For parents, the start of school each fall is a little like New Year's Day: We resolve that this year, things will be different with our kids.
We have goals for them (less procrastinating and better grades are perennials on my list). And we also have goals for ourselves as parents (less yelling and less junk food in the house are two of mine).
But when your kids become teenagers, opportunities for improvement start to run out. Most of us have taught our kids the basics by then — how to swim, ride a bike, and say please and thank you. But what about things like money management, doing the laundry and parallel parking — to name a few things kids ought to know by the time they're 18?
"I think we do our kids a great disservice by turning them loose without teaching them basic life skills," said Brooke Naranjo, a mother of two teenagers in Manhattan, Kan. "My son, especially, balks at household tasks, but I always tell him, 'I'm not coming with you when you leave.'"
Why coddling them can go wrong
Naranjo, who works as an office manager at a church, already has her son and daughter helping out with household chores like washing dishes. They wash their own clothes and pack their own lunches too. "I am amazed by how many of my friends still wash their kids' clothes and make their lunches and all that," she said.
She tells the story of how her husband, who's stationed in Afghanistan, got to Navy boot camp at age 18, threw his clothes in a washer and then had to ask the guy standing next to him, "How do you turn this thing on?"
That story hit home with me. My husband and I have done OK as life-skills teachers in some areas — we get compliments on our oldest son's manners from neighbors and good feedback on his work ethic from his bosses — but we've been lax in other areas.
The boy is in his last year of high school now, and if I don't get busy teaching laundry skills soon, he'll be in a dorm having the same conversation about turning the washer on that Naranjo's husband had with his buddy.
Part of the problem for me in assigning household chores is relaxing my own standards. Teaching someone how to operate the washing machine is easy; standing by while dirty laundry accumulates, wondering whether dirty socks are being worn more than once, is hard. But I resolve to let my hang-ups go before the year is out.
Same thing with cooking. My son can handle breakfast, lunch and anything in the microwave, and he makes a mean cheese quesadilla on the griddle. But I'm reluctant to turn over the reins at dinner. I pledge this year, though, to try.
They lose it, they pay
I hear lots of parents complain that their kids lose things all the time. Backpacks, cell phones and iPods seem to vanish on school buses, from lockers, at the mall and during sleepovers. Well, here's a surefire way to teach them to keep track of their stuff: They lose it, they pay for it.
In fact, paying your own way and managing money responsibly are tops on my list of what every teenager ought to know. Start those lessons early with a small allowance, then encourage kids to save up money from baby-sitting, dog walking and the like to pay for the name-brand sneakers and video games that you don't want to buy for them.
For high school students, some banks offer checking accounts, and most allow parents to open joint accounts with their kids. Last year, I opened a checking account for my son where the paychecks from his after-school job could be automatically deposited, so he wouldn't have to rely on me to cash them. It was with some trepidation that I handed him the ATM card that came with the account, but he's used it responsibly, and that's a relief.
Another biggie on my list: The driver's license. We live in New York City, where kids take subways and buses all over. Between that and the usual parental fears about teenage driving, my son is way behind in the process of getting a license.
I grew up in the city too and didn't learn to drive until I was in college. To this day, I am lousy at parallel parking. Another goal for this year: My son should not only get his license but also learn to park with ease.
The plus side of city life is that you learn street smarts young. I think kids graduating from high school should be able to ask for directions, read a map, estimate a waiter's tip, and navigate unfamiliar territory, whether it's a menu, mall, bus station, airport or even a new city.
Fortunately, my son's already good at those things. Now if we can just get the laundry and the parking down by June, he'll be ready (almost) to take on the world.
Beth J. Harpaz is the author of several books including "13 Is the New 18."