Growing up has never been easy. Even though the past seems like a simpler time in retrospect, our world is complex and it always has been. But there is one thing from the past that made growing up easier: In most societies, there have been rituals and ceremonies for becoming an adult.
In modern times, aside from a high school graduation ceremony, there are few rites of passage that all young people go through that signals “You’re an adult now.” Not everyone completes high school, and graduation only means that a person has reached a level of accomplishment in one area of life, academics.
Maybe that’s why so many young people enter the working world or college very unprepared. What they know depends on what their family has shared — so the skills of an average 18-year-old are almost entirely dependent on a small number of people.
Some of the items below are from Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford dean and author of New York Times bestseller “How to Raise an Adult,” some are from my own experience, and some come from teachers and parents I know personally. (I posed the question on my Facebook page.)
Know how to contribute to running a household.
As Lythcott-Haims writes: “We don’t ask them to help much around the house because the checklisted childhood leaves little time in the day for anything aside from academic and extracurricular work; thus, kids don’t know how to look after their own needs, respect the needs of others, or do their fair share for the good of the whole.”
An 18-year-old should be able to take care of himself and respect the people he lives with, whether that’s roommates, a future partner or family members. Knowledge and experience of doing his own laundry, paying his own bills, cooking basic and healthy meals, cleaning (vacuuming and mopping, as well as windows, dishes and dusting), and doing basic repairs (sewing on a button, changing a flat tire, and plunging out a toilet, for example). Having solid knowledge of these things will enable a young adult to know how to split bills or housekeeping chores with others, and will also empower him to know when an expert needs to be called.
Know how to handle stress (and other emotions).
Mental health disorders among young people are on the rise, even as college students enter university more prepared (at least on paper) than ever. Many parents think that keeping their kids’ lives as stress-free as possible is a gift, but like anything else, moderation is the key. No, you don’t need to subject growing minds and bodies to constant stress, which has been proven to have long-term negative consequences. But if kids never experience this common part of life, they won’t know how to handle it when it comes up. And we all know that life throws stressful things at you on the regular.
Myraflor Gamoso-Meilillo of New York City wrote that being able to deal with people at her job while under pressure was a great lesson in her young life: “One of my first jobs in high school (and throughout my college years) was working in a restaurant where I had to think quick on my feet especially during rush hours. There were days when I had to serve the neediest customers (ever!) and all I wanted to do was cry because I really didn’t want to ‘deal’ with them. But I stuck it through and performed my best. And the end of the day everyone was happy.” Similarly, being able to handle being sad or angry, knowing what to do in the short- and long-term to both handle the emotions and the situations, is a key to a good life — but it’s one that many adults haven’t mastered.
Know how to deal with bureaucracies.
Financial aid documents, job applications, doctor’s forms, driver’s license or passport renewals, and reading and signing a lease should be skills an 18-year-old is at least familiar with. The world is filled with forms to be filled out and front desks to be navigated. Sending kids out into the world never having done this work for themselves will lead to a lot of needless frustration when a bureaucracy does what it inevitably does — like throw a wrench into one’s best-laid plans. Knowing how to “advocate for yourself” was mentioned on several people’s comments to my Facebook question and was the most-repeated item.
Know how to take risks.
Risk inherently involves unknowns. Many parents try to keep their kids from failing at anything, but no one can know how to deal with failure unless they have to get through one. On the flip side, denying a kid that feeling of independent success can disempowers them. Sometimes parents need to sit back, take a deep breath, and let a kid learn a lesson on his own. “We’ve laid out their entire path for them and have avoided all pitfalls or prevented all stumbles for them; thus, kids don’t develop the wise understanding that success comes only after trying and failing and trying again (a.k.a. ‘grit’) or the thick skin (a.k.a. ‘resilience’) that comes from coping when things have gone wrong,” writes Lythcott-Haims.
Know how to talk it out.
Whether a real conflict, a misunderstanding or a perceived slight, being able to “… solve problems with others,” was on David Lanphier Jr. of New York City’s list of skills to know. Myrrhia Resnick of Oakland, California, agrees: “Knowing where your personal boundaries are & how to defend them with grace,” was how she put it. Human communications will always fail, so having the ability to have a face-to-face conversation with someone you think has hurt you (friend, lover, classmate, coworker) is important. Remaining calm, being able to (really) listen when they present their side of the situation, and being able to also present your own feelings clearly — and without resorting to insults, anger and recrimination — is a skill.
Know how to navigate the world.
This one is meant literally. From reading a train schedule, to researching and booking a flight, to using a map to find your way around a new city or town (not just blindly following Google Maps directions!) are life skills that are underrated in our increasingly digitized world. So is asking an actual human being for directions. But there are still plenty of places where your cell signal won’t work (and batteries do still die), corners of town that are unmapped or mapped incorrectly. Being able to find your way around the world is not just useful and time-saving, it will keep a young person safer in new territory.
When I taught a class in New York City, it was shocking to me how many of my 18-year-old students would regularly call their parents when they got lost, rather than use the map on their phone or ask someone on the street — and this is a very well-mapped urban area! Others would call their parents to ask what train they should get on and where it was, rather than read the train schedule on the wall at Grand Central and walk to the appropriate track.
“We drive or accompany our children everywhere, even when a bus, their bicycle, or their own feet could get them there; thus, kids don’t know the route for getting from here to there, how to cope with transportation options and snafus, when and how to fill the car with gas, or how to make and execute transportation plans,” writes Lithcott-Haims.
Know when and how to ask for help.
All the above is not to discourage anyone from asking for help when it’s genuinely needed. But it’s a skill in itself to know when it’s appropriate to do so — and also to understand that asking for help isn’t the same as asking for someone to do something for you.