Life is a complicated, meandering labyrinth and preparing your children for uncertainty means they must amass practical knowledge as well as a tool box full of life skills.
Luckily childhood is a time when mistakes are expected and even embraced – as life lessons often arise from these blunders. Parents hope that their kids learn essential lessons in childhood to prevent larger mistakes in adulthood, when they really start to matter. But how can you be sure your kids are receiving these important lessons?
We’ve put together a quick list that touches on some of the major lessons (as well as practical essentials) that are imperative for a child's success. The truth is that some of the most important skills aren’t taught in school. It often becomes a parent's job to teach the basics of financial literacy, social responsibility, and personal information security.
While this can seem overwhelming it doesn’t have to be. Success can be measured by the culmination of small decisions. The earlier you teach your kids successful habits, the more of a chance they have to avoid expensive and messy mistakes later on.
Get Your Kids A Social Security Number
When to do it: At birth or as soon as possible afterwards. Luckily this can be handled directly at the hospital, or at a Social Security office. Typically setting up Social Security numbers should be handled directly by parents as early as possible.
Why: This important string of numbers is going to be essential for your kids to participate in American society. For example, Social Security numbers are needed for medical coverage, government services, bank accounts, savings bonds, getting jobs, paying taxes, and even getting a death certificate. (Not that you should be thinking about that now, but now you know.)
Takeaway: Elementary aged children should understand very basically what Social Security numbers are and how they are used. Once kids are old enough to start working and opening a savings/banking account they should memorize their Social Security number and understand the importance of protecting their private information.
Open a College Savings Account or Purchase A Savings Bond
When to do it: As soon as it’s possible. Even if you don’t have much money to contribute, the idea is that these (even small) investments will grow with time. Many accounts can be opened with as little as $50.
Why: Major life events like attending college and buying a home require a large amount of cash and lead to large amounts of debt. Any way to lessen this cost will inevitably get your kid a step ahead.
Takeaway: The importance of planning and establishing savings, which can help them understand the value of retirement planning (like 401(k)s and IRAs) once they become working adults.
Open A Bank Account
When to do it: This is a flexible choice depending on when you feel the child might be ready to learn, as reported in this Forbes article. Custodial children's savings accounts can be opened at any point, and kids checking accounts will depend upon your bank. Holiday and birthday card cash gifts can be a smart opportunity to open these accounts. Absolutely open a bank account once your child has a part-time job.
Why: Logistically your child may have some of their own money and need a secure way to save or make purchases.
Takeaway: Financial literacy. Responsibility with cash, how to make safe purchases, how to save and budget. It also gives them an understanding of where adults keep their money, how that money is protected (up to a certain limit), it’s safer than a piggy bank or underneath a pile of socks in a drawer, and much easier to keep track of amounts and access when you’re away from home.
Chores & Getting a Pet
When to do it: Kindergarten and beyond. You can start off with chore boards, general jobs around the house, or tasks to help care for pets or siblings.
Why: In order to function as adults they’ll need to understand how to care for themselves, take care of their home as well as others in their lives including pets.
Takeaway: Responsibility, reliability, hygiene. Granted, as a parent you’ll probably be tasked with the bulk of pet care, but it also offers opportunities to take breaks and go for a walk, play in the park, or just sit around and cuddle something other than a phone or tablet.
Introduce Them To Charity Work
When to do it: Elementary school and beyond. Most schools have established programs to support charities, such as canned food drives and fundraising sales.
Why: A society functions best when we have established resources to assist people in need.
Takeaway: Empathy towards those who are less fortunate or in need of assistance; learning to give without expectation of reward and learning to ask for help when needed.
Teach Privacy Skills
When to do it: As early as preschool. The common core curriculum used across the United States has added internet privacy to their required skills, so luckily this one is also taught in school but there are great resources available to help parents navigate this complicated topic.
Why: Kids are using computers and the internet daily at school and at home, and they need to understand how to protect their identity and how to navigate fact, fiction, and appropriate entertainment.
Takeaway: Organization, understanding the value of privacy, and avoiding identity theft.
Set Up Email
When to do it: Middle School. Most email providers require children to be 13 years old or older in order to set up email. While some families might opt to sign up earlier, or create an account for their child and withhold the login credentials until they hit a certain age, they must be monitored and filtered by parents.
Why: Communication with friends, family as well as research that can be related to education.
Takeaway: Media literacy, privacy, communication skills, computer skills.
Explain (Delicately) Organ Donation
When to do it: Drivers license time. When you apply for a license you are asked if you want to become an organ donor, so it’s a good time to bring it up.
Why: Nobody wants to think or talk about death, especially nervous parents with new drivers. The idea here is that in an absolute worst case scenario, you’d be able to help someone. With over 100,000 people waiting (and dying while waiting), this is something that should be addressed.
Takeaway: Social responsibility, personal legacy, connection to others in need.
Explain Living Wills & Health Care Proxy (a.k.a. Advance Directives)
When to do it: This can be a tricky subject, and should be addressed on a need to know basis with younger children, with an emphasis on less is more. It’s best to let your kids know which grown up to turn to in case of a medical emergency, often someone in the immediate family the child already knows and trusts. It’s then a parents job to be sure this emergency contact in their lives is aware of the location of important documents. So you know, a child doesn’t need to fill out one of these documents since you’re in charge of their health decisions until they turn 18 (unless the child is given permission from the court to make their own health decisions, but that’s an entirely different topic).
Why: While hopefully there is no reason to use an Advance Directive, it’s a smart thing to add to your plans. If an unexpected tragedy occurs or a physical or mental sickness, this document will be a key in ensuring that your end of life plans are carried out according to your wishes.
Takeaway: We can plan to have control over our destiny even when we don’t have physical or mental control; putting your life in the hands of someone you trust.
Train Them For Emergencies
When to do it: Elementary school, or as soon as your kids can leave the house on their own without constant supervision.
Why: They need to know where to go and who to turn to when the unexpected happens. That can mean a freak storm, a power outage, or a sick or injured parent. Teach kids how to make emergency phone calls to authorities, call on a neighbor or local family. If phones aren’t usable, kids should also know places they should go in their community to get help.
Takeaway: Disaster preparation, memorize phone numbers and emergency escape plans, recognize situations where they need to find or ask for help.
The Concept of Mortality
When to do it: While surely watching Disney+ has exposed your kids to tales of dead parents, this is a subject where you must tread lightly. Talking about end of life on a personal level depends on the child, their emotional maturity, and level of general anxiety. Sometimes life presents you with unplanned opportunities like the death of a pet or grandparent, and even then it’s tough to navigate. In terms of your own death, it’s best to find a way to make sure your kids know who to contact in case of an emergency without broaching the topic of death.
Why: While it’s not top on most people’s to do list, people should try and tackle this topic. It can be a relief and comfort to loved ones to know that they are following your decisions or wishes. Odds are at some point your child will be old enough to attend a funeral, or hear that someone in the neighborhood died, and you should encourage any questions or worries they have without dismissing their concerns or sweeping them under the rug. The same way you don’t want a stranger teaching your kids about sex, you don’t want an outsider explaining death. Not the highlight of being a parent, but it can’t all be ice cream, lazy Saturdays, and Disney shows.
Takeaway: Preparation, planning for the unexpected, paying respects, gratitude, the circle of life (and it moves us all).