Last year, a Hiram College freshman became the social media darling of his campus when he good-naturedly agreed to be the poster boy for how not to do laundry. He was spotted around campus wearing pink from head to toe; it seems he missed the memo on sorting his reds from his whites.
But when would he have learned to do laundry? Given the academic rigors, extracurriculars, and busy social lives our teens face in high school, parents may feel that there’s no time to pass along the essential life skills their kids will need once they leave the nest. And yet, prepare them we must.
“When it comes to raising college-ready kids, independence, reliance, and emotional intelligence are just as important as SAT scores and grades.”
“The seven years of middle school and high school are the key period of time leading up to a successful college launch,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in the Seattle area and co-author of The Launching Years..
Pink laundry is a trivial example, but teens who lack independent living skills can be at a real disadvantage once they get to campus.
“When students have not had an opportunity to develop some of these skills before college, it tends to show up in their academic performance around their third or fourth week,” says Liz Okuma, Ph.D., vice president and dean of students at Hiram College. “We may notice they are spending a lot of time in their room or skipping class because they are feeling overwhelmed—whereas students who have had more experience navigating things on their own are keeping up with their work and joining clubs and organizations.”
Life Skills to Learn Before College
What are those magical skills we can help our teens develop—or, at least, begin to develop—before the big college launch? Okuma groups them into five buckets.
Bucket 1: Simple life tasks
Can they cook for themselves? Do laundry? Put gas in the car? Change a tire? Do they know the proper etiquette for writing an email to a teacher or potential employer? Can they wake themselves up in the morning?
Bucket 2: Managing money
Do they know how to save money? Can they distinguish between “wants” and “needs”? Will your student be getting a job at college? Will they have a credit card? Whatever the financial plan will be, high school is the time to test-drive it.
Bucket 3: Managing personal safety
What actions will they take if they find themselves in an unsafe situation? Teach them to be aware of their surroundings and to pay attention to what makes them feel safe or unsafe. Encourage them to enroll in a self-defense class to learn some practical safety skills.
Bucket 4: Managing time
College is all about “work hard, play hard”—but in order to achieve academic success, your student will need to learn to complete the work before they play. Help them learn how to say “no” to friends when the work cannot wait. College will be filled with distractions, so high school is the time to learn how to manage priorities.
Bucket 5: Managing stress
Help your teen pay attention to what causes them to feel stressed and what actions they can take to help them feel better—whether it’s taking a walk outside, playing a board game, or just spending time with friends.
“These are not things you can just teach them one time and then check off the list,” says Okuma. Instead, put your teens into situations where they can practice these skills. For example, give your teen the responsibility of making a meal, even once a month, rather than just showing them how to make the meal.
Setting these expectations while teens are in middle or high school primes them for success once they are on their own at college, says Kastner. It’s okay if the teen struggles at first. “It’s important to help your teens start developing self-regulation. Allow them to make some mistakes and to experience the natural consequences of those mistakes,” she says.
A little pink laundry now is a small price to pay for a thriving college kid later.