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Learning Practical Life Skills


My daughter’s college roommate had no idea how to operate a washing machine and commuted home her whole first year to have her mom do her laundry. She also picked up home-cooked meals because she wasn’t used to choosing her own food. Although she was highly accomplished academically, her lack of self-sufficiency affected her self-esteem. Her experience isn’t as unusual as it sounds.


The idea that practical life skills are a central part of the maturing process, and that there are sensitive periods for learning them, isn’t widely understood in our society. A preschooler loves learning to sweep, and an eight-year-old can feel delight in doing laundry because the activity makes them feel more grown-up. Coaching children through these activities can be time consuming, but catching them during the period of readiness creates the underlying feeling “I can make my way in the world.”


Our lives are overflowing with demands, and it can be difficult to find time for the process of breaking simple tasks like making a bed or doing their own laundry into steps. It’s also challenging to know what we can expect of a child at any given stage of development, since American society no longer places importance on children doing chores. Children around the world typically do much more to help around the house than children in our country and tend to reach a stage of full self-sufficiency by the time they are in their teens.


Luckily, there are many sources that can guide us in our expectations of what children can learn to do. See, for example, Spruce Age-Appropriate Chores for Kids Ages 2–18.


Giving children positive recognition when they are motivated to help and want to try to do things for themselves encourages them to see helping and caring for things as important. Families that work together doing chores, even when there is resistance, energize their children for full capability in the future.