How to Teach your Child the Basics Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Teach your Child the Basics

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A group of children all engrossed in learning different stuff around a table

Teaching your child some basic life skills is both an essential and a rewarding task. Things can get a bit messy, however, when your child realises that you yourself are a few basic skills short of a normal set. However, let's assume that we're all (more or less) competent, self-respecting individuals who are willing and able to pass on to our young children some of the fundamental skills that we all need to negotiate the rigours of life. Oh dear oh dear.


There seems to be a general consensus that getting kids to start reading at an early age can have some really positive benefits later on in their lives.

When my daughter was very young she nearly drove me mad asking me to read to her all day long. I came across the book 'Teach Your Baby to Read' by Glen Doman and decided that his logic was impeccable and that teaching her to read for herself was the most valuable thing I could try to do. I followed his method and by the time she was two and a half years old she could recognise about 300 words and asked me the question 'Why is there a circle in the middle of the word dog, Mummy?' I explained the phonic rules of reading and by the time she was three she could attempt any word you could present her with.
My children both have phenomenal memories and vocabularies which I think is partly due to this early knowledge of reading. My daughter did brilliantly in GCSE (at an Inner London Comprehensive School), got a very high score in the International Baccalaureate and is in her final year of a degree in Theoretical Physics and she looks like she is going to get a 2:1. I am, of course, inordinately proud of her and cannot claim that it is all down to me but I think learning to read young did have a definite effect on both of my children.

Encourage Them to Read

Very young children who want to learn to read will learn it. Give them encouragement, answer all their questions, don't push them, and they will pleasantly surprise you. Keep 'easy readers' like Dr Seuss books and the Blue Bug books (Blue Bug went over the apple, under the carrot, around the pumpkin...) around the house at child-height. You shouldn't need flash cards or a programme of intensive instruction; remember there's no need to hurry them along. Keep a book of phonics handy for yourself so you'll know the rules and exceptions, but don't bother to teach your child a new rule every day unless s/he really enjoys that. Having books available, reading to them often, and letting them see you read to yourself for fun (whether you read romance novels, magazines, John Grisham thrillers, or the morning newspaper) will stimulate their interest in reading and convince them that it is a worthwhile and enjoyable activity.

Go to the Library

Take your child to the library often. If s/he only wants to play with the puzzles and the puppets there, don't worry about it. Pick out some books you might enjoy together. Ask if your child wants to check out any particular books, and add them to the pile. And ask the librarian if your library offers 'story time' where the kids can congregate for a while and have stories read aloud to them. You'll find that most libraries offer this service.

Eight-point Action Plan

When your child is six or seven and either having trouble reading or showing no interest in reading, the situation is different. If the problem is severe, you might want to have your child tested for dyslexia, or some other learning disability. Then a tutor or reading specialist may be able to help you. Otherwise, some ideas include:

  • Leaving notes around the house with your child's name on top (most children recognise their names sooner than any other word). 'A surprise is under your bed.' 'I am out in the garden.' 'What do you want at the store?' 'Sugar cookies are in the drawer by the sink.' 'If you can read this, you are very smart!'

  • Playing Boggle, Scrabble, Perquackey, or any other game that involves putting letters together.

  • Inventing game variations that use the letter blocks or letter tiles from those games: Add-a-letter, Change-a-letter, Hide-a-letter (guess the word when part of it is covered).

  • Watching television1 shows that encourage reading, spelling, phonics, etc. Some American shows designed for the purpose include a wonderful educational programme of this type, The Electric Company which went off the air several years ago.

  • Taking turns with your child reading alternate sentences in a story.

  • Making stickers with words on them, and letting your child place them in the appropriate spots on a picture (cow, pig, duck, eggs, pond for a barnyard scene, or perhaps sand, shell, pail, rock for a beach scene).

  • Using disappearing Magic Markers to illustrate concepts like the 'silent E'. Tell your child that these markers will only be used during reading lessons.

  • Having your child cut out familiar words from magazines and glue them in a construction-paper 'book'. You'd be surprised how much this builds confidence. ('I can read every word in this book!') Brand names that your child recognises on sight (McDonald's, Pok√©mon, Burger King), street signs (Stop, Yield, No U Turn), prepositions (on, off, it, is, in, at, the) and any other words your child chooses to add are equally valuable. Each time your child reads a new word in a magazine or newspaper, encourage him/her to add it to the Word Book. Every week or so, point out how thick the Word Book is becoming, and how many words your child can read now!

Read to your Children

Be careful not to overlook the most obvious thing; parents need to spend time reading to their children. Teaching a child to read at an early age isn't as important as teaching a child that reading can be fun by actually reading to a child. A lot of kids in school misbehave because they lag behind in basic skills like reading. They get bored and resentful and cause problems in school, which leads to suspensions and other punishments which heightens their feelings of neglect.

Florida, USA, started an interesting programme in that the state gives childrens' books to people receiving food from food banks in the hope of at least getting the poorest kids interested in reading by having books in the home. It's too early yet to tell if it's helped.

There is obviously more to life than reading - there's a big world outside and it's important for kids to get to play outdoors and to interact in a physical way with their environment. But reading is a good asset and developing the skill of reading can be critical for success later on in life. Most of us are agreed that the most important factor in learning to read is support from parents and siblings. Children from homes where nobody reads at all (and there are millions of them) find it very difficult to catch up with children who have always seen the members of their family reading something be it the newspaper, a book or the articles on h2g2. The problem is how to help those children who have no readers in their family to model themselves on.

Some Basics

I have three boys ranging in age from almost 10 to 3 and a bit. As far as I can remember, we have had more problems in preventing them from attempting the basics when they aren't ready. My 3 year old is continually saying that he is 'big big bigger' and can do it himself (it can easily range from bottom wiping to tuning a car). So don't worry so much about it - they will figure it out soon enough. All you have to do is keep an eye on them to make sure they don't hurt themselves or advance the timing too far. Enjoy them while you can. All hope is lost when they can answer you back.

Let Them Teach You

Children are really good at teaching us, aren't they?

Mine's 21 now, but he's been one of my advisors since he was ten. In this house, if a pending decision affects everyone, everyone gets to add their two bits before the decision is made. I've come across things in my own courses that crossed paths with what my son does for a living, and I call him up for advice, opinions and help. He loves the chance to teach me.

Whatever they do, even getting themselves into messes, store up these memories - they sustain you later on when the kids are grown up. What disgusts you today, makes you smile later in life. And remember; you spend the first year of their lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.

Patience, Consistency and Encouragement

There are three words to describe how to teach your children the basics; patience, consistency and encouragement. Too often we see parents try to show their children how to do something, the children make a mess of it so the parent decides it is just easier to do it themselves. Children are inherently lazy about effort that does not bring instant gratification or pleasurable experience.

Make their learning pleasurable and rewarding. Encourage them every time they make an effort, regardless of whether their attempt is successful. Once encouraged a child will try again and again to master a task. Be patient. Be consistent. Instill in them the benefit of self reliance which brings self respect. In fact, respect is the fourth word. If there is an atmosphere where every member of the family, right down to the cat and/or dog is respected, the child grows up knowing they are worthy. Comments like 'Good job' or 'That's much better this time' goes a long way. Children learn self-respect by being respected as valued members of the family. 'I love you', and 'You're a great kid' are all-important.

Respect is all important. Not only for the family but also for your children's friends. Most of my girl's friends, when they first meet me are surprised that I speak with them the same way I would an adult, treating them with as much consideration as anyone else. Equality for all. After all, we're all worth it. I have also seen children ignored in shops until all the adults have been served. If I know a child was there before me I always defer, much to the appreciation of the child, but often to the shock of the retailer.

Teaching Kids to Eat

Ah. Happy days. So, first of all remember this: kids can already eat. What we want to teach them is how to use a knife, fork and spoon and then some table manners. Parents of young children have to accept that there will be either a mess... or no mess.

  • To achieve a mess: Give your kid a dish, plus cutlery (use a bib - full body if you can) cut up any big bits and spear the first piece on a fork. Then show them how you eat your food, and give them a helping hand now and again. You will be surprised how much goes in their mouths. And if not: don't give them stuff in between meals. Next time they will get more in, and so on and so on. There will be mess (bearing in mind that kids prefer 'sloppy' food like spaghetti and tomato sauce). It will be in ears, up noses (and if you're lucky, none of it will be in your ear or up your nose), in hair, on the walls, on the carpet, all over the table, on the cat. Some of it you will find during the spring cleaning. But... your child will learn how to eat, because they don't want to be hungry. You can instill some table manners at the same time. Don't forget to agree (if you're not doing this alone) which manners are important as you mustn't overload a small child at this stage. So, decide which is least acceptable (ie. between eating with open mouth/talking with mouth full or having elbows on the table) and ban one from the repertoire. When this is second nature to your child, bring in one more 'rules'.

  • To achieve a clean meal: Plenty of people look at the first nano-speck of tomato sauce on their pristine white carpet and decide that they will feed their child for ever. These people (and they know who they are) are making a rod for their own backs and deserve all they get. Ease up on the mess factor; after all, real life sometimes does get a bit messy. It's only natural.

Of course, there are times during the training - which lasts for anything from a day or two to a decade or two - when more than a little 'help' is needed. But think of this; there was a time when you couldn't drive/ride a bike/type/split the atom. At that time driving/riding a bike/typing/splitting the atom seemed an impossible task that you would never learn. Now you can do it - it's now second nature. The same goes for eating/reading/writing/tying your shoelaces/not waking your parents up at 5am on a Sunday... it can be learned! Thank goodness

How not to teach your child how to swim

Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to teach your child your to swim by throwing him/her into a body of water. Trust us on this. The 'Sink or Swim' method of instruction only works if you're willing to let your child kid sink... which tends to instill a fear of water in them. Odd how drowning and near-death experiences can establish a permanent phobia, isn't it?

But one Researcher found a neat little way of teaching their child to swim:

We didn't actually teach the kid to swim. What we did was get him interested in fishing. Our little hero wanted to go down to the river with his friends to fish. A group of them took their tackle and rods, hopped on their bikes and rode the few blocks to the Red River. Now, this is a muddy, deep, current-filled river. We told him he couldn't go till he learned to swim, and we'd checked him out. Then we put him in swimming lessons. He learned as fast as he could, and then spent many happy hours at the river bank.

Riding a Bicycle

You need to start with a bike with removable training wheels. These should be set at a high angle so that the child doesn't get into the habit of just leaning on one side. Allow them to cycle round merrily for a good few weeks to get them used to the pedalling side of things and how the steering works etc. It may seem obvious now - but even this is a cause and effect system that has to be learned.

The second stage involves removing the training wheels. For this you will need to go to a large, reasonably flat piece of grass - probably the local park. Place your heavily padded child on the bike and hold it by the saddle from behind and get the child to pedal along while you provide stability. As they get up some speed you can release the saddle and they will be riding unaided. You should still run along behind them - a rapidly receding voice is a dead giveaway that you aren't holding on to the bike. If the child does slow down and fall off the bike, perform the most spectacular theatrical dive you can imagine... this distracts the child and they forget to worry about themselves being hurt, which on a lawn and after being padded up they shouldn't be anyway. Of course, as soon as you have them riding a bike you need to instill a lot of road safety in them; simply banning them from the road isn't going to work. But that's another topic...

On a small, gentle gradient, where steering and pedalling are not so important, just let your kid keep going down it, so that s/he gets the balance sorted. Once balance is achieved, pedalling and steering (which comes from practice with stabalisers on) can be fitted in naturally. Remember to teach them to look at where they want to go, not what they want to avoid hitting. Many people (children and adults) ride into trees, rocks, walls, even off bridges, because they were staring fixedly at the object they were trying to avoid.

Tying Shoe Laces

The Bunny Method

It is not really recommended that you begin trying to teach this skill until your child asks, simply because the concept, until they form it, is a bit too much. Here is the 'bunny method' for learning to tie one's laces:

  1. Take the two shoelaces, and wrap them around each other.

  2. Take the two ends, and make them into two bunny ears.

  3. Pretend the bunny is very cold, and the ears wrap around to keep warm... one goes up, the other goes down, and the bunny is snuggly.

That's it. Remember, there is no way on this green earth that your child will get it the first, second, or even 50th time. Be prepared to spend a whole afternoon demonstrating and guiding, and then remember, they will need a whole lot of practice, patience, and pretty soon, you'll want to have the bunny for dinner!

Another Method...

First, make sure there is no undue pressure put on the child to learn shoelace-tying quickly. It is a skill best learned at the child's own pace, and - unlike toilet-training - there is no inherent need to hurry. Kids these days can wear trainers (sneakers) with Velcro straps right up through junior high school without getting pitying looks from their peers.

Secondly, get a shoelace practicer (a chunk of wood or cardboard pierced with several holes) and keep it in the car. An extra shoe (adult-sized is easier) works fine too. Then, whenever the family is on a long car trip, the child can work on tying shoelace bows for long periods of time, and not arrive at your destination with untied shoes. This is a perfect way to keep children amused on a long journey. Praise every successful bow enthusiastically. Let the child choose his/her own shoelaces. Patterned laces or neon ones or glow-in-the-dark ones will keep the child interested in the process of shoelace-tying. If you just can't stand the thought of neon-green laces on navy-blue sneakers, put the most outrageous ones on the shoelace practicer instead of on the child's actual shoes. The two important factors to keep in mind are that the shoelaces should be flat (round laces do not make, or hold, a bow very well) and of a non-slip material (kids love plastic laces but these are not practical).

Some children are visual learners; they may want to watch you tie a bow over and over again. Try tying bows in wide pieces of ribbon so they have a better view of what is happening. Some children are kinetic learners; let them hold your hands (or wrists) as you tie a bow, so they will get used to making the right motions. Some children are aural learners; they might want to make up a little song to help them remember the steps in order.


Since we've come to the tail end of this Entry, it's only right that we focus our attention on... bottoms. We'll leave the last word to one Researcher who has a little tip regarding toilet training:

My son was four when he first wiped himself. He had to, as he announced he wanted a poo when I was dishing up dinner, so I told him if he wanted to go he'd have to do it himself as I really couldn't stop what I was doing. Off he went and got on with it. My friend was still clearing up after her son when he started school at five. I recommend this method to anyone; it's just laziness on the kid's part.
1Some American shows that encourage reading include Reading Rainbow, Between the Lions, Storybreak, Big Comfy Couch and Sesame Street.

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