If you’ve ever worked with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) you know that goals are set for student achievement with respect to behavior, academics, and various skills. Self-advocacy—the ability to ask for what one needs—is a big one, not only on IEPs, but throughout school and childhood. Too many kids don’t know how or are afraid to talk to adults.
“I see teenagers whose parents are still ordering meals for them,” a waiter told me one time after our then-preschooler requested, “Pasghetti, pwease.”
Our overarching goal as parents should be to raise self-sufficient adults. Teaching kids how to speak up and to carry on a conversation with others is integral to their success in almost every other field. Not sure where to start?
Have the kiddos order their own meals at restaurants.
As soon as your itty-bitty can string together three intelligible words, she can order her own mac-n-cheese. You might need to clarify to the server that “wemo-wade” means lemonade, but the experience of speaking directly to the waiter sparks a sense of autonomy as well as the chance to see how her voice allows her to interact successfully with the world. Very few servers will find this tedious or annoying—in fact, I haven’t yet seen one who didn’t crack a smile.
Require your kids to greet adults. Every time.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of pushback to making kids give out hugs and kisses, and rightly so. Your kid’s body is his own, and he should never be forced to do anything with it that makes him uncomfortable. We’ve got one kid who will hug anyone who isn’t quick enough to deflect her, and another who prefers not to touch or be touched, ever. But kids need to learn and practice the basic courtesy of greeting another human being:
“Hi, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Yvette.”
“I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”
“Would you like a glass of water or iced tea?”
Let your child do his own check-in at the doctor’s office.
The sign-in form is pretty basic: name, time of arrival, has your insurance changed? If the child can write his own name, you can tell him what to write in the other boxes. In some offices all he has to do is tell the receptionist, “I’m Joe Moe. I have an appointment with Dr. Oh at nine thirty.” He can do that, can’t he? You go sit down and get caught up on Words With Friends.
“Please” and “Thank You” are never optional.
I recently volunteered in my daughter’s fourth-grade classroom, and the teacher asked me to distribute pieces of candy as a special prize for a project they’d just finished. I kept track, and exactly zero students—including my own daughter—said “thank you” when I gave them the candy. I let the teacher know and she gave them what for, then made them all thank me.
My daughter looked like she wanted to crawl under her desk.
If you pray before a meal, pass that honor around the table.
Saying grace is a great learning opportunity, both in semi-public speaking, and in being grateful for what we have. Every kid in a praying home ought to take a turn on a regular basis. In one story I read a woman asked her daughter if she’d pray over the meal when company came that day. That daughter balked, and her mother said, “Just say what you hear me say.” So company arrived, they bowed their heads around the table, and the girl prayed, “Dear God, why did I invite all these people over?”
Have kids initiate some phone calls.
I don’t mean you hand them your cell phone and tell them to dispute the insurance statement with the billing department at your dentist’s office. I mean sometimes they call Grandma and Grandpa and either say, “Hi! This is Julie,” or they learn how to leave a coherent message on the answering system. I realized we’d dropped the ball on this with one of our kids when I got a voicemail that said nothing but, “I want to go to Sedona’s house.” Um, who is this? How did you get this number? Who’s Sedona?
Let them manage their own purchases and returns.
This one’s tough when they’re fairly little, and they approach the cashier with a fistful of money, and four impatient people are in line behind you, and you just want to get out of there and onto the next errand. But what learning opportunities you’re missing if you take over transactions for them every time:
Kid: Pushes a Lego package onto the conveyor belt. “I want this.”
Cashier: “That’ll be $5.29.”
Kid: Dumps coins and wadded up bills on the counter.
Cashier: Patiently counts out the money. “You’re fifteen cents short, I’m afraid.”
Kid: Turns to Mom with beseeching look in his eyes.
Mom: “Here you go.” Hands him the money then stuffs the Legos in her purse. “You can have them back as soon as you refund me that fifteen cents by cleaning up your room.”
See? Everything’s a learning opportunity.
Never quit looking for chances to hand the ball to the kid.
Remember, your goal as a parent is to work yourself out of a job. The more tasks your child takes on, the fewer you have, and the better equipped junior becomes to manage his own life one day. And I’ll full-on brag here: I am so proud to be able to sit around the dinner table with my kids and any adults who visit us, knowing my children are able to carry on a polite conversation. It’s an awe-inspiring experience watching a child turn into an adult.
So have them talk to their own teacher about that disappointing grade, challenge them to talk you into or out of something they want, ask them about their days and their lives and really listen to what they say. You’re giving them the gifts of language, autonomy, and reason.
And those gifts will serve them well their entire lives.