“This adulting thing is hard.”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard that in the last several years from my children, nieces and nephews and other young people new to the adult world.

Being an adult seems so easy—you get to do what you want when you want to do it, and no one tells you what to do. Credit cards make things appear like magic. Family schedules, special events and kids’ assorted classes and activities similarly seem to occur by osmosis. The problem is, we all know that simply isn’t the case. Hard work and saving money allow credit cards to make things appear. And effort, communication, research and planning make all of those magical events happen. As parents, we don’t involve the kids in all of those boring details. For the most part, we handle the grown-up stuff and allow the kids to grow and learn and enjoy.

It seems the loving thing to do. There’s no need to burden our children with all of the behind-the-scenes planning.

Perhaps not.

It is becoming abundantly clear that there is a need for some additional education and “adult-in-training” programs.

I’ve spoken before about the negative impact of chopper parenting, in which parents are so busy trying to be the cool parents…not wanting to fight with their kids…and not wanting them to “suffer”…that we have neglected our job as parents to help them become independent adults. I had a frightening conversation with a college dean recently who told me about the many phone calls he has received from parents about a professor’s “unfair grading” or making room for a son/daughter in a class that was already filled. He has even received calls from parents explaining why their child would be absent from class that day.

How on earth are young people going to function as independent, productive adults if they can’t even call a college professor themselves to say they overslept or have the flu?! Or if they can’t manage to live within a budget without their parents’ credit cards?

While we are busy loading up high school curricula with advanced-placement courses and pushing for “college for all,” we are neglecting to teach our children what they really need in order to be successful in life—basic life skills.

Sure, there’s the argument that college teaches young adults critical thinking and speaking and writing skills. I am a big proponent of that. But when I reflect on my coursework of psychology and liberal arts, I honestly can’t think of a time when my real-world life has required me to use calculus (never!), let alone discuss gothic literature (again, never!).

So our highly celebrated students graduate with their degrees in economics, women’s studies, English literature, sociology, psychology and computer sciences, and they fancy themselves ready for the world.

And then they start their lives in grown-up-land. Here are few true quotes from newly independent adults…

“What do you mean I shouldn’t have said three dependents when I filled out the W-4 form. I entered one for myself since no one else will claim me as a dependent…one for being the head of the household…and one because I am single and have only one job. That’s three. It’s not fair that I have to pay more taxes. I followed the instructions.”

“What do you mean I need to pay first and last month’s rent before I even move in?”
“Why does it cost almost $1,000 to register the car?”
“Why should I put the airline app on my phone when I only travel occasionally?”
“I never use cash.”
“How do I make a doctor’s appointment?”

The list goes on and on with variations on the themes.

While young people are theoretically learning skills for their future professions, they really need to know…

  • How to network for a job
  • How to rent an apartment…and how to evaluate if that apartment is safe and of quality
  • How to order cable-TV, Internet services and phone service
  • What all those forms that they have to sign on their first day at their new job really mean
  • How do deal with difficult people and difficult bosses
  • How to budget for and buy groceries
  • How to do some basic cooking
  • How to buy a car
  • How to make travel reservations/plans
  • How to apply for a credit card
  • How to pay bills on time…and why that matters
  • The most basic principles of proper nutrition and healthy eating

I was reflecting on how I learned all of those things. Frankly, it was likely on-the-job training because I had to learn these things when I was confronted with them. I vividly remember going through the classified ads when I wanted a job in advertising. I called for an appointment with the recruiting company and scheduled an appointment for my interview and typing test. No parental involvement whatsoever. I don’t even think my parents knew I was looking until I got the job offer.

The world was a very different place then. Children were raised with a greater level of independence and self-reliance. When I was just six years old, my posse of friends wandered the neighborhood and went to the park around the corner unsupervised. I had a job all through high school and a bank account in my own name to prove it. I went to the bank each week to deposit my earnings or withdraw money as needed. I learned to save and spend wisely.

Today children have the world at their fingertips in the forms of cell phones (paid for by parents) and credit cards (also paid for by parents). And a growing number of politicians are promising free education for all…free health care for all…and even free money if you are “unable or unwilling to work.”

We are in a very frightening cycle if young people are not being taught that hard work is required to maintain the way they live…and if they are not being given the basic tools and training to live independent, resourceful lives…and if they expect that it is their right to have everything handed to them for free.

If future generations don’t know how to make independent, well-thought-out decisions and don’t know how to manage their money, let alone understand the raw concept of why they need to earn money, then we are headed into a hopeless chaotic morass with no leaders and no one qualified to be a leader.

What to do? It’s easy to point a finger at the education system and the need to include life skills in the curriculum starting in elementary school. Educators definitely play an important role in the process. Basic nutrition lessons. How to greet a stranger. Independent decision-making. And as kids move up in school, they need to learn how to cook, sew, build things in wood shop and metal shop. In high school and college, they should have more advanced lessons about financial management and understanding the economy, as well as dealing with different types of people and challenging social situations. What might the drug crisis look like if young people were taught and practiced how to say “no” when offered drugs, alcohol or other dangerous options?

But these life lessons have to start at home. I remember attending a PTA meeting with the school psychologist about the requirements for our children moving from kindergarten to first grade. While most parents asked about the kids knowing their ABCs and basic math, all the psychologist and the teachers wanted was for the children to be able to tie their shoes and put on their coats themselves. If parents could teach their children to manage their shoes and their coats, then teachers could focus on managing the reading, writing and arithmetic.

Parents have to step up and realize that they didn’t just come home from the hospital with their own personal Betsy-Wetsy doll, as some parents seem to do. They have a job to do starting on day one and ending approximately two decades later when that little lump of sweetness has the skills to take over the reins of his/her own life.