Parenting tips for teaching life skills by age, from toddlers to teenagers
Are your kids equipped to make the right decisions when you aren’t with them? Do your kids know what to do in case of an emergency? Raising street smart kids who can react to what’s going on around them will improve their chances of staying safe and making the right choices in life.
The challenge as parents is to know when to step in and when to back off. It’s OK to allow a child to fail at something small, like running when asked not to and then falling. To learn more about age-appropriate life skills and safety risks, we spoke to Heather Ackley, MSW, a parent coach, therapist and director of New Hope Parenting Solutions. She says, “We want to bubble-wrap our children and keep them away from harm but that’s unfortunately not realistic. As parents, natural consequences are by far the best discipline a parent can use.”
Don’t wait until they’re teenagers to teach your kids about responsibility and personal safety. There are many benefits to raising kids to be independent and aware of their surroundings:
- They gain first-hand knowledge that’s useful when they interact with others in their adult years
- They learn personal accountability and to take responsibility for their actions more readily because they understand the law of cause and effect
- Understanding the world around them and why things happen gives them a sense of control and enhances their self-esteem
- Prepares them to learn that both failure and success are a normal part of life
- Allows parents to rest easier knowing their children are equipped with the knowledge to protect themselves and function in a healthy manner in society
Life Safety Skills, Ages 0-2
In this early stage, an infant’s survival depends on the parents. Injuries are the leading cause of death at this age, so it’s important for parents to baby-proof a home and be extremely vigilant. Around 6 – 12 months, your infant starts to move around through crawling or walking early, making them more accident-prone. Common safety pitfalls parents should look out for the age range of infant to 5 years old include burns, choking, drowning, falls and poisoning.
Most of the work at keeping your child safe at this age falls on you. They can learn to avoid certain things with a firm “no” from you like touching hot objects or going near pools or water. Water is a special hazard because a baby can drown in as little as 1-2” of water, so it’s important to keep them away from tubs and swimming pools. Encouraging their independence and self-confidence starts with small steps, that can include:
- Giving them a bit of room to be independent (supervise but don’t hover)
- Small chores like putting their toys away in a basket
- Allowing them to feed themselves
Life Safety Skills, Ages 3-5
Your child is more independent at this age. They’re probably even defiant. Setting boundaries and rules early sets them up for life, especially since children at this age are likely to test them.
Ackley explains: “Far too often I have had teens come into my office who never had limits set for them, never learned about consequences and therefore never learned how to deal with disappointment and failure,” she says. “Teaching kids early that they can’t always get what they want helps them deal with challenges in the future.”
Gameplay, simple rule-setting and books are some of the best ways kids can learn about safety. Here are some ideas:
- Set simple rules and be consistent about enforcing them
- Show them how a stove or fireplace can be dangerous because they get very hot
- Play memory games at home and outdoors so they can practice remembering and describing people they see and cars that drive by
- Let them play outside while supervised but teach them to stay off the road or street at all times
- Teach them not to talk to or accept things from strangers
- Teach kids that their body is private and they should protect it from others
Stranger danger is an important topic. Come up with a secret password only you and your child know. It can be a favorite toy, a nickname or something simple like “peanut butter and bananas”. Teach them that mom or dad would never send a stranger to pick them up without the secret password. If someone claims to come to take them to mommy or daddy and the stranger does not know the password, they should run away to safety and tell a teacher or trusted adult.
Life Safety Skills, Ages 6-8
Your child is now school age. If you’ve been playing memory games with your child since toddlerhood, this is a good age to expand on their memory skills by making sure they know their address, phone numbers for you and other emergency contacts, and how to dial 911.
This age is a good time to teach kids to be observant of things happening around them. A great game to play when out is to ask your child to describe the next three cars that pass by. Or to describe a person on the street the best way they can. They can learn to observe basic details like:
- A car’s color and make (old blue Ford pickup, red 4-door Honda, a white van, etc)
- What people look like or what they’re wearing (older man with grey hair, a beard and a yellow shirt)
- If anything seems out of place around them (a tall, thin man all dressed in black when everyone is in shorts and beachwear)
Help them to get better at noticing and remembering things by playing along and asking them for more details. Other life skills by age you can teach at this time include:
- Bike and street safety
- Learning how to safely cook and use kitchen utensils
- The dangers of poisons
- How to read a label and follow its instructions
- The online dangers of the internet and online predators
- How to keep personal information private
Life Safety Skills, Ages 9-12
Kids can be fairly self-sufficient at this age. They know right from wrong, probably have a group of friends they like to hang out with and only need gentle guidance. Self-defense classes can help them learn how to protect themselves, as well as help them develop discipline and self-confidence.
Kids at this age don’t want lectures from parents. It’s best to approach them about topics as a casual conversation between friends. Some conversations worth having are:
- The importance of personal hygiene
- Knowing their way around town
- Walking to school
- Trusting their instincts and looking out for situations that feel wrong
- Bullying and how to deal with bullies
Life Safety Skills, Ages 13-18
Teens are more likely to learn about the world from friends, social media and TV than from their parents. The keys to parenting your teenagers are communicating openly and honestly about:
- Staying home alone and how to respond to emergencies like a fire, a stranger knocking or someone choking
- Learning how to arm and disarm home security systems and connected devices
- Helping them learn basic household life skills like cleaning, laundry, ironing, mowing the lawn, etc.
- Working to earn money
- Having good money habits like budgeting and savings
- Learning about credit, credit cards and loans
- Learning about driving safety and drinking and driving