5 Lessons in Home Economics That Parents Need to Teach

I remember way back when “home ec” was a course required in high schools across the land. When my older siblings were in school, the girls had to take “home ec” and the boys took “shop class” (industrial arts). By the time I entered high school it was not quite so segregated, but as far as I was concerned at the time, both classes were a waste of time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Both are (or should be) essential parts of a kids’ education. In order to become responsible adults, teens need to know the basic economics of running a household. And it sure wouldn’t hurt if more people knew how to build things and maintain them.

Whether or not the school is still teaching such things, it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure their child is learning such valuable old fashioned “home ec” lessons as:

1. Finance.

I recently heard on the radio that the average American is at least $60,000 in debt.  How can this be? (And of course our nation is something like $20 trillion in debt.) Somebody has not been teaching, or somebody has not been listening. And a whole lot of people have not been putting into practice good responsible financial practices. (Of course there are extenuated circumstances such as prolonged illnesses or accidents that put us into unexpected debt. I am talking about irresponsibility concerning simple economics.) We need to be diligent in teaching our children good habits about finances.

It begins with a few precepts. Save all the money you can. If it’s just five dollars a week, then save that. If you can save more, do it. Do everything possible to stay out of debt. I would tell my kids all the time, “Save your pennies and you will never lack for dollars.” My wife and I told the kids from the time they began school that when they turned 18 they would have to do one of three things: go to college, or join the workforce, or join the military (no one would live in our basement for free while playing video games endlessly).

If they decided to go to college, my wife and I were not paying their way (we didn’t have the money anyway). They would have to pay their own way while working (which is what my wife did years ago), get a scholarship (which is what I was able to do), or join the military and go to college through the G.I. Bill (one of my sons did this). Taking out a college loan and being in debt for the next twenty years (or more) was anathema.

We warned our kids that if they thought they absolutely had to take out a college loan, fine. Just don’t stiff anyone for the bill. If they sign the loan, they had better pay it off. But try to avoid a loan like the plague. So far, our kids have listened.

We taught our kids from first grade on that “cash is king.” Use cash as often as possible to stay out of debt. Credit cards are fine, IF you pay them off at the end of every month. “Make your credit cards work for you — you don’t work for them.” Loans are fine IF they do not suck up an inordinate amount of your living expenses, and you can pay them off in a decent amount of time.

By the time our kids entered middle school, my wife and I started savings accounts for them (they had allowances for their chores at home), and we taught them about interest rates and how good investments and compound interest could make their money grow. Once they were 18, we helped them get credit cards (with a $500 limit) and taught them how to balance a check book.

We taught our children from elementary school on the differences in economic theories. Our children knew the difference between socialism (“command and control centralized planning economics”) and capitalism (“free market economics”) early on. By the time they were in high school they knew the difference between the government-spending theories of John Maynard Keynes and the free market theories of Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman (we are big proponents of free market economics).

Save all you can, be generous (out of your own wallet) to those in need, and prepare for the future by staying out of debt.

2. Cooking.

Man is it FUN!! Our kids LOVED being in the kitchen! My wife and I made it enjoyable from the get-go. You get to eat what you make, and you learn to serve others! I am shocked that so many in their twenties and thirties simply do not know how to cook. So they waste money (and damage their health) by eating out at fast-food joints. Learn how to cook — and you’ll save money and have a great time too.

One of my favorite memories is of my daughter and me making whole wheat pancakes. She was only four but I put her on a stool and she helped me make the batter, then we’d pour it on the griddle. I kept telling her, “You can’t mess up pancakes” (we did have a few close calls though). And we’d end each episode in the kitchen by pretending we were the “Swedish Chef” from the Muppets and we’d sing his song, always ending with “Bort! Bort! Bort!” (whatever that meant).

Even though she’s almost all grown up now, we still make pancakes together and sing like the Swedish Chef to each other. It’s hilarious to us, and the pancakes still taste great! Here’s our “inspiration,” the Swedish Chef:

In home ec, focus on nutrition, taste, and money. Make sure students know that eating good nutritious food can and does taste better, but it’s also cheaper in the long run. Like I tell people all the time, eating good healthy food is a whole lot cheaper than acquiring so many of the preventable diseases Americans have these days.

Breakfast is fun and easy (how can you mess up scrambled eggs or oatmeal or cold cereal and a cut up grapefruit?). Lunch can be more of a challenge, but people can get really creative with sandwiches and salads (recipes on the Internet are really helpful). Dinner is usually the toughest, but our kids learned to make spaghetti first, then burgers on the grill, then finally chili or stir-fry (throw in leftovers and fresh vegetables with some great spices). Dessert is EVERYONE’s favorite to “play with.” Homemade ice cream, pies, cookies, cakes … we just have to be careful though about too much sugar. Our oldest kids are on their own now and love to cook!

3. Repair and Maintenance.

Do your kids know how to sew? Can they change the oil in the car or the lawn mower? If not, why not? It saves money and they learn valuable skills. Start your students early about the responsibility of keeping a household running by giving them jobs. Our kids had “chores” from the time they could walk — like picking up their toys and putting away their clothes.

As they got a little older they “graduated” to making their beds, washing dishes, vacuuming the house, and cleaning the bathroom. Everyone has to pitch in. They learn that these things are not “magically done” by pixies! A household is run by people maintaining it, and part of maintaining is fixing or changing things.

I am not a repairman. I sometimes think I live to keep the plumbers and electricians of this world employed. But my wife and I have taught our kids some of the basics of how to do things yourself. Wouldn’t it be great if more kids were into sewing? Think of the money it would save if they made many of their own clothes! And think of the money they could earn by sewing and doing alterations for others! (Knowing how to sew on a button and insignia sure helped out my son when he was in the Marines.)

Changing a furnace filter is not a mystery. Tell the kids why it must be done, show them, then let them do it.  Is the belt in the dryer broken?  Find out on YouTube how to fix it, go to the parts store and get the belt, then have your kids help you fix it. It is a teachable moment. If I don’t know how to do the job (which is often) I have hired a handyman and had all of us watch and pitch in and learn. We all gotta learn this stuff.

4. Gardening.

Why is this in home ec? Because growing your own fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices teaches self-sufficiency, hard work, persistence, and patience — and gratitude for where the grocery store “magically” comes up with these things. Gardening (and raising farm animals too!) teaches us science as well as economics.

Growing your food is healthier and cheaper than getting it at many stores. (My wife makes her own spaghetti sauce from scratch. She grows her own tomatoes, garlic, oregano, basil, onions … and cans gallons of this stuff to enjoy all year long!) Of course, if you grow enough, you can sell it too. Same with a flower garden, if you’re enterprising enough.

Maybe the kids will want to build a greenhouse. Maybe they will want to start a business and sell their own produce. What better way to teach economics than risking your own capital, starting your own little “produce stand” and selling what you’ve grown? I guarantee this will give young people a strong dose of reality. You learn how to handle adversity (like the weather) and — probably — how to deal with government regulation. Now that’s reality for ya.

5. Shopping.

Here’s more reality. Students need to learn to shop for bargains. They must learn the difference between “wants” and “needs” (lifelong process, I know). And they should cultivate an attitude of “delayed gratification.” Do not be an impulse buyer! Kids need to learn early on to control their desires, look for bargains, use coupons, and shop when the store has to unload a bunch of merchandise.

We like shopping at big stores like Sam’s Club when we need to look for volume, but we often shop at smaller “mom and pop” stores (they often have better quality and better service). In addition to taking our kids on the regular grocery/clothing/hardware shopping, we also made sure they were with us for the “big ticket” items like buying a house or a car. They learned how to have a poker face, how to ask good questions, and how to negotiate honestly for the best possible deal (while living within our means).  Teach by example; they will learn by your doing.

Home economics is not about theory. It is about valuable skills our kids will need and use every day of their lives.

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