Raising adults who can live alone

I’m asking for trouble with what I’m about to say, I fear.

I don’t have children, so any opinion I voice on the matter of raising them is usually dismissed as worth less than the time taken to voice it. Fair enough. But I am a member of society and I work, live and spend my leisure time alongside people who were once someone’s child, and I have an opinion on some of those people.

My view on parenting is this: the job of a parent is to raise functioning, independent, socially responsible adults. In other words, raising children is about raising adults.

And in order to be an adult, one must be able to take care of oneself (leaving out of this discussion disability and special needs that necessitate special care). Being able to take care of oneself to a large extent defines adulthood. You can’t be independent if you can’t look after yourself.

My particular beef with current parenting tactics is the near-complete absence of basic life skills that parents seem to be imparting to their kids. I watch parents — in cafes and libraries, at home, at social events, and at the messages sent through ads for cleaning products on TV — and what strikes me is how much parents do for their able-bodied children.

I realise parents want to show that they care for their children and take care of them. I’m not proposing a complete abandonment of care. But at some point, all this “doing for” is doing the children a disservice. They are not learning how to do things themselves when you are doing it all for them. It’s like doing their homework for them – they might get an A but really, you got the A and they still know nothing.

If a child is never required to pick up things and put them away, never required to make their bed, never required to learn how to do laundry or pack their own lunch or cook a basic meal or budget their money to save for something they want – if they don’t learn this at home, when do you expect them to learn it? They’re not going to get it at college, and they won’t learn it from their friends who are similarly unskilled. They’re not going to learn it at work (and believe me, I see a lot of the results of this at work – the shared kitchen is testament to people who haven’t learned to clean up after themselves.)

The thing about being able to look after yourself in these ways is that it’s not just about being able to live on your own. It’s also about being able to live with other people. Picking up after yourself means that someone else doesn’t have to put up with your mess. I really feel for the future partners and spouses of these people.

The aforementioned work shared kitchen would be a much nicer place to use if other people didn’t treat it like they treat their parents’ kitchen and expect their mother to tidy up after them. It’s no coincidence that the most common poster in shared work kitchens says “Your mother doesn’t work here”.


Why you need to learn to live alone

That’s a bold assertion.

Look around you. How many widows and widowers do you see?  There are a lot, and there will be more. Granted, we’re living longer now that we used to, but that just means you’re older when you’re first hit with the challenge of living alone.

My uncle died recently. He was 90, and he and my aunt had been married for 60 years and 6 months. Think about that: my aunt has not lived on her own for 60 years, and when she married, she went from flatting with other students to married life. She has never lived on her own.

My father is 85. He and my mother were married for 53 years and now he is living on his own after she died. He went from student flat to married life and he too has never lived on his own before.

Surely, the worst time to learn to live on your own is when you’re freshly bereaved. I can’t imagine what it must be like for either my aunt or my father to find themselves living in an empty house after all those years with someone. The loss is hard enough, let alone realising that all of a sudden, you realise you don’t know how to look after yourself.

Dad has, in his 80s, had to learn the basic skills of looking after himself. I find this remarkable and sad. And a bit scary. He’s a fully grown adult, obviously, but in terms of knowing how to look after himself, he’s a neophyte. He’s not as bad as a vast number of his generation (I’m thinking of the men who typically remarry 6 months after losing a spouse because they need a housekeeper) because he does have some core housekeeping skills that he has had to develop fairly recently. Before my mother died, she was going blind from macular degeneration, so Dad had to take on many of the household chores, albeit under her direction. So he knows how, and how often, to vacuum; he does the grocery shopping; he does laundry; and he can cook and even bake a little. He’s pushing himself to learn new dishes, and that’s a good thing as it improves his diet, although he is no slouch in that area and regularly has 5 veg with his evening meal.

But the point is really that now that he is on his own he is suddenly finding that the has to be responsible for all these things. It’s no longer optional. His wife isn’t there to tell him when to put the potatoes on and how long to cook the chicken for (she micromanaged his cooking even in her blindness, so he never really learned, he just followed her directions). Now he has no-one to give him directions. Previously, cooking dinner one or two nights a week was something he’d get a massive pat on the back for, and I don’t think it ever really occurred to him that it wasn’t particularly praise-worthy, that it was just an essential skill if he wanted to eat.

Likewise with laundry and cleaning the house. He’d do it once in a while and feel proud of himself and perhaps even tease my mother about dirt he found hidden in some nook or cranny, but it never really seemed to occur to him that cleaning the house was something that needed doing every week and that he maybe should learn to do it too. It’s not about it being someone’s job: it’s about knowing how to look after yourself.

The fact of it is, you don’t need to live alone to master these core life skills. But you do need to master then, and to prepare yourself for the day when it might happen. And even if it doesn’t, can you really call yourself an adult if you’re incompetent when it comes to executing the basic activities needed to keep yourself alive and functioning?

Solo mid winter holiday

It’s been cold and wet. What better time for a mid winter getaway. 

I’ve booked five days in a hotel. I’m planning on sitting by the pool, going for walks, sketching and reading. 

I’m hoping to upgrade my room to one with a balcony, so I can sit in solitude observing the world and keeping to myself. 

When I’ve told people where I’m going they’re quick to recommend local attractions and distractions: zoos, national parks, amusement parks, shopping etc.  

It seems incomprehensible to most extroverted people that I’d go on holiday alone. That having done so, I wouldn’t make every effort to be around people, only adds to their bafflement. 

But I’m really looking forward to it. I look forward to spending time people watching without having to make conversation. I’m looking forward to losing myself for hours in a book or in a sketch or a walk. 

Most of all I’m looking forward to being alone. Which is ironic really. 

Travelling alone

White canyon near Sipapu Bridge. Natural Bridges National Monument, 05/1972.
Source: US National Archives, from Flickr Commons

I travelled on my own quite a lot in my 20s. I left home with a one way air ticket to the US and en route spent 3 months touring round Europe with a Eurail pass like every good student did then. I had a great time, staying in youth hostels and travelling for a day or a week at a time with someone I met in a hostel.

I loved the sense of independence it gave me, and the freedom to go where I wanted and see what I wanted. It wasn’t a lonely experience at all because wherever I went there were people to share the journey with.

When I was living in the US, I still travelled alone. I didn’t have much choice. If I wanted to go somewhere I went on my own. A lot of my travels were job related, attending conferences etc (it was Birmingham, Alabama where I first learned how to eat a meal in a restaurant on my own and feel fine about it).

I enjoyed skiing, and I booked myself week-long ski holidays at resorts in Colorado, most memorably in Durango. Skiing at Purgatory, with almost the entire mountain to myself and perfect sunny days with dry snow, was absolute joy – if that’s purgatory, sign me up.

More recently, I’ve been taking a few weekend road trips, just booking a hotel somewhere and driving there, seeing the sights, staying over, and coming home. I’m thinking about a late-winter break in the form of a week away in the islands or Australia’s Sunshine Coast.

This doesn’t require particular courage. I think the thought of travelling alone is daunting for a lot of people, but it needn’t be traumatic. (It is supposed to be fun, don’t forget). Sightseeing tours and the like are perfectly easy to participate in as a solo adventurer. Museums, sights, shopping etc are all easy solo activities. Perhaps the most challenging one is eating, but my solution to this has always been to make lunch the main meal, and buy something to eat in my room or poolside or wherever for dinner. Lunch is easier to eat on your own because cafes seem suited to solo eating; and lunch is much cheaper than dinner (even in a swanky restaurant — if you want to try out a prestige restaurant, lunch is a great option), so it’s a win on both counts. Eating a lighter snack for dinner is a nice change of pace. Stopping off in a pub or bar for a drink before dinner is perfectly acceptable too.

The one thing that stings as a solo traveller is the room surcharge. Most travel packages and room rates are quoted per person, and when you’re travelling alone the full room rate falls to you. There’s not much you can do about this other than budget for it and suck it up as the price you have to pay for some peace and quiet.