Many children arrive in grade R today not knowing what a raw carrot or potato look like, probably because they have only ever seen oven chips and frozen carrots coming out of a bag, and they definitely do not know what to do with a potato peeler! Some of you may be thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding!” but I kid you not. Basic life skills from making a sandwich to emptying the dishwasher or treating a basic wound, are sorely lacking in many children today.

Life skills are acquired largely via osmosis – our children watch us and other relevant adults in their lives, learning to do what we do.  They are actually interested in our mundane chores! Children need practical hands-on experience in order for these things to be meaningful to them.  They need to be able to say, “I did it!”  This means we need to provide plenty of opportunities for them to do so.

I came across an interesting checklist of life skills your child should have acquired by the age of 12 in a book called Toxic Childhood (Orion, 2006). I have ‘South Africanised’ it a bit. Do tick those your child has already experienced to give you an idea as to how much ‘hands-on’ life experience they are really receiving:

  • Sew on a button
  • Use a vacuum cleaner
  • Change an electrical plug
  • Iron a shirt
  • Change the bed
  • Wash a car
  • Find the way home
  • Take phone messages
  • Make a hot drink
  • Build and light a braai or fire
  • Wash the dishes
  • Put out the rubbish
  • Use a washing machine
  • Use a screwdriver
  • Cook a meal
  • Hand wash clothes
  • Use a potato peeler
  • Grow a plant
  • Unblock a sink
  • Use public transport
  • Look after a pet
  • Use the phone book
  • Go shopping with a list
  • Weed a garden
  • Defrost a fridge
  • Change a light bulb
  • Sort the recycling
  • Clean a window
  • Stack and empty a dishwasher
  • Make conversation with a guest
  • Give simple first aid (eg. cuts, bruises, burns)
  • Lay the table for dinner
  • Know how, and who to call for help in an emergency

I remember learning some of these skills from my parents, a few from school and many of them from being a Brownie and a Girl Guide (yes, really!).  A Scout master attended one of my talks recently and reported that he is having to teach most children basic life skills from scratch because their home life is providing them with very little foundation in this area.  With fewer children joining such interest groups today, the onus is on the parent more than ever before to ensure their child can deal with the everyday practicalities of life.

They need to see you doing tasks or chores first – that piques their interest.  Tip: do start this process from an early age, the longer you do everything for them the less they want to learn how to help themselves!  Children between the ages of four and eight really want to do everything you do and they want to learn how to do it well.   Then you can involve them in a task or suggest they have a go, while you stand by keeping watch.  This reminds me of when my husband taught our boys how to test the swimming pool water from the age of four.  At age seven they were doing it all by themselves.

By all means offer advice while supervising, but only when really necessary.  This is a great opportunity to encourage and praise your child.  Practice is what really grows a child’s confidence. Our kids need to get confident with life, hands-on.


Creative parenting expert, inspirational speaker and co-author of Future-proof Your Child (Penguin, 2008), Easy Answers to Awkward Questions (Metz Press, 2009), Tech-Savvy Parenting (Bookstorm, 2015)