First Person

Life Skills 101: When does a child learn to be a grownup?

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A coworker of mine used to come to me seeking advice. She was 22, fresh out of college, and had apparently deemed me old enough to dispense wisdom. Each day, like a mountaintop guru, I awaited the next conundrum.

“I need help adulting,” she would complain. Then she would ask for guidance on anything from meal preparation to money budgeting. In other words, basic life skills.

Most people would say adulthood begins shortly after someone graduates from high school. By age 18, a person is eligible to serve on a jury, drive at night, play the lottery, or get a SpongeBob SquarePants tattoo on their neck without parental consent.

For some recent college graduates, the prospect of tackling grownup tasks can be daunting. While the rest of us manage to clean our stoves or get an oil change with little fanfare, unseasoned 20-somethings can apply a self-congratulatory awareness to all kinds of routine activities, especially if they are tackling them for the very first time.

“Sent out my Christmas cards! #adulting,” one might tweet. Never mind that it is mid-January and most adults have long since packed their decorations away in the attic.

“Adulting” is a somewhat recent coinage, so definitions vary. The term has been popularized by millennials, the generation often criticized for having a sense of entitlement. (I’m no expert, but I’m guessing that celebrating every load of laundry does little to erase that impression.)

The concept of adulthood has prompted me to wonder how prepared my daughter, Sadie, is for life beyond adolescence. She is a junior in high school and will likely be college bound in 18 months.

I recall my own experience leaving the nest. When I moved into my college dorm, I was just as naïve as any other teenager, figuring out my new independence as I went along. For the first time, I was solely responsible for waking, getting to class, balancing my schedule and, perhaps most importantly, remembering to wear flipflops in the shower. And, of course—first thing first—I needed to eat!

Sure, by the time I graduated, I could prepare an entire Thanksgiving dinner for 12 in my illegal, two-quart slow cooker. But at first the prospect of having to feed myself three times a day came with some challenges. The on-campus cuisine consisted of a grab bag of convenience food, most of it falling several bricks short of completing the food pyramid.

“Do you know how to cook anything?” I asked Sadie recently, remembering my own early struggles.

“I can make toast,” she replied with pride.

It wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. But I know that most dorm mini-fridges are stocked with little more than energy drinks, cheese slices, and a single apple of questionable origin. Yet, college students somehow get by. Any one of them will tell you that Grubhub delivers Taco Bell. Score one for technology!

Managing to feed oneself is only one part of survival. There are a million other life lessons I’ve yet to teach. And I feel as though I’m running out of time. Every unshared project is a missed opportunity. In the last couple years, I have refinanced our house and installed a ceiling fan without once asking Sadie what she knows about the federal funds rate or electrical wiring codes.

Although I wasn’t the most sophisticated high schooler, by the time I left for college I could balance a checkbook, unclog a drain, and sew on a button. Plus, I’m pretty sure my father taught me how to hang drywall at age 4. Sadie and I are both comfortable allowing that craft to skip a generation, but certain other skills become a matter of personal safety.

“Do you know what to do if you get a flat tire?” I asked her.

“Sure,” she said. “I Google ‘what to do if you get a flat tire.’”

There it is again: technology. I keep forgetting that the next generation has grown up with every answer just a few taps away. Learning a new skill often comes out of necessity, and smartphones have removed much of that need.

Maybe that’s the point. Younger folks today have more resources at their disposal, so perhaps we don’t need to coach them through every experience. If they want to laud themselves for keeping a houseplant alive for three months and call that being an adult, so be it. At least they are learning.

My daughter is a brilliant, well-rounded student, and I am certain that someday her talents will evolve into real-world abilities.

I would, however, like her to comprehend that true adulting is comprised of skills you can’t acquire from a YouTube video. (Hopefully, most of these have already rubbed off on her.) Real adulting means not just having responsibilities but being responsible.

That means being punctual, courteous and tolerant. It means not reacting when a driver cuts you off in traffic, but standing up for the more meaningful things that you believe in. It means treating others and yourself with respect. It means learning how to communicate well, sometimes even in complete sentences. It means embracing diversity and having compassion.

None of these skills are absolutely necessary for survival, but they will take you very far in life. #adulting

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