Skills That Will Help Teens Spread Their Wings

Because I am the mother of nine, I am often asked what is absolutely necessary for kids to know as they develop into young adults and prepare to leave home. While integrity is a given, discovering the remaining essentials has been trial and error. Over the years, however, it has slowly evolved into this short list. 

Common Courtesy  

Learning to live with others requires two skills: courtesy and compromise. “Good old-fashioned common courtesy goes a long way towards keeping the peace,” says Regina Simmons, associate director of residence life at Rhodes College. Issues like not picking up after oneself or turning on the TV while a roommate is studying can create real hostility between students. 

“We give all of our first-year students a contract which covers issues [that frequently lead to disagreements], such as sharing clothes, the TV, and even the food in the fridge.” Issues like how long guests can stay and when lights are out also cause conflict. “People may not think common courtesy is important but these seemingly small issues do sometimes escalate to the point of students threatening to leave school,” she says. Simmons encourages parents to teach kids the art of compromise. “This is where common courtesy plays such an important role; when a student can defer to the other person enough in order to reach an agreement with which they can both be happy.” 

Clear Communication

During the transition of adjusting to life away from home, the most frequent challenge is communication, says Simmons. “When considering what parents can do to help, I would say it is teaching kids to articulate their feelings about everything from roommate expectations to resolving differences,” she says, emphasizing that clear communication solves problems before they start. 

Motivational speaker and father of five Kirk Weisler ( agrees, saying that in today’s generation, males especially seem to be social midgets when it comes to communication.   “My wife and I recently had a group of young adults to our house and while most of the males were willing to engage the opposite sex in conversation, it never seemed to occur to them that it should be a two-way street.” Weisler adds that this “gaming generation” seems to be three or four years behind where young men were socially even 25 years ago.


While self-discipline may not come easily, it is an essential quality before kids venture out on their own. 

Memphis mother of four Kristen Thornton views parenting as a daily training camp where kids are taught that trust equals freedom. “Just as my dad told me, I tell my children that there are freedoms they will want when they get older, and earning our trust is key to that freedom.” If kids have met the clear expectations laid out for them, Thornton adds, they are presented with the Freedom Key their senior year. “The Freedom Key represents total freedom. Instead of my dad telling me where I was going and when to be home, I told him. It was truly a rite of passage. And what I remember most is what my friends were trying so hard to get from their parents, mine were freely giving to me,” she says, adding that she still has the cardboard key that her dad awarded her during her senior year of high school. 

Parenting author Kevin Leman ( says instilling financial self-discipline in kids should especially be at the top of the list for parents. “Reminding them to save a little, give a little, and spend a little every time they earn money will instill the habit of self-discipline in handling their finances,” he says, adding that kids need to understand as they grow up that no one else is going to take care of them.


If your kids want to stand out, teach them initiative. Weisler weaves the very definition of the word into family slogans such as “We are the Weislers, not the whiners!” and “Weislers take initiative!” followed by a quick reminder that initiators don’t just talk about the problem, they try and fix it.

Weisler’s humorous book, The Dog Poop Initiative, explores pointers vs. scoopers and emphasizes that taking initiative sets kids apart. “We all have problems — or piles, if you will,” says Weisler, “and the book communicates that you can be a pointer or a scooper, opening kids’ eyes to the need for less pointing and more scooping.”

Simmons says parents often have trouble allowing their kids to take the initiative. “We call it helicopter parenting, where parents hover wanting to be constantly involved rather than letting the student take the action,” she says. Simmons encourages parents to begin stepping back while kids are still at home. “This way they can test their strengths and make their own mistakes while parents can be more readily available to help them.”

“Teaching initiative means letting kids learn to make their own decisions, then letting them fail if the decision was a bad one,” adds Thornton. When her 11-year-old put off an assignment until the night before it was due, she didn’t nag. “He learned the hard way but will better remember the lesson because of it.” Thornton adds that she steps back a little more every few years to allow her kids more room to test their wings. “Parents go from cop to coach to counselor to, finally, cheerleader,” she says, “and keeping the final vision in mind of what you want for your kids provides them with initiative along the way.” 

Leman agrees that keeping the end in mind helps parents stay the course. “Kids need daily reminders of the difference between a home where everyone does their part and a hotel with housekeeping and room service.” 

Instilling these essentials is neither quick nor easy, but the daily, sometimes hourly task is worth all the energy and effort. A former boss of mine summarized it nicely: You can raise them now or you can raise them later. And later is far more difficult. 

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