The last time I saw Aaron, he was learning about life skills at a training session for at-risk teenagers. At the time, he was close to the cliff’s edge—where kids who are drug-addicted and homeless slip into oblivion. His parents didn’t know or care where he was. And if the chemicals didn’t kill him, it’s likely the violent, drug-dealing crowd he hung with would. If a miracle happens, Aaron will let someone get close enough to care about him and help rescue him from his lifestyle. Then he may develop the leadership abilities I glimpsed in him. Aaron’s life skills program was designed to equip him with the skills, attitudes, and beliefs he needs to build a healthy lifestyle and make positive choices.
Life skills are often called “resiliency skills.” Essentially they’re protective assets. They typically include:
• Self-Esteem or Autonomy—This crucial skill is best understood as “esteem bought at the price of Jesus’ redemptive act.” Self-esteem is characterized by a sense of belonging, the ability to control impulses or take charge of your life, a sense of value, and healthy role models.
• Social Competency Skills—These include communication skills, positive friendships, an ability to handle boredom and leisure time constructively, decision-making skills, an ability to empathize and care for others, and a sense of humor.
• Problem-Solving Skills—These include an ability to handle strong feelings, to peacefully solve problems, and to connect decisions to positive and negative consequences.
• The Ability to Sense Future Orientation, Set Goals, and Live With Purpose—Kids who’ve developed this life skill set high expectations for themselves—both personally and academically—and are motivated to succeed.
There’s a direct correlation between kids’ risk-taking behavior and their life skills, according to researchers. The more life skills they have, the less likely they are to get involved in high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse, reckless driving, promiscuity, dropping out of school, and violent acts. Of course, parents are the primary teachers of life skills. No one has more power to shape healthy behavior in kids than parents. And youth leaders can play a key role in training parents to teach life skills to their teenagers. But the answer isn’t just another program. Life skills are best taught comprehensively and intentionally—as a process rather than a one-shot program.
Here’s a multifaceted menu of ideas that will encourage and equip parents to teach and model life skills to their young people:
1. Host parent/youth forums to focus on life skills. Use the four building blocks for life skills listed above as discussion starters. You could have both kids and parents anonymously fill out a life skills survey based on the four building blocks, then use the results as a discussion starter. Choose a panel of kids to answer parents’ questions, and encourage young people not on the panel to add their thoughts. Prod parents to ask questions that lead to a deeper perspective of their kids’ needs. Then have parents and young people brainstorm ways they can help each other develop these essential tools.
2. Include parents in your planning meetings, and use life skills as filters for youth group activities. List the four life skills mentioned previously and keep them in mind as you plan new activities and events. Ask: “What essential life skills will group members learn during this activity?”
3. Focus on a different life skill each month by filtering them into devotions, activities, prayers, Bible studies, and even games. Send parents a list of activities that correspond to each month’s life-skill focus, and encourage them to use the themes as targets for their home devotions and family time.
4. Start a parent support group that uses the book What Kids Need to Succeed as a “curriculum.” Focus on one chapter or developmental asset each week or month. Help parents choose and implement ideas they can do at home with their teenagers.
5. Make sure parents are involved in your confirmation or discipleship programs. One way is to include family projects as part of your program. Or you could recruit parents and other adults to serve on a panel that addresses confirmation or discipleship issues.
6. Have parents track the genuine compliments they give their kids. Encourage them to increase their “compliment output” by 10 percent over the next three months.
7. Help parents and teenagers discuss parental expectations. Give each of your young people a two-sided worksheet that lists the same adolescent life issues on each side (grades, dating behavior, use of phone, curfews, abuse of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs, study time, use of leisure time, and so on). On one side, have kids describe what they believe their parents expect of them in each area. On the other side, have parents describe their actual expectations. Compare and discuss the responses with kids and their parents.
8. Encourage parents to watch TV and videos with their teenagers. Coach parents on how to engage their kids during and after they watch something together. Show them how to use this simple discussion-starter formula: (1) What are the facts of what we just saw? (2) How do those facts support or conflict with a Christian worldview? As parents get involved with what their kids are watching, they’ll help them develop media literacy skills. And they can take advantage of all the teachable moments TV programs and videos churn out.
9. Challenge parents to tell stories from their life that illustrate healthy and unhealthy decisions. Stories might include: how they chose their profession, spouse, or friends, or simply fun stories about family members. Storytelling helps kids feel connected to other generations and models decision making and goal-setting.
10. Sponsor or plan family servant events. Encourage families to serve together at a local social service agency (soup kitchen, homeless shelter, telephone hotline, clothing or food bank). Or ask families to “adopt” another family or older adult in need.
11. Encourage parents to help get their kids involved in youth development programs at church, school, or through local agencies. Suggest organizations that offer teenagers rich opportunities to meet new people, develop new relationships, gain a broader perspective of life, make independent decisions, and meet positive, healthy role models.
12. Show parents how to use the news media as a teaching resource. Ask parents to be on the lookout for articles or news programs that emphasize life skills (or the lack of life skills), then use them for mealtime talk-triggers.
13. Remind parents to express their love. Kids need to hear “I love you” often. They have an even greater need to hear “I like you.”
14. Help parents examine their own role-modeling. Kids learn more from what they see than what they hear. Prepare a checklist for parents that’ll help them think about healthy and unhealthy life decisions and behaviors. Follow up with a discussion forum that encourages feedback about the checklist, then helps parents rethink their choices.
15. Because kids learn best when they must teach others life skills, encourage parents to find opportunities for their kids to teach. Many schools have peer tutoring or mentoring programs, and your church probably needs enthusiastic teachers in its children’s programs.
16. Challenge parents to simply show up. Perhaps the most important way parents can teach life skills is to be present in their kids’ activities—sports events, musical performances, parent-teacher meetings, youth group events, friendships, and everyday pursuits. Encourage them to make “Just be there!” their motto.
Marilyn Bader is prevention training coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in St. Louis, Missouri.