The second 10 years of a child’s life is their last opportunity to prepare for the challenges of adult life. This guest post was written by Elisabeth Stitt, a parenting expert who focuses on middle school adolescent children. She is the author of Parenting as a Second Language.
It used to be that kids were treated as mini adults, and now the pendulum has swung the other way and young adults are being treated (and acting) as overgrown kids. You’ve probably heard about the damage of being a too intense parent–whether that means tiger mom or helicopter parent. Now you may be wondering what should you be expecting of your child? The early childhood markers of independence–sitting, walking, potty training, etc.–get talked about a lot, but what is reasonable to expect of our older children is not as clear. Just what should our early adolescent/ middle school kids be able to do on their own?
I started thinking about this from the kids’ point of view. That made me remember the children’s literature I grew up on. Many of my favorite books were about young people taking charge independently–often away from their parents. Let’s start with Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series. Beginning with Five on a Treasure Island, five cousins spend the summer having one adventure after the next. There is a home base where meals are offered and the children check in, but the assumption of the adults seems to be that as long as they are out in the fresh air, together, that they are generally fine no matter what they are getting up to. In the Swallows and Amazon books by Arthur Ransome, six children are given permission to camp on an island in the middle of a lake. They cook over open fires and deal with the local “natives” (as the children refer to the adults) to procure supplies. Another popular example of kids on a mission is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. It is about two children who run away from the suburbs to New York City and who handle themselves very well. In all these books, the children are supported by friends, cousins or siblings and range in age between around 9 and 13. For me the common themes are that a) children are generally seen as very capable and b) they relish in the opportunity to show how able they are to take care of themselves.
When kids are very little we are aware of teaching them what they need to take care of themselves. We do not expect infants to learn to sit, to walk, to talk, to use the potty by themselves. Day after day, month after month, we train them and encourage them to take things one level further. We also give a lot of enthusiastic reinforcement for each new thing they learn. These days, however, as soon as kids hit school–whether that is preschool or kindergarten–we tend to focus solely on their academic and extracurricular progress. Once they learn to tie their own shoes, it is like they get frozen in childhood where we are still taking care of everything else for them. The result is that we leave them to do a lot of learning on their own when they get to college or out into the world. Doesn’t it make more sense to bring them along a continuum of self-care and autonomy right from the start?
Based on twelve years as a middle school teacher, I have a good idea of what 11-14-year-olds are capable of if it has been expected of them and their parents have taken the time to teach it to them in stages. Here are my top ten responsibilities kids should be handling by middle school.
1. Get up, dressed and washed on their own.
Do you still wake your child up for school? Stop! It should be their job to set their own alarm, to pick out appropriate clothes, and to have good routines for washing and brushing themselves. Your only job should be to introduce deodorant when the need for it arises and to support the school’s dress code.
2. Make their own breakfasts
Kids are certainly capable of getting their own cereal, toast, frozen waffles, etc. If your family manages a hot breakfast, that’s fantastic. Kids can also learn to make pancakes and eggs and the like with practice. Starting around eight or nine, have them work alongside you. Model the steps. I hear you saying, they don’t have time to get ready. It’s easier if I just do it for them. Of course, it is easier and faster not to take the time to give kids the skills they need in the short run. In the long run, it doesn’t pay off. (And while I’m talking about food, teach your five and six-year-olds to cut their meat with a knife. With care and attention, they will not hurt themselves).
3. Make their own lunches
Are you under the illusion that your child is eating her lunch? I spent years–years!–lecturing students about not throwing away perfectly good food. You know what their answer was? My mom doesn’t like it when I come home without eating what she packs me. So, rather than deal with the conversation about why they didn’t eat what was provided, kids throw away the evidence. Children who pack their own lunches pack food they know they’ll eat. They know what to pack and how much to pack.
4. Get to school on their own
Okay, you may balk at this one. I know that lots of kids no longer go to their neighborhood schools and few school districts provide busses. There are still ways to give kids their independence. For one, stop being in charge of checking if they have remembered everything they are going to need for the day. They are big enough to keep track of that on their own–and if they are not, suffering the natural consequences of not remembering will be a much faster teacher than your nagging and reminders. Even if you are driving your kids to school, give them the anonymity of dropping them off three or four blocks away. This ten-minute walk will allow them at least a little taste of freedom–and you will make the school happy by improving the drop off/pick up congestion.
5. Do homework on their own
The sooner you let your kids manage homework on their own the better. So how do you scaffold that? Help them set up a place and a routine for doing their work. When they ask for help, encourage them to attack it on their own by asking supportive questions: How could you approach this? What is the assignment asking for? How does this assignment look like other assignments you have done? What strategy could you use here? Ask–and then back off. Give your child a chance to do it on his own. Offer a lot a reassurance that he will figure it out. If he has worked on it a reasonable amount of time (ten minutes per grade level total is a good overall recommendation–but that’s a whole other blog), let it be okay for him to go to school without it done. Help him set up a method like a folder for homework to turn in. Initially, you can check that it gets into the folder and the folder into the backpack, but by third or fourth grade, if kids do not have the system down, they have not been taking responsibility for their own learning. (That is not to say that as each new school year begins it might not be necessary to check in with your child’s system again.)
6. Do some cooking and some cleaning
It used to be that kids had to help out with chores just to keep the family alive. In fact, the need for extra hands was one of the reasons for having large families. Then for a long time, that was not true. Modernization meant that machines started taking over some of the work and there was less to do. Many mothers were able to stay home to take care of their households and their families. Now that the pendulum has shifted back and 70% of mothers are in the workforce, families where everyone pitches in are much happier. Children may groan about doing chores, but they hate having stressed out parents even more. Get your kids involved in the daily tasks of cooking and cleaning, and they will have the pride of knowing that they have contributed positively to the family. Being needed means that you are important, that your family couldn’t get by without you. That gives children a tremendous sense of security. Knowing you can take care of yourself also reinforces your own self-worth.
7. Choose their own electives and extra-curricular activities
Parents have a tough job finding the fine balance between encouraging kids to try new things and at the same time to stick with activities long enough that they have the satisfaction of feeling truly accomplished. At the end of it all, though, don’t you want to know that your kids have found something they really love? Not something that will look good on their college apps or will help them as adults–or even something that they are really good at–but just something that has them fully engaged and alive. I had a sad conversation with a teen this summer who started off playing two sports: Her mom loved one; her dad loved the other. When she needed to choose just one do just one because of time constraints, she felt like she was choosing between making one parent happy or the other. I asked if she is just crazy about this sport. She said she liked hanging out with her friends on the team but that no, she doesn’t just love it. Imagine, she has spent hours and hours of her life pursuing something she only likes.
8. Talk to teachers to get clarification on assignments, to ask for help, to ask questions about comments and grades received.
Your child’s teacher is his first boss. There is no academic lesson your child will learn that is more important than learning to negotiate his relationship with his teacher. Learning to communicate with people in more powerful positions than you is an essential life skill, and practicing with one’s teacher is the perfect opportunity: The teacher may have power, but she is highly motivated for your child to be successful (after all, his success is her success). Support your child in this relationship by role playing and rehearsing what he might say when he needs something from his teacher. The more he can interact with his teacher, the easier it will become. Only step in on your child’s behalf if your child has tried a few interactions and hasn’t gotten anywhere. Again, the goal is not to swoop in and rescue your child from any feelings of discomfort. Rather it is to support him through an uncomfortable situation so that he will be more at ease next time.
9. Be able to handle money.
Personal finance is not my area of expertise, so for this one, I’m going to connect you to Bill Dwight, CEO of a nifty website/product called FamZoo (FamZoo.com). Read his blog here on “7 Practical Tips for Raising Money Smart Kids.” This was the area I failed to scaffold and had to scramble to fill in the gaps as my daughter went off to college. How I wish I had been developing her independence in this area all along.
10. Get around by themselves.
These days it seems like kids sit in the back seat of a car glued to an electronic device, oblivious to where they are, trusting their parent will get them to where they want to go. When my stepson was learning to drive, my husband and he went to a store they often had gone to before in the next town north. When they got back into the car, my husband said, “I want you to take us home without any help.” The ten-minute trip took forty-five minutes because even though he had made the drive north, my stepson hadn’t really paid attention to where he was beyond the step-by-step instructions my husband had given him. Meanwhile, my daughter, two years away from being eligible for her driver’s permit, was able to describe perfectly how to get home. I chalk this up to the fact that because she and I had taken public transportation–and she had taken it on her own once I had done it with her–she had learned the major streets and landmarks nearby. Knowing she could find her way home–whether driving or on foot or using public transportation gave her enormous confidence.
Teaching your kids these lessons and setting these expectations for them for middle school means they will have time to master them by the time they hit high school. Armed with self-sufficiency and self-efficacy, your teenager will be able to focus on expanding into the world–for jobs, for internships, for summer travel programs, to be leaders on school teams and in school clubs. Most importantly, they’ll be ready to go off to college as the 18-year-old adults the state considers them to be. They will have skills to handle roommates, a large campus with lots of buildings, clean clothes, getting themselves fed, handling their money, talking to professors, deans and resident assistants. They won’t need to text their parents every day just to stay on track. Can you imagine checking in with your parents every day when you were in college? No way! To set your kids free, train them up bit by bit.
Preparing for adolescence is the subject of Chapter 11 of my new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.
Also, you can download 4 FREE guides, including “The No. 1 Way to Nurture the Bond with Your Teen.”