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    Dad, How Do I Change My Car's Oil?

    Don't let your teen leave home without these basic life skills.

    Todd Hertz

    When I got my high school diploma, I thought for sure I was ready for the world. My first clue I didn't quite know everything came a few weeks later when I stood in front of a foreign square machine with a pile of dirty rags in my arms. I figured out how to open this "washing machine," but the rest of the process was a mystery. I was in trouble.

    I was at my summer job and it was my turn to wash the shop rags. My boss gave me this task and went home for the day, assuming I didn't need instructions. Thankfully, another employee found me poking and prying at the washer as if it just dropped from Mars. That's when I realized that despite picking up all my school supplies and buying my college sweatshirt, I wasn't fully equipped to move away from Mom and Dad.

    Of course, I probably could have survived college without mastering laundry or other home skills right away (although I probably would have been a little dirtier). So parents shouldn't panic if their kids don't know everything about life outside the nest, but there are basic survival skills every college freshman should pick up—even at the last minute.


    My mom's first warning sign about laundry probably came when we were school shopping. She picked out two sets of sheets for my dorm room. "Why do I need two sets?" I asked.

    "One is to put on the bed when you're washing the others," she said. "Washing?"

    Like my own mom did at that point, you probably need to hold a little Laundry 101 course. My mom started by simply stressing the need to wash bed linens, towels and clothes every so often. Then we moved on to the complicated world of fabric softeners, when to add soap and when to use certain water temps. Lessons to include in the curriculum: What not to wash with what and how (and when) to use stain-fighting products and bleach.

    My parents and I then moved onto other household basics. Depending on living arrangements at school, a student may or may not have to worry about cooking, cleaning or other household chores. But I found that the best and easiest time to learn these skills is while still living at home day-to-day. There, Mom and Dad made (I mean, let) me prepare quick-and-easy meals like pasta, eggs and grilled cheese sandwiches. This kind of on-the-job chef training is best when it's focused on the basics of baking or preparing a quick meal. Even if your student won't be doing much cooking in college, these rudimentary skills will help in the long run.

    When I started living by myself, the two most helpful skills were cleaning the bathroom and vacuuming. Both were part of my weekly chores as a high school student. You may be thinking, My kid won't do that. Well, if allowance depends on it, they just might. Or gas money, car privileges or date money. I must admit: I didn't particularly like scrubbing the toilet, but it helped prepare me for life outside the nest. This wasn't the case for my first roommate. He never had to do any cleaning growing up. And so, in our year of living together, he only vacuumed once and never, no, never cleaned his bathroom. His tub was coated in red and black muck surrounding two white footprints where he apparently always stood. The toilet was even scarier.

    Of course, most students living in the dorm don't need to worry about their bathrooms. For dorm living, sweeping and dusting are probably the most-needed skills. And like laundry, when you teach cleaning skills the biggest key might be that these duties need to be done.

    One last important skill is ironing. Most dorms have ironing boards available to students in the hallways or laundry room. One day during my junior year—after three years of living on our own—my friend asked, "So what is that thing?" While I can't say that I was an ironing machine in college, the skill did come in quite handy for special occasions like internship interviews.

    Car maintenance

    Not all colleges allow freshmen to have cars, and on some campuses a car just isn't necessary. But even without a car on campus, a few car tips come in handy. One day an upperclassman from Florida and I were caught in a snowstorm during a shopping trip. He couldn't see out of his windshield because of Illinois winter slush and muck. He had no idea how to add windshield cleaner. Luckily, I did. It's a small thing, but in bad weather it became big.

    Jumping a battery and changing a flat tire are the biggies for you to teach in car maintenance. I remember one long afternoon out on a street trying to change a tire. It started with two of us. Soon, a crowd gathered, with everyone shouting instructions and trying to help. We had at least three manuals out. A professor drove by and said, "So how many higher education students does it take to change a tire?"

    I went home and asked Dad to give me a crash course in auto maintenance. He taught me to check and change the oil and replace a headlight. I can honestly say all three came in handy within the first year, but checking the oil is probably the only mandatory for well-equipped college students. So before your college-bound kid leaves for college, show him or her how to find a dipstick and what it's there for. After all, a quart of oil is a lot cheaper than a new engine.


    One of the worst things for me during my college years was caring for myself when I got sick. It was much easier when Mom would decide if I needed a doctor. But she did teach me some good basic skills like how to take my temperature and how to choose over-the-counter medicines. I'd also encourage you to teach your college-bound child how to "self-diagnose" basic signs of sickness: enlarged tonsils, aching ears and even the color of nasal drainage. Then offer some basic rules of thumb about when it does or doesn't make sense to visit the school's health care center.

    Mom also gave me lots of little tips that helped me feel better. Drinking lots of fluids, taking a bunch of vitamin C, using a vaporizer and even eating pickles to loosen phlegm have helped me a lot. Remember to pass along any old family secrets to ease colds and sickness.

    Students going off to college should also know the importance of simply eating right and getting exercise. When they suddenly don't have to take gym anymore, new college students can think walking to class is enough exercise. The cafeteria's all-you-can-eat buffet is also an inviting temptation. Parents can best help by teaching good eating habits and healthy lifestyles.


    I wasn't always happy about my mom making me balance my checkbook in high school. So in college, I didn't. I thought it was enough to just record all my checks and ATM usage. Statements from the bank would pile up on my desk in a "get to it someday" pile. Before I knew it, I was overdrawn big time because of bad math in my checkbook. It seems basic, but in my opinion, the first lesson in Handling Finances 101 is "you have to balance your checkbook or understand how to use your bank's online bill-pay and account history site." Although my Mom taught this course, I must have been napping. And I paid for it.

    Financial responsibility for college students goes beyond this, though. I didn't have a credit card when I lived at home with my parents. So, when I did, I had no one around to help me learn how to manage it. I used it here and there and figured I'd spent about $50. When I opened up that first statement, I was shocked to discover all the "here" and "there" added up to more than $300. I tried to just pay the minimum every month—but soon got into worse shape. Finally, I went to Mom and Dad to figure out the best ways to use plastic and pay off the balance.

    My brother also struggled a little in college with handling money. As he started school, he didn't understand the importance of a budget. Because of that, he would freely spend money as he got it—not realizing how many bills needed to be paid before the next payday.

    By showing your child how to create a sensible budget during high school, you can plant the seeds for long-term financial responsibility. That way, college students can eventually pay for a house to clean, a car to maintain, and a washing machine they know how to work.