Teach your children well

November 27, 2013 § 7 Comments

Tomorrow night, I’ll be running my last Girl Guide meeting. After seven years of leading Girl Guides and Brownies every Thursday afternoon and evening, no-one will be calling me Captain or Brown Owl anymore. It’s a bittersweet time for me; I’m tired and it’s time to move on, but I will miss the girls terribly.

During those seven years I’ve had the privilege of interacting with girls aged seven to 14, every week, and we’ve played games and made stuff and built things and learned all kinds of lessons from each other. But as I reflect over the time I’ve spent with them, two lessons stand out for me – two things we need to note as parents. And I include myself in that.

First, modern children just don’t get enough time to play. And I’m not talking about electronic games. I’m also not talking about games where there are winners and losers. Just games that involve running around or popping balloons or throwing balls to each other. Games that there purely for fun – no agenda, no trophy, no real skill required.

When I started, it took the kids quite some time to get their heads wrapped around the fact that the games we played had no winner. This was particularly prevalent in children from private schools, and I found this very, very sad. They honestly struggled with the concept of having fun for fun’s sake.

But once they got the idea, I couldn’t stop them. And even among the sulky tweens and teens, the request I get most often during a meeting is: “Can we play another game please?” It gave me pause, and it should make all parents think about how much fun their kids are having, about how much they actually play.

And second, I realised just how incompetent urban South African children are at basic, ordinary, everyday things. Sure, they can programme a smartphone and operate any electronic device you give them, but they can’t make a cup of tea, or thread a needle, or light a match, or wire a plug. Last week I had to show a 13-year-old how to plait. Seriously?

It’s not because they’re physically or mentally unable to do any of these things – it’s because none of them have been allowed to do those things at home. My own 11-year-old daughter has been cooking since she was eight or nine, but one of her friends told me the other day she wasn’t allowed to go near the stove – at age 11?

My Brownies (aged 7-10), by the time they left me, could make tea and coffee, lay and light a fire by themselves and cook something simple over it, sew on a button, put up a hem, and that’s just for starters. And those might not sound like huge achievements, but there’s little to compare with the look of pride on an eight-year-old’s face when she lights a fire that she’s constructed from twigs and kindling she’s gathered herself. Or on a 12-year-old Girl Guide’s face when she cooks an entire meal in a foil packet over the coals, in the rain, or wires a plug correctly for the first time. Or even irons a shirt – I’ve had to teach the girls how to iron too.

Are some of the activities dangerous? Well, yes, of course they are. But the health and safety-obsessed/helicopter parenting world many of us live in has a lot to answer for. Instead of teaching kids what the potential hazards are and how to do things safely, and allowing them to learn from the mistakes they make, we just don’t default to “don’t”. “Don’t do that – you’ll burn/hurt/cut yourself.” Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. And so they don’t.

But with the little things we learn to do in life – like make a decent cup of tea – the best way to learn is to actually do it, to experiment, to try different things, to employ some trial and error – with emphasis on the error. How else do we learn that we like more or less hot water or milk if we don’t make a few dreadful cups of tea first?

When you learn those basic life skills, you’re not just learning how to thread a needle or twist the copper wires just right to get them to fit into that stupid little hole in the plug prongs, or tighten a screw securely. You are learning a host of bigger skills: perseverance, improvisation, patience, focus, planning – all of the things that when you put them together, result in that thing that ain’t so common anymore: common sense.

And when I contemplate a future of people with even less common sense than I see displayed around me every day, I fear for our world.

So here, from me, is a challenge to teach your children at least some of the following things. And if you don’t know how to do them, then perhaps this is a good way to spend some quality time together as you learn with them.

Seven to 10-year-olds can:

  • Make tea, coffee or other simple hot and cold beverages (and I don’t mean  mixing your gin and tonic!)
  • Cook simple meals
  • Bake
  • Make a salad
  • Sew on a button
  • Put up a hem
  • Lay and light a fire
  • Make their own bed
  • Wash and dry dishes

Ages 11 and upwards can:

  • Iron clothes
  • Chop wood (11 upwards)
  • Wire a plug
  • Mend a bicycle puncture
  • Bath a dog
  • Operate a sewing machine

And once they have the physical strength required, all kids should learn how to change a tyre unassisted, and so should you. I can – can you?


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§ 7 Responses to Teach your children well

  • jabedi says:

    Time is the commodity in short supply these days. Hats off to you teaching the girls, you must have a lot of patience. My son was a scout and cooks better than I do, he bakes as well. Initially told me he could not cook, only on gas or an open fire, apparently that did not count as cooking! At 28 he still uses all the skills he learned as a scout, and continues as a scouter teaching the younger kids. I just wish scouts and guides would come back into fashion. Such an awesome movement ans so needed in today’s society.


  • Kit says:

    I was doing pretty well on behalf of my kids, until I got to mend a bicycle puncture, chop wood and wire a plug! Must teach my kids those ones! They can do everything else on your list, except changing the tyre, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t mastered myself yet either. I know how in theory but, the only time I tried, the darn bolts were on so tight I couldn’t shift them and I had to do the helpless female thing.

    I never was a Guide or a Brownie, but it sounds like a much needed activity in today’s world. My kids went to a Waldorf primary school, where they teach a lot of the practical skills, such as sewing, knitting, gardening etc as part of the curriculum. And they were lighting candles safely in kindergarten. As you say, it’s better to teach them how to do all those things safely than not allow them to do them at all until they leave home!


  • […] Today, I noticed a similar post, by a retiring South African leader:  https://mandycollinswriter.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/teach-your-children-well/ […]


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