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What today's kids don't know, who's to blame, and how to fix it

Can't balance a checkbook? It's not the only practical subject today's teens haven't mastered

Good-mother moment: Noting with satisfaction that I have taught my kids, including my youngest, the 16-year-old, to write thank-you notes. Bad-mother moment: When I realized I’d never taught her how to mail them.

I found her latest effort in the mailbox, waiting for pickup. “Oh, wait, you forgot to put a postage stamp on it,” I said, taking it out. “A whatta stamp?” she said. Turns out she thought stamps were for decoration and came in the mail with charitable solicitations, like those return-address stickers. She had wondered from time to time how all that mail got moved around for free, but not enough to look into the situation.

So much for the practical skills of my straight-A student. Not her fault, though. The basics of postage were among the things I’d forgotten to teach her.

Oh, this list could get long. We used to joke about the “theoretical dishwashing” performed by our eldest. We’d never actually taught her how to wash dishes, but she’d seen us do it and it was one of her preteen chores. The problem was that she thought dishwashing consisted solely of passing a soapy sponge along the surface of a dirty dish. Theoretically, it would be clean at that point, right? It took a while to drive home the fact that the removal of all dirt and grease was a necessary part of the process.

All the kids had to do their own laundry starting at age 8, but my son was in his teens before I realized he had no folding skills; he’d been paying his baby sister 50 cents a load to do it.

The latest findings on the latest shortcoming of U.S. students should have us all thinking a little more about what they don’t know. In this case, American teens, though they weren’t total laggards, were not as informed about financial matters as kids in some other nations. (You’ve probably guessed that China was No. 1; how else could it be that we would end up spending our hard-earned money to buy so many badly made and grown products?)

In our obsession over college-prep everything, we’ve raised a generation that knows how to fill in test bubbles expertly and fret over historical factoids, but doesn’t know how to change a tire or save money on college or avoid credit-card debt. Not to mention how to sew a button or do the courtesy of offering a seat to an elderly person. Or how to start up a social conversation at a party (MIT now offers a course on social skills), avoid walking behind cars that have their backup lights on, and cover yawns. Really, exactly when did it become acceptable to display our adenoids to the world?

This isn’t about expecting the schools to take over my job, however inexpertly I might do it at times. My husband and I still bear responsibility for teaching the kids the difference between theoretical and actual dishwashing. But there is so much repetition in the public school curriculum, there should easily be time for a year or two of training in practical skills for everyday life.

We could make inroads on obesity by teaching some healthy eating habits along with the basics of cooking from scratch. One of the best investments we could make in national health is teaching kids how to make vegetables taste good.

We could give them a little working knowledge of some tools and how to handle a few of the most common repair jobs.

And, yes, how to balance a checkbook and avoid building debt, which would include a lesson on how advertising tries to manipulate them into wasteful expenditures.

What would you add to — or subtract from — the list of practical skills that children should learn at school?

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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