children are ready for college and/or a job—while still preparing their kids for the nuts and bolts of adulthood?
Why teach life skills?
Before writing this article, I conducted an informal poll of friends who had been homeschooled at least one year during high school. After graduating and entering college, the workforce, the military, and/or marriage, did they believe their high school education at home had adequately prepared them for adulthood?
For the most part, my friends answered yes—but did note some gaps in that
preparation. “I wish [my parents had] made me get a credit card so I could have some credit by now,” wrote Kevin, now in the Marines.
Joanna mentioned the inconvenience of not having a driver’s license while in college.
“A particular skill that would have been nice to learn is cooking,” wrote Cami, who works in the Florida House of Representatives Office of the Majority Whip. “It would have saved me much time had I learned early on to move around the kitchen with ease.”
I, too, have had some painful “learning experiences,” whether stranded on the side of the road with a broken-down car or putting off going to the doctor because I didn’t understand how my insurance worked.
I’m sure our parents assumed that we would pick up such basic skills throughout our high school years. But as Cami wrote, “I am hands-on in the sense that I can’t just see it done, but have to be able to see and then do.” It’s important for parents to be purposeful about teaching life skills, since due to inborn preferences or even learning style, some kids don’t “just pick it up.”
Learning for life
Jessica (now a grad student and director of children’s ministries at her church) said her dad taught her the rudiments of car maintenance when she was learning to drive. “When I got my first car, I helped him change the brakes,” she told me. As a result, she can identify when there is a problem with her car and knows when to ask for help in fixing it.
When Joanna started her first job, her father sat her down and explained how to fill out tax forms. Now a wife and expectant mother, Joanna also feels confident in cooking and childcare because they were her chores growing up.
Although Naomi (a part-time college
student, Home School Legal Defense Association employee, and rescue squad volunteer) took an economics and consumer math course during high school, “nothing taught me about the reality of taxes and spending like accounting when I worked for my dad, and later when I lived on my own.”
Whether you introduce some skills with a formal course or not, try to teach practical subjects in their natural context, and require steady practice until the skills become habitual. You may even wish to award high school credit to emphasize that life skills are as important as academic achievement.
Filling in the gaps
The majority of the practical skills needed for adulthood can be grouped under a few basic headings (see sidebar). Based on your own experience and unique expertise, you may want to add a few skills to the list. But if your list gets overwhelming, stop and prioritize. “Plan a few projects a year, and you’ll see progress being made,” encourages HSLDA High School Coordinator Diane Kummer.1
Realistically, it’s not possible to prepare your teen for every contingency that will arise when he or she leaves home. But by cultivating the following two skills during the high school years, I believe you can prepare your young adult to adapt to life’s most unpredictable circumstances.
Time management—Almost all of my friends agreed that deadlines can be a huge challenge for homeschoolers. “I’m teaching my homeschooled sisters literature,” Naomi emailed me. “It’s something of a challenge to get assignments turned in when I ask for them.” A huge benefit of homeschooling—student-paced education—can become a handicap down the road. Kindhearted moms and dads may move deadlines or accept incomplete assignments, but professors and bosses rarely do.
Learning to manage your time is about more than being organized. It’s about following through on commitments, learning when to accept a less-than-perfect result, prioritizing, flexibly adapting to ever-changing circumstances, and quickly evaluating new projects to determine how they can best be accomplished. In other words, time management is really a technique for dealing with most of life’s curveballs.
How can homeschooling parents drive this point home? The solution is simple—“a grade impact,” stated Naomi.
Two other homeschool grads agreed. Vanessa and Melissa, sisters who are now married with one child each, said that although it was sometimes painful to be penalized by their mother for not meeting a deadline, it paid off in the end. “If we didn’t meet deadlines in school, we were failed or graded harshly,” wrote Melissa. “We weren’t given extra time unless it had to do with something we could not help.” Both Vanessa and Melissa are now confident about their ability to work efficiently and meet a deadline.
Getting help—“Getting help was always hard for me to do, because I didn’t want people to know that I didn’t know,” admitted Melissa.
Her experience reflected my own. I, too, struggled with asking for help, trying to attain an impossible standard of perfection yet fearing to admit my ignorance of how to get there. But knowing our limits and seeking assistance—whether by looking up an address in the phone book or getting counseling from a pastor—is a sign of maturity that allows us to function well in the adult world.
Marshall, in his second year at the Virginia Military Institute, described himself as “persistent” in asking for help from his college professors. “I am in their offices about as much, if not more, as I am in the classroom,” he wrote.
My friend Jessica followed a similar strategy. “I remember being afraid initially to go to college, but not to ask the professors,” she laughed. She also actively pursues mentoring relationships with mature Christian women who help her sort out her challenges.
“Learn to ask questions,” advised Tim, who has held a variety of jobs since graduating from high school. “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to adapt, especially in the workplace.”
How do you teach the “skill” of getting help? My friends agreed that the biggest thing parents can do is foster a home environment in which teens are encouraged to voice their questions, concerns, and fears—no matter how unexpected. If a teen feels safe and accepted at home, he or she will probably struggle less with seeking help in the outside world.
The bridge to adulthood
There is no substitute for experience. Issues that would not arise in the safe,
controlled environment of the home inevitably crop up in the “real world.” Nearly all of my poll respondents mentioned high school jobs as a simple corrective for gaps in their life skills. All of them valued outside-the-home activities and relationships as a source of independence and life training; some wished their parents had made social activities or organized sports more of a priority.
Melissa recalled her first job and how terrified she was of making mistakes. Over time, she gained confidence as she saw that most mistakes were fixable. “I would
go home and talk about these things with Mom,” she remembered. “Being able to talk back and forth with my mom about being perfect and being a failure helped with my self-confidence. It happened when I was out in the real world and experiencing real things.”
As Melissa’s story illustrates, high school is a bridge from the home to the outside world. By the time your child is an adult, he or she needs to be able to function confidently outside the safe, secure environment of your home and eventually make a home somewhere else. During high school, try to allow your teen to travel back and forth across that bridge as often as possible. As long as he has a safe home base to return to, he will be able to learn rich lessons on the other side and be fully prepared when adulthood arrives.
Practical Skills to Teach Your Teens
- Driver’s ed
- Car maintenance
- Buying a vehicle
- Understanding how insurance works
- What to do in case of an accident or breakdown
- Complying with state licensing and inspection requirements
- Filing taxes
- Understanding state and federal withholding
- Medical insurance
- Management of checking and savings accounts
- Management of credit and stewardship of credit card
- Buying food on a budget
- Selecting meat and produce
- Preparing a variety of meals
1. Diane Kummer, “Life Prep for Homeschooled Teenagers,” interview by Mike Smith, Home School Heartbeat, vol. 78, programs 16-20 (November 5-9, 2007), www.hslda.org/docs/hshb/78/hshb7819.asp.