It’s the start of a new school year for both sets of kids in my life. I’m the mom to a 4th and 5th grader and a pseudo-mom to a whole host of college students. In August particularly, my constant job and my day job run together into a perfect storm. Basically my life is a tornado for a few weeks when my actual kids start school with school supplies, lunchboxes, and bus stops, and my college kids start school with changing majors, textbooks, and dorm rooms.
While I have miles to go before my own kids are ready to leave the nest, I spend my days helping college students navigate what life is like after high school so I see common threads in every interaction. I’m no expert on parenting a kid that age, but I do know what skills they need to be working toward before they show up on a college campus (or trade school or military or first real job for that matter).
Although I could and do argue about what it takes to be an adult, adulthood starts at the end of high school and in the eyes of the law at 18. The path to adulthood is paved with good intentions and daily opportunities even for your little one.
Here are some of the lessons that can start early:
Teach them to fight their own battles. They will have a lifetime to learn how to speak up for themselves, and the sooner they start, the better off they will be. We tend to want to fix things as parents, but we can’t do it forever. Kids at all ages need to be able to speak up for themselves which leads me to the next one…
Teach them how to speak to authority respectfully and appropriately. We all deserve respect, and when we don’t get that respect, we tend to get defensive. Teachers, professors, bosses and parents are not immune to this feeling — so teach respectful conversation, even (especially) in disagreement. Teach your kids how to disagree and argue a point in a way that does not belittle or demean the other party. Respect does not equal agreement; it means being able to speak with someone without throwing blame or making someone else feel small or unheard. Speaking of blame…
Don’t throw the blame. Often, I hear students pointing fingers at someone else when things go south. Although it is true that often things happen outside of our control, we do have the ability to change our own actions and push ourselves to be and do better. When your children blame someone else, don’t let them off the hook completely — ask questions. Ask them how they can respond or be better next time as well. Sometimes our problems rest solely on our shoulders, and even if that isn’t the case, we are responsible for how we choose to deal with them. Growth comes from learning from our mistakes and failures.
Talk to them about learning and how they manage that process. This one seems heavier, I know, but hang with me. When your kid does well on an assignment, ask how he did it. When he doesn’t do so well, ask what could be better. Make sure your kids know that learning is a process they take part in, not a process that happens to them — it’s active. Although others are entrusted with teaching, each of us is also expected to learn and engage with information.
Learn and play toward their strengths. Your kids put a lot of stock in what you say and how you speak to them. Whatever you teach them about their future they carry with them. We all want our kids to be successful, but not everyone needs to be a doctor, nurse, or lawyer to be successful. Learn what makes your kid soar and find ways to help them cultivate those things. Understand their strengths and their weaknesses — not everyone is cut out to be an engineer or physical therapist. Your vision of their future needs to be connected to their plans and strengths.
Practice positivity. Let’s be honest. There are plenty of times in life where we have to do things that seem meaningless or small, and that starts early. The way we speak about school, learning, homework, teachers, etc. has a direct impact on our kids’ experiences. They hear everything. I speak from experience as a parent whose child has repeated a snarky comment I made and also as an educator who has spent time undoing the negative energy a parent has laid on their kid over the years. Be excited when you can and positive in all the ways you’re able as well. I’m not suggesting blind positivity, but building confidence through positivity is better than creating whininess through negativity. Positivity covers a multitude of frustrations — in school, in work, and in life.
Take whatever pieces of this advice that strike you as valuable. I’m the first to admit that not all advice works for every person every time. I do know that I see these common threads pop to the surface with each passing year, both as a parent and a higher education professional. There are exceptions to each of these that I could name right now, but overwhelmingly, the work we do as parents to teach our kids to be good humans and eventually good adults starts early and with every interaction.