Why Are Our Happenin’ Kids So Helpless?

Is it just me, or are you all noticing a weird phenomenon in this generation? Kids today are super-accomplished in so many ways, and, shall we say, somewhat lacking in others.

They regularly score in the 98th percentile on school achievement tests. They juggle homework, sports practices, tutoring, and extracurriculars like little multi-tasking adults. They navigate every tech gadget in our homes as if they were born with the manual embedded in their brains and act like there’s nothing to it. They seem so much smarter and more capable than we did at that age!

So why are so many of them helpless when it comes to basic life skills? Yes, it is a rhetorical question, because like you, I know the answer perfectly well. While we were helping with homework, signing them up for 3 or 4 sports a year, driving carpool to and from every karate class and music lesson, some of us never taught them how to put air in their bike tires, paint a fence, or use public transportation. And don’t even get me started on budgeting or balancing a checkbook.

Example 1: An anonymous kid we know managed to travel through life very successfully through mid-high school. Good grades, lots of friends, sports, community activities, the whole nine yards. A rock star by any measure. Sometime during his junior year he needed to mail a cover letter and application for a summer internship. This required an actual envelope and stamp … no email involved. Somehow, this teen had reached the age of 16 without addressing an envelope. At least not often enough to be comfortable completing it without parental tips.

About now you might (smugly) be thinking “Ha … you mean he never wrote a ‘Thank You’ note? No wonder … poor parenting.” You’d be partly, but not completely, right. Yes, he wrote Thank You notes — tons of them after his Bar Mitzvah alone. But his mom, more concerned about the gesture than the life skills involved, always offered to put the address and stamp on the envelope. So he never had to.

Example 2: Do your kids (sons in particular) know how to sew on a button or do a quick fix on a hem? Mine don’t.

Or didn’t, until the time my (then 14-year-old) daughter tore a seam in a favorite pair of pants she just had to wear that day. I was up against a work deadline and couldn’t come to her rescue. Good thing, too. After an hour or so of a painful learning curve for both of us (“Here’s the thread, see that hole in the needle? Here’s how you do a running stitch. What do you mean, there’s a knot? You’re out of black thread? NO! Don’t start over! …”) the job was done. And now, after a few more tries, she patches holes like a pro. My boys? Umm … not yet.

Example 3: How many of us do the packing for our kids before a family trip? It’s much more efficient, right? That way we know they have enough underwear to make it through and the tops will match the bottoms, more or less.

I did too, until one day when they reached ‘a certain age’ and I figured they should start doing it themselves. They’d watched me pack a thousand times — even seen me count out the numbers of items needed for 2 weeks at summer camp X 3 kids. And still, when we arrived at our destination after their first (unsupervised) attempt, the collection of wearable clothes they had packed was … well … not quite what I had in mind. Lots of dirty t-shirts were worn that week.

This is just a sampling of a few of the ordinary skills they’re missing out on, but what about the more critical ones? A short, sad and woefully incomplete list of things my children did not know how to do by age 16:

Keep track of a bank balance. Write a check. Deposit a check. Pay a bill. Find the circuit breaker box. Shut off water to the house. Chop vegetables. Break an egg. Clean the bathroom. Iron a shirt. Put together an appropriate work outfit. Read a bus or train schedule. Choose ripe fruit at the market. Shop for, prepare, and clean up after an entire family meal. Change (or even find) the oil in the car.

Our kids are incredibly smart and accomplished. We’ve done a great job enhancing their learning skills and giving them tools that weren’t even on the radar screen when we were growing up. They have special talents and abilities that are way above and beyond the average. At the same time we’ve ignored some of the basics. Is it the job of our schools? Well, no, though I’d love to see a resurgence of required home ec and auto shop courses for all high schoolers (maybe we could reinvent it as Life Skills). But truthfully, it’s our job.

The traditional 3 Rs — reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic? Huge. That 4th R — reality? Even more so.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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4 responses to “Why Are Our Happenin’ Kids So Helpless?”

  1. Mari

    Amen! After running an office full of grown men without any basic life skills, I swore that I would not disservice my any future child of mine in that way. Yes, it would be great if my as of yet unborn child (12 weeks to go) grows up to be “accomplished” in the Jane Austin sense of the word, but I’ll be much happier if s/he is a fully functioning and capable member of society.

  2. Mike Davis

    But there are certain skills that are waning in importance as technology changes our lives. For example, changing the oil in the car. I used to do it myself back in the 1970’s when I was nimble and poor. But I can’t imagine doing it now.

    There was a time that milking a cow by hand was important. You wouldn’t expect your kids to be proficient at that now, would you?

    It’s best that young people focus on the skills that will actually be needed in their future. Learning how to earn a good living is job #1. (That’s not going to easy in this jobless recovery.)

    Don’t worry: if they are a sharp as you say, I’m confident they can learn to address an envelope when they need to.

    (Found you through your post to the NY Times.)

  3. Jara

    “Keep track of a bank balance. Write a check. Deposit a check. Pay a bill. Find the circuit breaker box. Shut off water to the house. Chop vegetables. Break an egg. Clean the bathroom. Iron a shirt. Put together an appropriate work outfit. Read a bus or train schedule. Choose ripe fruit at the market. Shop for, prepare, and clean up after an entire family meal. Change (or even find) the oil in the car.”

    At 16, I had no idea how to do any of those things. So what? I learned most of them exactly when I needed to and, like my parents, never dreamed of dealing with at least one (Jiffy Lube babe, Jiffy Lube). I “somehow” managed to become an adult with a good job who ran my life easily.
    Some of your choices seem anachrchistic in this day and age frankly. I myself have not written a check in over a year. Like my teen, I pay all my bills on line (yep even personal ones can easily be done that way) and thus there is never a need to “balance” my check book. I can keep track of my balance on line. And I am sure that any teen who can do all the things in example one can learn how to address an evelope when he/she needs to by simply googling “Addressing an evelope” (do it yourself and you’ll see just how easy it is to get informatio when one needs it) I PROMISE you any teen today will have no problem with that.

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