Building life skills: How parents can help

Want to raise happy and confident children? Connect with them and help them imbibe vital life skills.

By Aruna Raghuram

Building life skills: How parents can help

While navigating the peaks and troughs of life, what stands one in good stead is nothing but valuable life skills acquired over the years. These are skills that a child does not necessarily imbibe through education – it is parents who need to impart them, first of all by being the right models. And, they don’t have to wait for their child to be in the pre-teen or teenage years to teach life skills. They could start from a young age.

So, what exactly do we mean by life skills? Learning to manage money wisely, practising hygiene and adopting healthy habits, knowing how to cook a simple meal, doing household chores – these are some of the important skills a child must pick up in order to lead an independent life when she leaves the parental nest. However, life skills are more fundamental – they are the intrinsic skills that permeate many areas of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined life skills as: “The abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” Life skills include all the social, emotional, and cognitive skills that help an individual deal with life in a better way. Building life skills creates psychosocial competence in children, which in turn promotes good health and physical, mental, and social well-being, observes WHO.

How connection helps

Giving your child your time and undivided attention is the only way to forge a strong connection with him. Dr Lawrence J. Cohen, psychologist and author of Playful Parenting: An Exciting New Approach to Raising Children That Will Help You Nurture Close Connections, Solve Behavior Problems, and Encourage Confidence, explains the need for attention succinctly: “I’m always amazed when adults say that children ‘just did that to get attention’. Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them?”
When parents put their phones down (or turn off the TV or shut down their computer) and listen and talk to their child and show him attention, it builds the child’s self-image, makes him feel valued, and gives him a feeling of security. This is the key to establishing a close, healthy bond of mutual love, respect and trust. As a result of this bond, parents gain the ability to influence their child, an essential requirement for effective parenting. This helps the child build life skills.

Described below are 12 core life skills and suggestions on how parents can impart them to their child.
CORE LIFE SKILLS

1. Communication and interpersonal skills: The ability to communicate clearly and confidently is a vital skill both to facilitate learning and enable a child to make and keep friends. A child needs to master oral and written communication skills for success both in personal and academic life. Interpersonal skills enable a child to get along with others, to negotiate and resolve conflicts smoothly.
What you could do: The best way a parent can impart these skills to a young child is by talking a lot to the child, reading aloud, telling stories, and playing word games. For older children, learning to write an effective email and making a presentation are important communication skills that can be taught.

2. Collaboration: Learning to participate actively in group projects and other team activities is a skill that will be invaluable for your child. This is allied to clarity of communication and maintaining good interpersonal relationships. But it is also about sharing ideas, recognising the worth of what a team member is saying, and working together towards a common goal.
What you could do: You could get your child and a group of four or five friends to form two teams and debate on a topic. Teamwork could also be learnt by children putting up a play for their families. Enrolling your child in a team sport is another way to teach collaboration. A child could be asked to take turns with his sibling to take care of a pet or clean up their room together. Even such routine activities provide lessons on teamwork.

3. Decision-making and problem-solving: Decision-making involves zoning in one course of action after evaluating alternatives. It also includes taking the responsibility for one’s decisions and actions. Having the presence of mind to make quick decisions during emergencies is also a part of this skill set.
Regarding problem-solving, you can equip your child to find solutions on her own. The SODAS system (Situation, Options, Disadvantages, Advantages and Solutions) is a useful technique to teach an older child how to solve problems.
What you could do: Give your child an opportunity to plan, shop for, and cook a simple meal. Another activity you could do with your high-schooler is to ask him to list and discuss all the big decisions he will have to make over the next 10 years – college, career, car, apartment, city to live in, marriage and children.

4. Creative thinking and critical thinking: Thinking creatively or ‘out of the box’ involves looking at innovative ways to solve problems or generate new ideas. Your child should also learn to think critically for himself without being swayed by peers, the society or media. This can be done by analysing information carefully and understanding its relevance.
What you could do: Encourage your teen and his friends to discuss common ethical issues facing this age group. This is one way you can help him develop critical thinking skills. For instance, you could present him with an ethical dilemma – should he turn a blind eye when his friend cheats in an exam? You could urge your child to think creatively on how to motivate neighbours to get involved in rainwater harvesting and composting of organic waste. This way, he will also develop an environmentally sensitive mindset from a young age.

5. Self-awareness and empathy: These are two key components of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness is about understanding oneself – one’s personality, beliefs, values, strengths and weaknesses. Empathy is the ability to put oneself into the shoes of others and feel for them. Having a sense of empathy can help children understand and accept others who may be very different from them.
What you could do: Encourage your child to indulge in periods of quiet reflection and introspection. Give her a journal to record her thoughts and feelings. In the case of a younger child, help her name her feelings. Motivate her to take up an unfamiliar activity as this will help her discover hidden talents. As she gets to know herself better, she will also develop the ability to cope with loneliness, which is a very important skill needed for independent living.
To develop empathy and compassion in your child, encourage him to help the underprivileged in some way. You could volunteer together every weekend at an orphanage. Ensure that your child does not indulge in bullying. When he gets into a fight and hurts a peer, ask him what he thinks the other child would feel. Foster cognitive empathy by encouraging your child to read more. You could have a reading hour after dinner each day. When you watch movies together, talk about what each character may feel and why.

6. Assertiveness: This is the ability to stand up/speak for oneself. It is the courage to say ‘no’ in the face of negative peer pressure. It is the skill to state your opinion without losing your cool and protect your rights in a way that’s respectful of others. 
What you could do: Always listen attentively to what your child is saying and encourage him to speak (even if you disagree with what he is saying). Teach him his rights from an early age and let him make small decisions on his own.

7. Resilience: This is the ability to bounce from setbacks, and treat them as opportunities to learn rather than as failures to brood over. Whether it is academics, sports, the arts, or social life – every parent wants his child to succeed. But success is not a constant in life.
What you could do: Tell your child that she may have lost, but she is not a loser. Help her to learn from her failures and stay positive. Encourage her to keep trying. Many parents fear that failure will damage their child’s self-esteem. Ashley Merryman, co-author of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children has a positive take on this. He says parents should not worry if their child fails as he will pick himself up and learn important lessons from the experience. “His esteem will grow as he learns from his failures and ultimately succeeds,” says Merryman.

8. Coping with stress: A 2014 survey of the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 31% of teens are overwhelmed by stress. If only they had been taught at a young age how to handle stress and regulate their emotions, this wouldn’t be the case.
What you could do: Ensure your child gets enough sleep, stays physically active, and has time for fun and recreation. Explain to her the importance of these activities for her overall well-being and for managing stress. On your part, do not overschedule activities for your child. Ensure that she engages only in those activities which she truly enjoys. Teach your child calming techniques such as deep breathing.

9. Time management: This is an important skill to make the most of each day. Time management skills are linked to planning, prioritising and organisational skills.
What you could do: Teach your child to organise her time using a simple timetable or planner. Developing a routine makes it easier to manage time. Keeping things in their place saves time spent hunting for them. From a young age give your child an alarm clock so that she is able to get up on her own every morning. Ensure that as a family you plan ahead before leaving the house and explain to your child the importance of being punctual.

10. Independence: Parents need to stop micromanaging their child’s life and give her a measure of autonomy and independence. This will equip her with the skills necessary to lead an independent life when she leaves home.
What you could do: Stop supervising your child’s school work when you feel she is able to manage on her own. Give her small household projects that she can handle by herself. For instance, ask her to plan for her birthday party, handle the invitations and decorations, and take up other tasks she can do without your help.

11. Responsibility: Taking responsibility for a certain task and being accountable is an important life skill.
What you could do: Parents could give their child age-appropriate chores such as helping lay and clear the table, taking out the trash, going to the store to pick up home needs, and taking the dog for a walk, on a regular basis. In addition, they could be taught to take pride in keeping their room tidy, completing their homework without prodding, and getting ready for school on time.

12. Willingness to learn: Perhaps the most important life skill your child needs to develop is a lifelong passion for learning. Learning new skills will boost your child’s self-esteem and equip her to lead a happier and more fulfilling life. American industrialist Henry Ford famously observed: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80.”
What you could do: Encourage your child to enrol in extra-curricular activities of his choice – sports, art, or an activity that will help him academically like joining a public speaking class. Urge him to be curious, ask plenty of questions, explore and experiment. Expose him to different sources of knowledge – books, videos, TV shows, the Internet, museums, and interactions with experts from specific fields.  

Building life skills: How parents can help

Building life skills in your child is an important aspect of parenting. By doing this, you equip your child with the ability to deal with challenges and enable him to look forward to a happy and successful future.

In a nutshell

  • It is important to give a child undivided attention to build his self-image, make him feel valued, and give him a feeling of security
  • By connecting with your child better, you can also help her build valuable life skills
  • Life skills are psychosocial competencies that are vital for a child’s physical, mental, and social well-being

What you could do right away

  • Put your phone down (or turn off the TV or shut down the computer) when your child reaches out to you
  • Smile, make eye contact and give her your full attention listening keenly and responding mindfully
  • Connect with your child at every possible opportunity and nurture core life skills in him to equip him to deal with life in a better way

About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 6 November 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a freelancer with ParentCircle.

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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