Keeping your teen busy at home Part 1: Life Skills


When your older teen (ages 14-18) is unexpectedly stuck at home

British 16 year olds getting their adult ID card to be able to work…teenagers can do stuff! Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer / Public domain

British 16 year olds getting their adult ID card to be able to work…teenagers can do stuff!

Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer / Public domain


Older teens are challenging to deal with at home because most of their actual school work is beyond most parents: as adults, except for the material that might be a direct part of our work, we probably haven’t seen most of it for decades.  

The good thing is that older high school students are the easiest for teachers to manage remotely.  Most students this age already have access to computers as a normal part of their school work, and teachers of students this age are the most likely to already have online learning platforms in use.  

But what happens when the assigned work is done? 

The best thing overall to do with teenagers is to help them find a project.  By necessity, education at their age tends to be highly specialized, so projects are a rare opportunity for them to integrate their knowledge and skills in a way that more realistically imitates their future as workers and also develop those all important decision making skills.

Here are some ideas.

If these ideas aren’t what you had in mind, check out the other posts in this series:

Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home Part 2: Academic Enrichment

Keeping Your Teen Busy at Home: Part 3, A Pre-College Reading List

 1.     Work

Do you need a Junior Parent?

The nice thing about older teenagers is that they are really “young adults”.  They can handle most chores around the house and some major projects.  If you, as the parent, are working at home while trying to supervise younger kids, the very first thing to do is employ your teenagers.  They probably know more about the little ones’ school work than you do: they learned it more recently.

For other jobs around the house, as a parent, my assumption is that every member of the household is expected to contribute regular “sweat equity” to the upkeep of the home that everyone lives in, but I think it’s reasonable, if you can afford it, to pay family members for taking on projects that are over and above those regular contributions, including child care, cleaning, and other major projects. 

Do you need household help?

As an example, when I was young, my mom worked, and we were lucky enough to have someone come in once a week to clean the house, which was paid for out of my mom’s salary.  I started doing laundry and cleaning for pay at around age 11, so we never had someone come in after that. Of course, she paid me less than the outside cleaning lady, but I made something.  

Should you pay?

If you can’t afford to pay your teen, fine: if your entire salary/paycheck goes for the support of the family, the teen needs to understand that.  But if your older kids are expected to have the responsibilities of a junior parent, they should also have some of the privileges, including more private space than the other kids get and more freedom.  Things that don’t cost extra.  That’s fair. 

Sometimes preparation for college or elite sports can put a strain on the family budget. If possible, it’s fair for the beneficiaries of that to pitch in more too.

Teenagers like fair even more than money. Even if they don’t admit it.

Do you want to your child to be a complete slob as an adult?

It’s also really important that you do not send your child off into the world without having had experience with doing chores, operating household appliances, and knowing the basics of garment repair. If you don’t know, both of you need to get on Youtube.

What major projects have been making you feel guilty?

If you have a teen with some extra time, and you don’t need extra cleaning or child care services, (or if the teen is still bored) why not take advantage of the opportunity to get some projects done around the house?  Get the garage cleaned out.  Possibly get a room painted.  I’m telling you, there is nothing like an organized pantry. Whatever needs to be done that your kids can handle. 

Is it ok to make my kid do this stuff?

Yes, this is a learning experience:

 Your teen will learn “the value of a dollar” and also the art of contract negotiation. 

You are going to contract with your teen for the job you want done, the time allotted for completion, and the standards of work.  You will also have penalties for failure to complete the contract because you are not going to allow your teen to remove every item from the garage and leave a mess for you clean up!  You know your kids, so make sure penalties are enforceable and something your kid won’t like. 

For example, if I got stuck with having to finish the garage job myself, I would not only decline payment but would dock normal allowances for at least a month in compensation for the time I had to put into the job myself.  If you don’t pay allowances, you can also change all the digital passwords in the house or put child locks on them.  Have fun with it! 

Yes, I would shut down Netflix until I felt I had been compensated for my extra work.

If your teen is moaning, your teen is learning: it’s a lot better for him/her to learn about what is expected at work from you than from an actual job that is going on a resume.

Professional demeanor and behavior are important: who would you “keep on” longer?  A person who is unreliable or a person who has shaky job skills?  I know which one of those is the easiest to fix.

 The teens also get a chance to try their hands at being managers and organizers, which are also extremely important, whether they manage and organize themselves or others.

Side benefit: Once your kid has put hours and effort into a major project, there will probably be death to anyone who messes it up, so it may never need to be done again. Even if the kid got paid: I’m not kidding. Try it and you’ll see.

A Secret about Teenagers

I’m going to tell you another secret that your teen will probably never admit: giving them work…giving them responsibility…also gives them confidence. It can even make them think YOU LIKE THEM. 

I learned this lesson the first year I taught: I was having a hard time getting my students to do their school work, so I never asked them to do any chores in the classroom. I didn’t want to start another battle, and also I really didn’t want them to get out of their seats.

Yeah, they were that hard to handle.

A wise person told me to give them chores.  So I gave my worst kid some papers to staple. And it worked!  When I gave the kids chores (and these kids were mostly 13-15), they said, “She likes me,” and they tried harder on their school work. 

Don’t ask me.  I didn’t need to know why.  I just needed to teach them something and get through the school year.

 As a parent, also try to be a good boss.  Don’t micromanage.  Set up a clear and fair “contract”.  Make sure you can live with the terms (for example, limiting how long your garage stuff can be in your driveway) and then back off and let your teen figure it out.  That’s part of the learning process.

2. Cook

Here’s Some Direction (beyond Youtube)

If you have extra time and home, and your kids don’t already know how to cook, this is a good time to learn. If you don’t know either, learn together.

This book below has been my favorite since it was published 15 years ago, but the original is kind of bland in appearance. I’m happily surprised to see that it has been updated with color photos.

It taught me how to keep my kitchen organized and ready to turn out meals quickly, with a minimum of processed food (which I don’t think is very healthy & it’s also expensive).

This book is good because it teaches simple, interchangeable techniques rather than focusing on recipes. It also explains how to keep your kitchen properly stocked.

Judging by the mad rush to the grocery store whenever there is a slight issue (Coronavirus March 2020), a lot of people don’t know how to do this.

Note: Be careful if you buy this book used because the original edition has NO illustrations, and the recipes are a bit outdated. Make absolutely sure you are getting the updated edition.

Puddle Jumper

Lucy Knisely’s Relish is also a cool take on the topic with a similar approach. If your teen is reluctant, start with this graphic memoir with recipes.

As far as a cooking education, this book would just be a taster (pun intended because I’m that nerdy), but sometimes it’s better to ease in.

Each chapter concludes with a simple recipe that focuses on good, basic preparation techniques. Knisely is an artist and author, but her mom was a chef for many years.

Short Read

Read more about Lucy Knisely on The Lois Levels’ Lucy Knisely’s So-Called Graphic Life.

And finally, the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook has compensated for the rise of Internet recipes by betting better and better over the years at covering cooking techniques along with a wide range of classic American dishes.

I very often give this and/or How to Cook Without a Book as wedding presents.

It’s good to have a Better Homes and Garden in the house because you’ll always have a reliable recipe for ANYTHING you might want to make.

Puddle Jumper

I know teenagers think that they can do everything with an app; maybe you do too. It’s true, there are plenty of cooking blogs, but of course those blogs are also notorious for being long winded. My biggest issue with them is the approach is recipe oriented rather than cooking oriented, if that makes sense. Recipes are fine, but it’s good to get a basic understanding of technique, balance, and proportion down so that your teen (or you) doesn’t have to be a slave to recipes and specific ingredients.

When you get a system down, you can work with a certain range of products from each food group and generally be able to put a quick meal on the table.

Personally, I do it with a maximum of 30 minutes preparation time.

The idea is for your teen (and you, if you’re shaky on this) to know how to keep the kitchen stocked with food and tools (without having loads of specialty items or food waste) on hand and know how to pull a decent meal, with a protein, vegetables, and generally a carbohydrate, together quickly.


2.     Learn to touch-type/keyboard

Many kids know how to do this by high school.  Many schools teach or require it earlier, but if you kid’s school doesn’t, this is a good time to start.  Whether you have this skill or not, you know exactly how important it is.

I took a semester course in typing in high school, and I consider it one of the most useful things I ever did.

Kids from about age 10 on up can learn typing fairly easily, and kids even younger are capable of learning. If they keep “peeking” at the keyboard, buy a “skin” online to cover up the keys. It’s really important that they look at the computer screen or a wall chart so that they learn where the keys are by feel.

The right type is pictured below; just be sure you get one to fit your keyboard. I saw some that have different colors for different fingers, but these are pointless…the idea is NOT to look at the keyboard!

Mavis Beacon is a classic and will get the job done.

Free Resource

Or have your teen start with the Typing Club here, for free. Memberships are reasonable when your teen progresses beyond the basic stage.

3.     Learn to code

A lot of schools already teach coding, but if your teen hasn’t had it, this might be a good time to start, and there are free, self directed online programs to learn the basics.  Teens who like gaming in particular might take to coding. 

It might even turn in to a career.

If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, “coding” is learning to use computer languages to develop web pages and apps. A lot of people develop content without knowing any code, but the people who make those frameworks, such as the company that runs this page, write code.

Not everyone likes it, but it’s good to at least understand how coding works for general knowledge and a basic understanding of the Internet.  Even if your teen doesn’t become a coder, he/she will probably have to do some kind of content creation, and having a clue what goes on “under the hood” helps.

Coding develops logical thinking and reasoning. Good reading and listening skills are also built through following directions.  If steps are not followed precisely, the system won’t work. End of story.

Free Resource

Code Academy is a tried and true program that offers 180 hours of free training. From my experience working with coding teachers, I’ve learned that the kids who take to it learn rapidly and well on their own.

There are some other apps and games to teach basic coding to younger children as well.

4.Develop a website, blog, podcast, or video channel

These are all things your teen may have thought about doing anyway; this could be a good learning opportunity for both of you. 

 Don’t assume that your kids knows all this stuff; it’s not necessarily true.  And if your teen has more technical knowledge than you do, this can be a good time to combine skills because you probably have some business knowledge or other kinds of knowledge and skills that will help your teen. 

This topic is extremely complex.  I was trying to think of any easy way to explain it, and then I realized I don’t need to because that should be the beginning of the project.  Instead, here are some ideas for the rough steps your teen (and you) needs to follow.

At best, I could explain something about blogging because that’s what I do, but what works for me may not work best for your teen.

Helping the teen manage the task

Young Adults can be successful with complex projects, but they often need help with breaking them down into manageable tasks and also selecting the best ideas.  When I supervise the development of a big project with students, I give them timelines and specific outcomes for each step.  If I were working at home, I would agree with my teen on the same.  No need to dictate: discuss. 

It doesn’t matter whether your teen sticks with this project or not.  If it works, it may turn into lots of different things, but whatever your student does accomplish will be a good learning experience.  For that reason, I also would not invest any money in the venture until you are convinced that it is going to last.

 And if you feel a little shaky about the use of social or Internet media and feel like you aren’t doing the most with it professionally, this might be a good learning experience for you too. 

Older adolescents are especially receptive to an adult who says, “I don’t know; let’s figure this out,” and asking to learn what your kid knows might do wonders for your relationship.

Tips for dealing with older teens without losing your mind.

1.     With older teens, never order: ask a question.  For example, don’t say “Do not stick your head out of the window while I am driving.” Instead, say, “I’m sorry for asking this, but you really aren’t thinking of sticking your head out of the window are you?”  And no, you may not say it sarcastically. 

2.     Say, “It is not my job to have all the answers.  I don’t.  It’s my job to help you figure out the right questions.” 

The idea is to get them to come to you and not their friends when they have BIG questions. 

Guess what? They know you don’t have all the answers already, so all you have done is make yourself look semi-intelligent to your kids.  You did good. 😉 They don’t think you are totally unintelligent today.

 Seriously, if your kids can only come up with answers that you have already thought of, they aren’t very good divergent thinkers, and they need to develop that.

Making it real

I would suggest having some kind of “pitching” meeting with your teen during each step of the process. Usually, for major projects, I would have students give me their top three ideas in writing.  I would read them over in advance and then have a 10-15 meeting with each student to discuss options.

It’s important to get three ideas from the students because they don’t have the experience to know what is original or thought provoking: very often, when I asked, “Why is this topic first?” they would say because they thought it was the easiest to research.  My motive was to find out how “in love” they were with their “number one” before I went on to the others.

The best papers my students ever produced usually came from options that were originally not their top choices.

General steps

 Here are some rough steps to get started with, but don’t hesitate to break them down. Send the teen off to do research and get reports. Help your teen work through each step before going on to the next one.

A.     Decide what media is going to be created.  Allow only one to start…this is a lot more complex than your teen probably thinks.

B.     Examine the platform options.  For a blog, the students need to choose between Squarespace, Blogger, Tumblr, WordPress, or whatever else they find.  Each have their pros and cons. 

C.     Decide on funding.  If you pay, you need to work out a budget with the teen. For a blog, the actual out of pocket costs should be low, but going with development packages that are completely free can cause problems later because the creator sometimes loses certain rights to the content.

This is a good time for your teen to learn the meaning of this statement: There is nothing free in this world. 

D.    Work on content (which you can do with the teen before funding is worked out).  Who is the audience? How often will new content “go live”? What topics will the blog have?  Sample posts need to be written or developed to demonstrate whether the content plan works.  Your teen also needs to know how long writing and posting each article will take.

Note: One of the most difficult things about blogging is getting good information about blogging, and this is probably true for all online media development.  Most online platforms are thinly veiled sales pitches, and many traditional books are out of date by the time they hit the shelves.  I personally have found e-books self published and available through Kindle Unlimited or free on Kindle the best sources, but I have had to skim through a lot of them to extract useful nuggets.   The information is up-to-date but the validity might be questionable because the books are self published and haven’t been through the proper editing/revision process. The tech support on Squarespace, which I use, is good too.

I found Blogging for Dummies helpful on a basic level, but double and triple check you have the latest edition. I even found an outdated edition at Barnes & Noble.

The version below was published August, 2019.

Puddle Jumper

This video from science.mom below is aimed at younger kids interested in becoming “Youtubers”, but it is realistic.

You have to love what you’re doing enough to crank out that content regularly, every week.

I feel like I have made this process look extraordinarily simple: it isn’t.  But what is true is that your kid can learn a lot of “soft skills” that are important for the workplace from this process, and at the same time, I hope, they can develop their interests and passions.  The beginning of finding one’s own path is a key process for kids this age.  They need time, space, and your support to work on it to start to figure out what they want their lives to look like. And just so you know, the top universities are looking for kids who have that passion.  Your kids need good grades and test scores, possibly even top grades and test scores, but they also need to know what it’s all for.

 Figuring that out is what these years are for.

1 thought on “Keeping your teen busy at home Part 1: Life Skills”

  1. Yes, I agree. This is a great opportunity for my daughter to help out more around the house…and help her little brother with his Arabic. 🙂

Comments are closed.