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How Do We Prepare Our Teens for Leaving?

  • Susan Alexander Yates
  • Updated Apr 04, 2003
How Do We Prepare Our Teens for Leaving?

If we have been “letting go” all along, we will have a much easier adjustment in this new season. If our child has already learned basic life skills, we will be less likely to interfere in the details of her daily life, and we will have prepared her for living in the world. Our role is to equip our kids with life skills. This requires intentional training. If we don’t train them, we unintentionally handicap them in the guise of serving them by doing things for them that they should be doing themselves. Training in life skills begins early. It’s training in responsibility, in independence. This sense of responsibility breeds confidence. Our teens are going to have enough new adjustments in the world without having to learn skills they could have learned at home.

Here are 11 brief life skills to teach your kids. You will want to add to this list yourself, so consider this a starting place. The earlier you begin this training, the better!

1. Teach Them Good Manners
Teach your kids proper table manners. Keep arms and elbows off the table. Sit up straight. Put your napkin in your lap. Leave your fork and knife together when finished. Ask to be excused before leaving the table. Show them how to set a proper table and which utensils to use for what. If you don’t know, check out a book on table settings from your library. This may seem silly in an increasingly casual society and in a family dealing with teens who have more crucial issues, but it’s important. Why? Our job as parents is to equip our kids so that they will know how to behave in whatever place God chooses to put them.

I want my kids to be comfortable dining at the White House or with kings and princesses. And I want them to be comfortable in a simple pauper’s hut. We do not want our kids to be embarrassed because they don’t know how to act. We do not know where God will call them. That’s His job. Our job is to equip them to be able to behave properly in whatever places God puts them, and to know how to honor their host or hostess. Using proper manners is a way of paying respect, of communicating honor to another person. Our kids will not simply pick this up. It has to be specifically taught.

When our kids were young, we occasionally pretended we were dining at the White House. We used good china, linen napkins, lots of utensils, and we practiced good manners. I made it as much of a game as I could. No, my kids don’t have perfect manners. And my husband still tells me to take my elbows off the table! But we are trying.

My friend Peggy, a professional protocol consultant, says that the single biggest irritant transcending all nationalities is the failure to RSVP. Usually the request is simply ignored. We have to realize that this can be costly to a hostess who is being billed per head. It can also mess up seating arrangements. If you RSVP, it is important to show up! We need to teach our children that if there is a last-minute emergency, it is proper to call and offer our regrets.

There are lots of other manners we need to teach. Some of ours include: Stand up when a lady enters the room. Walk your guests to the door when they leave. Greet your family members and guests at the door when they arrive. Offer to help with the dishes. Open doors for others. Walk your dates to the door. And don’t honk when you pick them up! Make your own family list of “good manners.”

2. Teach Them to Write Thank-you Notes
If you read Ann Landers’s column, you will notice that her letters most often fall into two categories: letters from people in pain over affairs and letters from grandparents in pain because they never receive thank-you notes from their grandchildren.

Thank-you notes should be written for any gifts received. Teach your kids to write a thank-you note when someone takes them out to dinner or does anything out of the ordinary for them. Train them to write a thank-you note to the parents of friends they visit out of town or to thank someone for the use of a house or car. When in doubt, instruct them to simply write a note. It is always appreciated. It is a way of honoring and loving someone. It is a positive testimony.

Post a date after Christmas or a birthday by which all thank-you notes must be finished. The use of the car, TV, or computer is prohibited after the deadline, unless notes are finished. If you do this while your kids are at home, they’ll be more likely to follow through on this when they leave home. But you may have to remind them during that first year away. A graduation gift of nice stationery will encourage this habit.

3. Teach Them How to Be Good Guests
Over the years that our college kids have brought friends home, I have received some of the dearest thank-you notes from these guests. I’ve saved many of these notes. They are a tribute to wise parents.

Being a good guest means writing a thank-you note, but it also means other things. Teach them to take a hostess gift. Give them suggestions. Our son Chris went to college a half hour from his grandmother. “Son,” I suggested, “whenever you go see Grandmother, take her some flowers.” When John went to visit his girlfriend’s parents, I helped him fix a basket of jams and jellies to take.

A good guest offers to help with the meal preparation and cleanup. A good guest makes his bed, hangs up the towels in the bathroom, and leaves his room neat. If teens are using someone’s cabin or car or other place, teach them to leave it clean. The owners will appreciate it. And the teens will more likely be invited back.

A good guest sits with adults and talks to them. He looks them in the eye. This takes lots of practice in the home. Help your child think up good questions to ask. Questions like, “What do you enjoy the most in your job? What are you looking forward to in the next several months? What advice would you give to someone my age? Who is someone who has had a positive impact on your life? Why do you admire them?” Develop your own list of good conversation questions.

If your child has a collection of “good conversation starters,” he will be more at ease in communicating with adults. Include him in adult conversations with your friends at home. Clue him in about the adults coming to dinner. Give him suggestions of things he might talk to a specific adult about. What are this adult’s interests? What questions might he ask the adult? The dinner table is a great training ground. But don’t expect instant results. It will take years of doing this at home in order to prepare him to be able to communicate comfortably with adults when he leaves.

How do we teach this without making life miserable? Declare a “good guest-bad guest night.” Divide into two teams and produce two skits each—one depicting a good guest and the other a bad guest. Depending upon the ages of your kids, you can add crazy costumes for fun or see who can produce the best and worst conversations. Several families can do this together. We have to do what we can to make training in life skills fun, while at the same time realizing that it won’t be all fun and it won’t be all learned at once. It takes years of repetition, and we are unlikely to see the results until the late teen years.

4. Teach Them to Clean Up
Doug went off to college with high standards. His faith was strong, and he had a vision for making a difference for Christ on his campus. Midway though his college years, one of the other guys in his apartment came to him and said, “Doug, we’ve asked you many times to clean up your messes, but you haven’t. You are always leaving your dirty dishes out for someone else to wash. Your smelly clothes are left all over the apartment, and we’ve had it. You are self-centered, and you need to deal with this.” It was a painful confrontation for a good guy who was trying to be a witness. And it could have been avoided.

Doug had grown up in a happily messy home. His mom considered herself a “Messie” and was lax in training her children to pick up. He is so busy and under so much pressure, she reasoned. I don’t want to make him pick up too. Besides, it’s just the way he is. It’s his personality.

It may well have been his personality type. Some of us err on the side of messy and some on the side of compulsive neatness, which is also unnerving. But it’s not the personality trait that is at issue here. It’s the character trait. The character trait in question is that of thoughtfulness. It is not thoughtful to your roommates to leave your mess all around. It is not considerate of your future spouse to make a mess and leave it. We are training future roommates, husbands, and wives in thoughtfulness. Teaching them the skill of cleaning up their mess is training in character. Have a chore chart in your home. Set times for the chores to be done and the house to be picked up. Follow through. A conflict like Doug’s is one our child will be less likely to have to deal with when he leaves home if we have had standards of cleanliness and followed through on them in our own home, even if that isn’t our personality.

5. Teach Them to Do Their Own Laundry
Ellen was really concerned about her son. He’d been gone several months already, and she was sure he hadn’t done his wash. So she kept sending him care packages of boxer shorts! By the time he came home for a visit, she’d already mailed him seventeen pairs of boxers in addition to what he took to school!

Steve called his mom the first week of school in a panic. His favorite shirt was the size of a little girl’s. What had happened? All he’d done was wash it and dry it on hot.

Our kids have enough adjustments to make without having to cope with learning to do their own laundry for the first time.

Turn the laundry over to them by the time they reach high school. It’ll be one less adjustment later, and it’ll keep you from overparenting. I discovered my kids could do their own laundry when I accidentally turned all of my son’s T-shirts pink.

“Mom, please don’t do any more of my laundry! I’d rather do it myself.”

He didn’t trust me with his laundry. Wonderful!

I bought five different-colored laundry baskets, one for each child, and when they began high school they assumed the privilege of doing their own laundry. It was washed, dried, and then emptied by them into their basket. Rarely did it make it into their dressers. And it didn’t get ironed until they needed to iron it to wear. But they learned how to do their own laundry!

6. Teach Them to Remember Birthdays
Beth is a single parent with three sons. The first year after her separation, her birthday came and went, and none of her teenage sons remembered it. Not only were her feelings hurt, but she also realized that there was a bigger issue here. She was raising future husbands who would need to know how to pamper their wives on their birthdays. So she sat her boys down and explained to them how their forgetfulness had hurt her. She talked with them about how women need to be treated and gave them specific suggestions for what they could do for future birthdays, Mother’s Day, and Christmas. The next year she humorously reminded them. She’d say, “Hey, guys, what happens in ten days?” The following day she’d say, “Hey, guys, what happens in nine days?” She also gave them a long list of suggestions for gifts. This basic life skill will help them in the future.

Many of us buy gifts for our kids to give to others. We must begin to turn this responsibility over to them during the teen years, before they leave home. Give them a list of dates to remember. Include their grandparents’ birthdays on it. Help them begin to budget to pay for the gifts or cards themselves. Give them suggestions for a gift or card, but let them buy it and mail it. If they learn this before they leave home, they will be more likely to follow through later, and they will have assumed another responsibility that will help them in either single or married life. When they leave for college, give them a card or calendar with important birthdays, addresses, and e-mails written in on it. Be prepared to remind them that first year. But don’t do it for them.

7. Give Them Basic Medical Knowledge
Do I go to the doctor or not? Am I really sick or just tired? What medicine do I take for this? Can I take my roommate’s medicine? These questions can be difficult to answer and frustrating for the parent miles away. Begin now to teach your child basic first aid. Prepare a first aid kit for him. Include Tylenol or ibuprofen, Nyquil or something similar for flu symptoms, Neosporin for cuts, an antihistamine for allergies, cortisone cream for bites, yule cream for poison ivy, Pepto-Bismol for an upset stomach, a thermometer, an ice pack, and plenty of Band-Aids! Warn him against sharing his friends’ prescription drugs. Be sure he knows what to use when. Make sure he has your insurance information and knows how to use it.

When in doubt tell your kids to go to the student health center. Mononucleosis is rampant on college campuses, and if your teen is sick for over a week, he should see a physician.

8. Teach Them to Manage Their Own Finances
Much of this we covered in the “Hot Topics” chapter, but it has to be mentioned again because money can be a tremendous source of tension if the skills of handling it have not been taught.

Dy Vest, a young student, owns two T-shirts that he says cost him $2,500. He got the shirts for free when he signed up for two credit cards at the campus center during freshman orientation. Within a year he had bills of $2,500 that he could not pay. Later he had to drop out of school for a semester to pay off his credit card bills. Now he’s been debt-free for two years.

According to national studies, between 55 and 70 percent of college students own at least one credit card. Between a third and a half of these students don’t pay their monthly credit card bills in full. On today’s campuses it’s almost impossible to avoid the credit card pitches. Easy applications are found in orientation gift bags, hanging on bulletin boards, and in the mail.1 Wise parents will determine their credit card policy before their teen leaves home. A credit card should always be paid off in full before the due date.

Before your child leaves home, draw up a proposed budget that includes what expenses are his responsibility and what are yours. For example, who is going to pay for his phone calls? Our policy has been that our kids pay for all calls they make to anyone other than family members. I pay for calls home and to siblings and grandparents. I want to encourage these relationships, and my paying for these calls makes it easier for them to call a brother or sister. As you work these issues out, insist that your teen write down where every penny goes the first semester. It may help to give him a financial record notebook and together create categories of anticipated expenses.

He may be shocked to discover just how much of his semester’s money goes for late-night pizza. She may be astounded at how much her own phone bill is. During semester break go over these records and make adjustments for second semester. Plan to discuss together any major expenses—before they are incurred—during this first year. There will be adjustments. You will have expenses you did not anticipate, so plan for a cushion.

9. Teach Them to Make and Keep Their Own Appointments
“Mrs. _____, your son was supposed to come in today to have his teeth cleaned, and he hasn’t shown up yet. We are calling to find out where he is,” the message on the machine repeats.

With a huge groan, you slump into a chair. He forgot again. I forgot to remind him. I can’t remember everything. I have too many other things to keep up with. And when I try to schedule his appointments, it always seems to interfere with his life, and he gets irritated. What am I going to do?

Whoa. Call a halt. Why are you scheduling his appointments, anyway? It’s a life skill he needs to be responsible for before he ever leaves home. By his sophomore year he should be responsible for making and keeping his own appointments for the dentist, doctor, and the like. Yes, he needs to clear the date with you and arrange for transportation, but that’s his responsibility. Many doctors charge a fee if the appointment is not canceled twenty-four hours prior to the visit. If he forgets, the fee is his responsibility. (Okay, if he’s usually responsible and forgets one time, grant him grace and pay the fee, but just this once.)

A larger issue is at stake here, as in almost every one of these life skills. It’s time management. Your teen knows his own schedule best, and he must learn how to fit necessary appointments into his busy life. If you do it for him, you are only going to make it harder for him to control his life when he leaves home.

Teach him how to use the yellow pages. Sure he can dial information, but it costs extra. Where is the best repair shop for his guitar? Who has the most competitive prices for software? What about auto repairs? What bank offers the best account for his needs? Let your teens begin to do such necessary research while they are in high school. A complex society has lots of details that can be a nuisance. If our teen learns how to handle these while he is at home, he will have a more realistic picture of what real life is about and one less adjustment to make when he leaves home.

10. Teach Them Basic Auto Mechanics
Both Johnny and I are hopelessly unmechanical. Even though my dad made me change a tire twice before he let me get my license, I still don’t know what line is positive and what is negative on the battery. Johnny is just a little bit better than I am, but thank goodness we have Jerry! Our friend and neighbor, he knows everything about cars. When our boys were teens, Johnny asked him to teach them basic auto mechanics. Jerry showed them how to check the belts, when to change the hoses, fill the radiator, and much more.

Basic automobile knowledge is a life skill all our kids need, both boys and girls, even if they don’t have a car themselves. One day they will own a car, and they may occasionally drive a friend’s car on campus.

Before they go, they need to know: how to check and add oil and other fluids, how to change a flat tire, how to recharge a dead battery, how to drive manual in addition to automatic transmission (in an emergency they may have to drive either), how to spot unevenly wearing tires, and how to handle other basic repairs.

If you don’t have this knowledge yourself, organize one special Saturday morning “Auto Mechanics Class” at your church and ask a member who does know to teach the teens (and the parents who need it!).

In addition, be sure your teen knows your insurance policy, and when and how to get your car inspected. Have him take your car in for the next inspection. Explain what to do in case of an accident. Remind him that if he borrows a car, he should return it clean, with a full tank of gas.

11. Teach Basic Meal Planning
Our son Chris went off to college with a rice cooker and a tight budget. First semester he signed up for too many activities, slept too little, lived on rice and pb&j sandwiches, and came home at Christmas with mono. It was a painful lesson in nutrition and time management!

An understanding of good eating habits begins at home. With the rise in eating disorders, an understanding of nutrition is particularly important. Encourage your schools to teach nutrition as a part of their health unit. Challenge your teens to do a paper on nutrition for a class. If you home school, teach a unit on basic nutrition. Practice good eating habits yourself. Give each of your teens a simple cookbook. Assign two siblings one special night to cook. Give them several days’ notice. Have them do the meal planning and the shopping. Show them how to clip coupons to save money. Be sure you praise them for their meal even if it isn’t your favorite dish.

When we go on family vacations, we divide up the cooking and cleaning responsibilities. It’s the only way I get a break! This tradition has evolved into a family cook-off. Each evening two different people are paired up to do the cooking. They plan the menu, do the shopping, prepare the meal, and clean up. I pay for the food. Over the years, the kids have developed their own specialties. This summer Chris and his wife, Christy, made crab cakes, fresh corn, and an exotic salad. He’s come a long way from rice and pb&j sandwiches!


Susan Alexander Yates is an accomplished author, magazine columnist for Today's Christian Woman, regular guest on radio programs, and a much-in-demand speaker on family life. She is the author of several books, and along with her husband, John, speaks on marriage and family throughout the country. Yates and her husband currently live in Falls Church, Virginia.

Excerpted from And Then I Had Teenagers by Susan Alexander Yates. Used by permission of Baker Book House Company, copyright 2001. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Book House Company.