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Our kids can’t do anything. Bring back Home Ec now!

Bring back Home Ec!

By Sarah Karnasiewicz |

Reading, writing, arithmetic: these are the standard things every parent expects their child to learn in school. But many of life’s most practical challenges take place outside of the classroom: how to assemble a new desk or get a ketchup stain off your shirt – hell, how to simply to feed yourself something halfway decent. Where’s the syllabus for that?

There may be one – or at least there used to be. It was called Home Ec, and considering the faltering economy and the fact that so many young Americans lack routine life skills, it might be time to bring Home Ec back.

The do-it-yourself movement for kids is gaining momentum. British chef Jamie Oliver has become a household name thanks to his new ABC reality show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which chronicles his crusade to bring basic cooking skills and healthy eating habits to school lunchrooms and families in West Virginia. In 2009, motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford challenged millions of readers to reconsider the intellectual and spiritual value of manual work in his surprise bestseller, Shop Class as Soul Craft. And in efforts to promote awareness and reform, Michelle Obama has planted a White House garden and is rallying to improve school lunches. (Should you have any doubt about how sorely that’s needed, take a look at this trailer or this blog by a teacher who has vowed to eat the same lunch as her students every day this year.)

Sadly, however, the education system itself continues to lag behind. To fill in the gaps no longer filled by Home Ec, some parents have begun taking their children’s domestic educations back into their own hands, passing down skills or signing up together for extra-curricular classes.

In major cities, programs such as Dough-Re-Mi Kids and Kid’s Culinary Adventures teach basic kitchen skills, and Construction Kids and Kids’ Carpentry run hands-on workshops and camps. And throughout the country, camps, colleges, and continuing education programs can also be terrific resources. (The lineup at RISD, in Providence, Rhode Island, even includes classes like “Cool Contraptions” and “Knitting Designer.”)

Those are all great opportunities – for families that can afford them. But real change won’t be possible until a basic canon of practical skills is once again part of the education of every student.

That’s where Home Ec could come in. As of 2002-2003, only 5.5 million students were enrolled in some version of Home Ec (now more often called by the politically correct moniker of Family and Consumer Sciences). Scarce resources and an ongoing shortage of qualified teachers have greatly lessened the program’s impact.

But done properly, classes in life skills – whether they’re called domestic science, shop or whatever – can actually assist in the learning of more “serious” classes that have replaced Home Ec in many curricula.

In a recent Boston Globe article, Katherine Brophy, an associate professor of development and family studies at the University of Connecticut, explained that “mathematics and a lot of [other academic] areas come to life in [home ec]. Students can really see where they’re applied.” Learning how to grow a tomato from seed or how to balance a grocery budget or measure a seam are not intellectually empty tasks but rather practical lessons that can help make abstract concepts concrete.

And if you ask psychologists, the benefits of Home Ec can reach far beyond the kitchen, classroom or the garage. “One of the constant themes of childhood and adolescence is the desire to feel that actions originate from within: ‘I can do it myself,’” explains psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege. Children who go on to thrive are often marked by what she calls “self efficacy” – a do-it-yourself confidence or, in Levine’s words, “the belief that we can successfully impact our world.”

Those feelings of personal competence can change your life, whether you’re thirteen or thirty-two. Take Erin Bried, an editor at Self magazine and author of the updated Home Ec manual How to Sew a Button and Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew. Bried admits that she might never have learned the skills she spotlights in her book if one day she hadn’t tried to serve her friends a strawberry pie studded with rainbow chard. (She’d mistaken it for rhubarb.) “It was completely disgusting,” she recalls with a laugh. “And at that point, I realized it was not only embarrassing not to know how to do simple things like roast a chicken or mend the buttons on my shirt – it felt irresponsible.”

I’d argue that it doesn’t only feel irresponsible, it really is. Considering the world our children are likely to inherit, sending them out without basic life skills and the confidence they give you is doing them a larger injustice than we may realize.

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About Sarah Karnasiewicz

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Sarah Karnasiewicz

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14 thoughts on “Our kids can’t do anything. Bring back Home Ec now!

  1. J Boring says:

    And aside from the fact that kids need to know this stuff, many of the ones I know really enjoy doing it! I’ve taken care of lots of kids and all of them loved getting to help me do “grown up stuff”, especially cooking.

  2. Sarah Karnasiewicz says:

    Thanks for your comment, J Boring — and you’re absolutely right: none of this has to be a chore!

  3. Spartic says:

    Home Ec never taught me anything that I hadn’t already learned from my mother. These are skills that should be taught at home. Spend the money on math, the real area where kids are failing.

  4. GP says:

    “To fill in the gaps no longer filled by Home Ec, some parents have begun taking their childrens domestic educations back into their own hands, passing down skills”

    I agree with Spartic…taking it back into their own hands? why aren’t they doing it to begin with? oh, I forgot…too busy with their careers…

  5. missfrazzled says:

    The place for home ec is in the home. I never took home ec in school because I had full class schedule: reading, math, science, history, foreign language, music. But I learned it at home.

    I have three kids–7, 5, and 1, and am considering classically homeschooling them. Then we will have time for everything.

  6. Cooking Cookie says:

    I took Home Ec. when I was in High School in 1993 (on a random aside I took wood shop too). It was the last semester my school offered it. Today, I love to cook! If it were not for Home Ec I don’t know if I would have ever learned the basics or how to cook in general. My mother did not and does not cook. She jokes that she burns water (she melted a pot on the stove once after all the water boiled away).

    I do know I would never have learned to like vegetables except for the fact that I learned how to cook them in a way other than “boiled mush” which is the only way my mom knew how to cook them.

    Unfortunately, I think we are at a point where a lot of parents need a third party to teach their kids these basics becuase they never learned them themselves.

  7. Andrea says:

    I never took Home Ec, because it wasn’t offered at my high school, but I learned these things from my parents. However, many friends my age have no idea how to sew on a button or cook a decent meal, and they certainly can’t teach their children what they don’t know how to do themselves. Isn’t the purpose of school to prepare our children for the world and adulthood? Home Ec certainly fits that description.

  8. CindyM says:

    Some of these skills could be integrated into the existing curricula…Cooking is science, math, world cultures, history and art, all wrapped up into one. Wood shop is all that plus physics! What better way to get a kid excited about math than eating the cookie he just measured, timed and weighed to bake it.

  9. m2h says:

    School is already filled to the brim with courses kids need that their parents likely cannot teach them at home. Cooking, cleaning, basic household maintenance – these should be taught by parents, not by schools. Presumably these activities are going on in the home (if not, how essential are they???), so there is the potential there for teaching and role-modelling. When I went off to my first year of college, my room mate needed me to teach her how to do laundry – she’d never used a washer or dryer! What were her parents thinking!

  10. Larissa says:

    I’m all for this. I think kids should also learn to type properly, meaning using all fingers on the keyboard instead of hunting and pecking. I’m grateful for the typing lessons I had in 7th and 8th grade. Speeds things up considerably!

  11. WorkingMom says:

    GP: I have a career and I cook every night with my little ones. They also help out in the garden on weekends, and know how to dust, clean countertops, and sweep. I know sweeping generalizations are your bread and butter, but perhaps you might consider that not every working parent is as useless, selfish, and inept as you seem to think we are.

  12. Anonymous says:

    ewhjsdglhnksjdnglas i hatee ppl hehehehhe

    -cj

  13. Anonymous says:

    sa

  14. Anonymous says:

    Okay, I’d like to point out that kids not knowing how to do basic household things (cooking, cleaning etc.) is not the school’s fault or responsibility. Would you really like our tax payers dollars to go to teaching kids how to bake cookies? Or would you rather they use the skills they learn in reading and math to help them understand a recipe. At my Junior High school Home Ec. (but we call it Life Skills) is a joke! For a semester we have to carry around flower babies that they claim will help us with parenting. My mom is calling into the school to have me taken out of this meaningless class and put into another science or math class.

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