the Real Skills For Success


Words by Elaine Halligan

As a parenting facilitator and coach, I spend my days delivering positive parenting courses and coaching parents 1-1. Without exception every parent I meet says they want their children to be happy and to grow into confident and competent young adults, who can lead fulfilling lives. They want them to succeed, however we choose to define that word, and to be able to live a life which maximises their strengths and hopefully in doing so they will find their passion.

As a family, we had to redefine and recalibrate what success looked like to us, as we had a child who could not be educated in the traditional school setting., By the time he was seven years old, he had been excluded from three schools and was burdened with a plethora of diagnostic abbreviations that led him to being known as the Alphabet Kid. We were in crisis and found ourselves thinking our son would end up in a young offender’s institution. As he was out of school for almost two years, we had to completely recalibrate what was normal. We were told he would struggle to sit GSCE’s and never sit A levels and his diagnoses ranged from ADD to Oppositional Defiance Disorder to Pragmatic semantic language issues. It eventually materialised that Sam is severely dyslexic, but his anxiety levels were so acute that his behaviour presented as a very confusing picture for the professionals as well as ourselves. 

I felt very different to other parents and I was in a different place, dealing with very different issues. I was surrounded by parents who appeared to be treating their children’s progress as a project development exercise, with goals and targets and I felt as if I’d unwittingly entered into some sort of competitive race. Academic success, represented by grades and getting into the right school, then the right University, are often the pinnacle of a parent’s goals.

However what use is it if a young adult has been tutored, taught and trained within an inch of his life, to get into Oxbridge, only to find that on arriving there they lack the pragmatic life skills to actually survive- let alone thrive – in real life? Knowing how to cook for yourself, manage finances, wash a jumper and change a fuse or a car tyre are essential life skills, and we do our children no favours when we don’t give them the opportunity to think and act for themselves and when we believe schooling is the limit of their education.

There are several extra-curricularskills which are essential to giving our children a positive edge. With these skills our son Sam, entered adulthood feeling competent and confident, understanding his strengths, knowing his passions and wanting to maximise his own potential. The development of life skills came later for Ben Fogle, the explorer , who admits openly that he struggled with low self esteem and imposter syndrome much of his life and the root of it was his lack of academic success at school. He says “I couldn’t spell, I failed all my exams. I was never picked for any teams. I felt like I’d already been written off as a failure.” *( Saturday Telegraph, 13 October 2018)

It’s vital for children’s success both academically and personally that they learn how to problem solve, how to think creatively and how to consider other people’s perspectives. Here are seven practical tips for achieving that positive edge.




Teach them How to Cook

When tweens or teens learn how to plan and cook a meal, they develop a sense of independence and making a contribution and develop several competencies. They learn to plan, read through instructions, get together the resources (ingredients and equipment) for the task, work out if the instructions need to be adapted (eg for different numbers or substituting ingredients), understand the implications of such changes or thinking through consequences, understand the practical science involved, time management (what can I be doing while that sauce is simmering?) and responsibility (is this sauce going to burn or turn lumpy if I don’t stir it constantly?)

Even young children can be given a blunt knife and asked to chop pepper or cucumber. Give up any thoughts of perfection and let them make mistakes and don’t forget to teach them that all good cooks clear up after themselves, ideally as they go along.


Give them Pocket Money or Allowance

Managing money is a life skill and needs to be taught. We give our kids swimming lessons in order to keep them safe in water -we don’t throw them in the deep end and expect them to swim. In order to make our children safe with money we need to be giving them some pocket money or an allowance and allow them to earn extra for jobs beyond their normal household duties.

Start giving your children small amounts of pocket money whilst at primary school and for teenage children give them an allowance. It sends a very powerful message that we trust you and feel you can be responsible with managing money. You might like to set up 3 jars: saving, spending and sharing – you may decide what proportion goes into each one or leave that up to your child. Having your children wait and save teaches delayed gratification, a very important life skill.


Talk about Feelings

Being emotionally literate and being able to understand and communicate about emotions is perhaps the most important life skill for a child to learn. Being emotionally intelligent leads to greater self-esteem, and teaching children how to deal with uncomfortable feelings with words, will teach them to be responsible for dealing with life’s knocks in a positive way. Also teaching them to understand others’ feelings and perspectives is crucial for empathy and at the core of all good relationships, whether personal or professional. Considering other perspectives is an essential precursor to thinking outside the box, creativity being a future-proofing skill.

We can also help them to deal with anger by taking vigorous exercise – jumping on a trampoline or doing star jumps  -or by visualising a calm place, or with sadness by listening to music, or with overwhelm by making a list, building a Lego structure or doing a jigsaw. By regulating our own emotions through words and other self-calming strategies we will encourage our children to do the same.

Give them Household Chores

Competence breeds confidence and parents should ensure that everyone in the family has some responsibilities or chores that contribute to the good of the household. Try and keep chores fun, and often even simple things like playing music, or singing songs can make all the difference between mundane tasks and family fun time. It can be a good idea to have designated family responsibility time –doing it all together makes it easier. Littlies can learn to love getting the hoover out or taking pride in making their bed and even the teens can take responsibility for walking the dog one day at the weekend.

Be with Animals

Whether it’s a goldfish, a pet hamster, a dog or a cat, animals will be a friend for your child and being with them helps them develop compassion and nurturing instincts. Learning to ride a horse also builds confidence and resilience. If you don’t have animals, offer to walk a neighbour’s dog or borrow one from

Be in Nature

Don’t let your children succumb to a nature deficit disorder. Ensure they have regular walks and outings to the local common or park. Fresh air and family fun promotes creativity and imagination. It also teaches responsibility and they learn about what happens if you don’t water a plant, and why you can play with a fallen branch, but must not break a branch off a tree. Take up Geocaching, the treasure hunting game involving  a GPS to find containers. The problem solving and deductive , creative skills needed to find the treasure, make this a winning formula for learning and having fun at the same time

Teach them Gratitude

In order for our children to develop a sense of gratitude, they need to be aware of the world around them and be able to think of others. This doesn’t mean lecturing them about the starving children in Africa when they don’t eat their dinner! Thank you notes may seem old fashioned in the era of email technology, but they teach our children to respect others’ efforts on their behalf. So just remember to pop in a set of thank you notes into their xmas stocking this year! When we appreciate our children frequently for the small things they get right they develop the habit of appreciation.

Elaine Halligan is Director of The Parent Practice, an organisation that helps parents bring out the best in their children.

Her new book, My Child’s Different, was published by Crown House in August 2018