Take advantage of everyday chances to share life lessons with your child.
You probably do so many chores each day that you don't even give them a second thought, but they're actually a great way to help your child discover new things about the world around him. Children learn by show-and-tell. They watch you pay bills, do the dishes, and drive the car, but they probably don't understand how and why you're doing those things unless you tell them. Every place you take your child can easily be transformed into an instant classroom where you can teach him skills that will help make him a self-sufficient, well-rounded person. You just need to seize these teachable moments.
In the Car
You spend lots of time traveling with your kids. Grab their attention with a lesson about the rules of the road, and you might actually help delay the inevitable question, "Are we there yet?"
Little-kid lessons: Talk through each step: buckling your seat belt, using a key to start the car, and putting in gas so the car will go. Explain that it's the law to stop at red lights, slow down at yellow, and go at green so that cars coming from different directions will each have a turn and no one will get hit. Say, "We pull over for ambulances and fire trucks if their sirens are on because that means they need to get to an emergency quickly." Your kids will start to understand why you need to focus on the road when you're driving.
Big-kid concepts: Point out the speed-limit signs, explain why it's important to follow them, and show how to read the speedometer. Let your older child be your copilot (he can learn to read the map and follow driving directions). Teaching kids about streets and landmarks helps them develop a general awareness of their surroundings.
In the Laundry Room
Doing the wash is a great way to involve kids in housework. Teaching your child this chore will also ensure that your future college student won't be sending her dirty laundry home from the dorm.
Little-kid lessons: Help your child practice basic classification skills by sorting whites and colors. Tell her, "When clothes get wet in the washer, sometimes the dye that makes them different colors gets washed off. Since we don't want the dye to make our white clothes red or blue or purple, we keep colored clothes in a separate load." She can also start folding easy items like towels and pillowcases (teach her to match up the corners) and pairing up socks. She'll feel empowered, and she'll also begin to understand how families work together to get things done.
Big-kid concepts: Your older child can measure and pour the detergent, and fold and put away the laundry. You can even begin explaining the different washer and dryer settings so she can eventually complete this chore on her own.
At a Restaurant
A family dinner out is the perfect opportunity to teach table manners and proper public behavior.
Little-kid lessons: Model good restaurant etiquette for your child, and describe your behavior to help make it clear how you expect her to act and why. Tell her you speak softly and sit still so you don't disturb other people, that you chew with your mouth closed and use utensils properly to be polite, and that you say "please" and "thank you" to show your appreciation.
Big-kid concepts: Allow your child to order her own food, which lets her practice speaking to adults. You can also teach her about money by showing her the bill and giving her paper and a pencil to check to see that the total was added up correctly. (She can even do this on a napkin while you're waiting for your order at the pizzeria.)
At the Grocery Store
When you cook a meal, you have to think ahead, follow a plan, and make choices. Let your child help you at the supermarket so he can practice these skills.
Little-kid lessons: Have him draw a shopping list with pictures, or cut out magazine photos of items you usually get and paste them into a notebook he can take with him. Then have him look for them on the shelves as you go through the store. Whenever possible, give him a choice and let him make a decision. ("There are red and green apples. Which do you like better?")
Big-kid concepts: Have your older child write out his own grocery list with foods for his lunch box and snacks. Discuss together what will make your final cut and why. (A rule like "we can't buy anything with sugar as one of the first four ingredients" will get him reading nutrition labels and making healthy decisions.) Have him look through newspapers to clip coupons for items your family usually buys. You can even help him start to budget by letting him spend some of his allowance on a treat you wouldn't usually buy him.
At the Bank
Teach your child about budgeting by talking him through your trip to the ATM or your conversation with the bank teller.
Little-kid lessons: Explain the basics of keeping money in the bank: It's safe there because you know you won't lose it. (When you put -- or "deposit" -- money into a savings account, the bank pays you a little more money -- called "interest" -- for keeping it there. And when you need it, you can take it out -- or "withdraw" it.) Have your child count your bills for you; it will expose him to basic finance concepts.
Big-kid concepts: Narrate the process of writing out a check (show him what you write in each space and explain that the check lets the bank know it's okay to take money out of your account and pay it to the person you've written the check to), balancing a checkbook ("I subtract the amount of the check from my total balance, so I know how much money is left in my account"), filling out a deposit slip ("When someone writes a check to me, this is how I make sure the money gets into my account"), and going through the ATM instructions.
At the Post Office
Sending letters encourages reading and writing. Teaching your child to send thank-you notes for presents is an ideal way to introduce him to the mail system (and reinforce good manners).
Little-kid lessons: Explain that you have to pay money to send a letter, and have him help you pick out stamps, put them on the envelope in the right spot, and put the letter in the mailbox. Even just signing his name on a letter will help him practice handwriting and encourage communication and creativity. Explain that when you put letters in the mailbox, the postal worker takes them to the post office, where they're sorted. Then each one is delivered to the address you wrote on the envelope.
Big-kid concepts: Older children can write letters and address envelopes themselves. You might also use a map to mark where you're sending the letters and teach geography. A pen pal or Flat Stanley Project can inspire literacy and teach social-studies lessons.
Sources: Vicki Caruana, author of Giving Your Child the Excellence Edge: 10 Traits Your Child Needs to Achieve Lifelong Success; Amy James, author of the Knowledge Essentials book series; United Way's bornlearning.org
Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the March 2007 issue of Parents magazine.