A parent's guide to life skills for teenagers

girl sitting at table with father talking books open in front of her

Written by Matthew Green. *Not actual picture of author.

I am a father of five children, four boys and one girl. Three of my boys have left school already, the fourth is currently in year 11 and my daughter is in year 8. I was running an IT business when the internet was a newborn, Netscape was still a browser and Windows was only 95, and the changes I have experienced in that short space of time have been phenomenal.

What the future of work looks like for our children will be even more complex. This isn’t a bad thing because it means they’ll have a wider variety of experiences during their working lives than perhaps we had. It does create added stress for our children though, and that is where we can really help.

School is great for teaching our kids ‘hard skills’ such as English, maths, and science. But if we want our children to thrive after school, there are plenty of other essential life skills we can teach them. Skills that revolve around communication, self-discipline, problem-solving, resilience and work ethic can be taught at home from a very early age and will help your child to handle an uncertain future in the world of work.

Communication skills are important

Teenagers grunt a lot. As a father of five, I have become quite an expert on speaking caveman with my kids. Teaching communication skills that go beyond text messaging is important. The jobs of the future will require strong communication skills, so here are some simple tips I used to teach my children:

  • From when they were young, I let them answer the phone and the door, and taught them how to take a proper message.

  • I always make eye contact when talking to my children. As a result they do the same when talking to me and to others.

  • I let them answer for themselves when they visit a dentist or doctor. I fill in the blanks but my child is the one having the conversation.

  • I make sure that basketball caps and headphones are off at the dinner table so that our family can engage with each other at dinner.

Balancing the budget: not just for adults

Teaching our children how to manage money from an early age will help them to develop self-discipline and problem-solving skills that are important for the jobs of the future. In terms of them earning money...

  • Instead of providing pocket money, give them money for helping with the household chores.

  • Encourage them to get a weekend job.

Once they have an income you can teach them how to manage it. Scott Pape, in The Barefoot Investor, talks about separating your income into three ‘buckets’ – called ‘Blow’, ‘Mojo’ and ‘Grow’. I tweaked his method a bit and followed it with my kids using jars.

  • Jar 1: Around 70% of their income was used to pay for their ‘daily’ expenses such as after-school snacks or a trip to the movies with friends.

  • Jar 2: Around 20% of their income was used in case of an emergency, such as a birthday present or a last-minute invitation during the school holidays.

  • Jar 3: The remaining 10% went into this jar and was used to save for long-term goals such as a new video game.

However you wish to arrange the ‘jars’ is up to you, but teaching your children the value of money will help them to develop a strong work ethic and financial intelligence. It also means that you will eventually be able to shut down the Mum and Dad ATM!

So many options after completing school

As a parent we want the best for our children, so it can be very tempting to push them towards certain paths. I have been guilty of this, and my oldest boy ended up hating his time at uni. Here are a few things to talk to your teenager about:

  • Their ATAR does not define them and they can always change their mind. A lower-than-expected ATAR score does not mean they can’t change courses mid-stream.

  • Consider vocational studies. According to a 2018 report from the Mitchell Institute, almost 44% of the projected one million jobs expected to be created in Australia between 2016 and 2020 will require a VET qualification.

  • What about an apprenticeship? Apprenticeships can provide a solid foundation for further employment in many different fields of study.

Discussing the option of completing their high school course work in a vocational education setting could help reduce the stress your child is feeling and give them a broader range of career opportunities moving forwards.

And when year 12 is complete…

Nothing wrong with a gap year

I wish I had done that. Instead I went from school to TAFE and then to uni. It cost me an extra eight years of my life, during which time I got married, had children and went grey. Taking a break from full-time study is not a sign of giving in. My three older boys spent time in retail, labouring, landscaping, bar work, cooking sausages and waiting tables. They travelled (paid for from the funds in Jar 3), immersing themselves in different cultures and broadening their horizons. The people they met and the experiences they had, both at home and abroad, helped them to align their values with their careers. As a result of taking a gap year, one boy is doing a degree in sustainable development, another is studying to be a paramedic and the oldest is running a successful business as an electrical engineer.

Tips for a successful gap year:

  • Make sure that your child funds their own gap year.

  • Don’t be discouraged if they start off a little slow. One of my boys sat on the couch for a month before he got going, whereas another one was labouring straight after Christmas.

  • Relish their experiences. Hearing about their plans and discussing what they’ll do can be a great bonding moment.

Embrace wisdom from teachers and mentors

One thing to remember is that we won’t be the only ones teaching life skills to our children. As they grow and mature they will meet many different people along the way that will have an influence on their lives – teachers, colleagues, friends, even their boss at work. Mentoring is important for your child. It will build upon the communication skills you have already taught them and will help them to improve their networking skills.

Don’t be disheartened if they find mentors with opinions different to your own. Your teenagers are becoming young adults and will invariably develop their own views on politics, the economy, the environment and so on. Being exposed to a diversity of views will give them the best shot at finding their way in an uncertain future.

No one knows our children better than we do. With the information above, and our own personal experiences, we have the knowledge and resources to teach them about the future of work.