Teach life skills! (How to raise an adult, task #2)

teach-life-skills.jpg

How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step one: teach kids practical skills. 


(Today's the second installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult; yesterday's post was about providing unstructured time. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

Contemporary schools don't teach kids how to live. I'm certainly not the first person to point this out — there have been a series of reform movements in the last century to inject practical skills into K–12 schooling. And these reforms have been mildly successful — they're where we get home ec, typing, and auto shop from.

But we can do so, so much more. And we can do it by not dividing between what's "practical" and what's "intellectual". To quote the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead,

There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.

As I've laid out in our page on "practical superpowers", the academic and practical are two sides of the same coin. So teaching kids how to master the basic skills of living doesn't deviate from our goal of cultivating genius — it fulfills it. 


We're always teaching something. If we're not teaching self-efficacy, we're teaching learned helplessness. If we're not teaching walking kids through how to take on the responsibilities of adult life, we're teaching them that they can't be adults, that they need to rely on the competence of others to do the basic things.

As Martin Seligman has demonstrated, teaching learned helplessness is a powerful path into provoking depression. 

What is self-efficacy? In the 1980's, American schools went through a fad of trying to inculcate self-esteem — trying to directly increase kid's sense of self-worth. This movement seems to be dead, or at least dying — and from where I stand, I say good riddance. There's been research linking heightened self-esteem to heightened rates of narcissism, depression, and violence. Perhaps thankfully, there's also been research indicating that interventions to raise self-esteem largely haven't worked!

Self-efficacy is different than self-esteem. As Lythcott-Haims writes,

Self-efficacy is built by doing the work and seeing that success came from effort. Self-efficacy is built in large part by the repeated trial-and-error opportunities afforded by childhood.

Self-efficacy can give you self-esteem — but as a by-product. Self-efficacy comes from struggling with a task, and from achieving mastery.

And mastery, if you'll recall, is one of the three basic pieces of our schools' philosophy!

Our schools, I'm thrilled to say, seem already designed to teach self-efficacy. In at least this important way, we're already set up to raise adults.


What life skills should we teach? 

A helpful year-by-year list is provided by Lindsay Hutton at the website Family Education. Some excerpts:

  • Ages 4–5: kids should know their full names, addresses, and phone numbers — and how to make an emergency call.
  • Ages 6–7: kids should know basic cooking techniques: mixing, stirring, cutting. They should know how to make a basic meal, use household cleaners safely, and straighten up a room.
  • Ages 8–9: kids should be able to do basic sewing, sweep and dust, write a grocery list, and water and weed flower beds.
  • Ages 10–13: kids should be able to wash clothes, use the oven, mow the lawn, look after littler kids, and buy things at the store.
  • Ages 14–18: kids should be able to prepare and cook full meals, interview for (and get) a job, change a tire, and unclog a drain.

I think these are wonderful. (And I say that as someone whose 5-year-old son doesn't currently know our phone numbers or address — something I'll rectify shortly!) But I think our school can go far, far beyond these. 

Some of this I've mentioned before. One large theme of our school is cultivating practical superpowers. I've written about how our students will make lunch together daily — I don't think it's unreasonable to suspect they'll master making full meals by age 9 or 10. I've also written about how students must be in charge of cleaning the school.

But I think we can go even beyond those. I think we can have all of our middle schoolers adept at basic first-aid. I think we can have all of our high schoolers prepared for emergency management (something I'm especially keen on, as I live in an earthquake-prone zone that's currently gearing down for The Big One).

Let me ask this question: What else might we prepare our students to do? I invite discussion about this on our Facebook page!


Our schools can excel at teaching life skills. And by doing so, we can help raise adults.

(Image courtesy of icebike.org. Thanks, folks!)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA