Last week I had a frantic call from The Daily Mirror. They had picked up some research on 50 ‘lost’ skills that today’s children are not learning and wanted commentary from a parenting expert. As usual, when it comes to journalism, they needed a response URGENTLY. Please could I come up with a list of the 20 most important life skills children should learn. I had 30 minutes.
I managed to come up with 15 (the Mirror added five more to fit their format) and my ’20 vital skills you should teach your kids to ensure they have a happy and healthy life’ duly appeared in the paper the next morning.
The original research had been sponsored by Addis Housewares so was predictably full of domestic tasks such as darning socks and making jam. In my list, I tried to widen this (and make it a bit less gender stereotyped) to include financial management and car/bike maintenance and communication skills. I can’t say it was my most inspired 30 minutes ever but it did get me thinking.
Mulling it over afterwards, what intrigued me was not so much which exact life skills children should learn but how children learn practical life skills and why it is/isn’t happening.
Looking at my own family and friends, it does seem that children are not picking up the same practical skills they would have been equipped with 30 years ago. By the time I was twelve, I could definitely change a plug, make a cup of tea, repair a bike puncture, sew, knit, dust, hoover, grow plants, make an apple crumble and light a fire. I am not sure I could say the same for many of the kids I know (and certainly not for my own).
How did I learn to do those things? In some cases, I was taught. I was shown how to knit by my grandmother. I was taught to sew at Primary School and given lots of chances to practice at home. In other cases, it feels like I just learned through osmosis. I hung out with my dad in the vegetable garden and watched what he did. Sometimes he’d give me small jobs to do like pulling the onions for dinner and he would correct me if I did it wrong. I spent time knocking around the house with my parents, fitting in with what they were doing. (They probably called it ‘getting in the way’).
But there were lots of skills I only learnt when I actually needed to know them (e.g. once I had a car or a home to maintain). And for today’s generation, with 24hr access to YouTube, ‘just in time’ learning is going to be an easy strategy.
So does it really matter if kids can’t do the basics before they leave home? They are certainly learning extra digital skills that the teenagers of my generation had no idea about. Aren’t those the skills they will really need to thrive in the actual world they are going to live in? Are make-do-and-mend skills really among the essential life skills children should learn when technological advances mean that stuff either isn’t designed to last or can’t be mended by amateurs?
But the fact that children are not learning these life skills tells us something important about how family time has changed. We often think of ‘family time’ these days as a distinct subset of our non-working time in which we do specific things together as a family – we go places (like zoos, parks and cinemas) or we do special things together at home (like a movie night).
The more mundane practical stuff like cooking and mending and gardening is often done alone by parents while children amuse themselves separately on one electrical device or another.
Which I think is a real loss. Because doing practical mundane stuff together like cooking and cleaning is actually a great way to bond with children and build a relationship. (And it also helps them pick up some of those life skills children should learn). Getting the kids to turn off the TV and come and help with the washing up is not just about teaching them domestic skills or responsibility or respect for others or teamwork (though all of those are good reasons), it is also about knocking around together in a way that builds a sense of family.
All of this occurred to me after the Daily Mirror had been printed, of course. If I had my 30 minutes again, I would probably waffle on about problem solving and research skills and spending time together – but I very much doubt that would have made it into the paper!
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©Anita Cleare 2017