Setting Teens Up for Life Success
As a parent of two young adults and Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, I was thrilled to chat with Erin Zammett Ruddy for my latest Q & A. Ruddy is a contributing editor at Parents and author of the book, The Little Book of Life Skills: Deal with Dinner, Manage Your Email, Make a Graceful Exit, and 152 Other Expert Tricks.
This book is a collection of how-to lessons for life, curated by Ruddy, but featuring the guidance of celebrities, authors, and experts she’s interviewed. Ruddy’s book is an easy read, but don’t mistake that for inconsequential. This may well be a go-to gift for every high school and college graduation in your future.
Allison Gilbert: The essential message of your book is that young adults should eagerly embrace the life skills they don’t have. How is humility an important part of this discussion?
Erin Zammett Ruddy: I wrote this book because I needed this book. The more open you can be to the idea that there are different ways to accomplish tasks and goals, perhaps even quicker ways, the more you’ll learn and grow. You want to be open to new ideas. It’s just a good way to approach life in general, but certainly it’s the approach of this book. As a journalist, I love to learn. It’s why I chose the profession I’m in. Every day, I get to interview people and learn how to do new things. So, talk about humility! I was willing to say to each of the contributors in the book, ‘Look, I want to know. Tell me everything.’ Sure, I know how to make my bed and leave a voicemail, but when you speak to an expert, you just learn more. I’ve been making burgers for a very long time but to speak with Bobby Flay about how to make a burger, well, he obviously knows how to do that better than me.
AG: You also discuss the importance of being an effective communicator – whether writing an email, leaving a voicemail, or posting on social media. Why did you decide to include communication skills?
EZR: Communicating is what we do all the time. The world is literally at our fingertips. But too often, we react without necessarily taking a minute to think through what we’re going to say, write, snap, or tweet. It’s okay to take a pause, gather your thoughts, think about what you’re going to say, and then craft your message. What is your point? What lasting impression do you want to leave? This makes it more likely your point will be heard and more likely you’ll get what you need. Let’s take email as an example. If you’re sending an email, the idea of sending it is to get information back. You want to get a question answered, and you want the person to respond quickly. Crafting your message in a way that makes it easy to respond and get what you want is essential. You don’t want your email to sit in someone’s inbox. But if it’s too long, if it meanders without an action item, they’re going to skip it and it’ll go to the bottom of their inbox. Being direct can make us feel effective and good about ourselves.
AG: In terms of those all-important communication skills: So many families have lost loved ones to Covid-19, and of course, other causes as well. Can you explain how teens might best express their condolences, from one friend to another? Or perhaps how to express sympathy to a teacher or other adult in their life?
EZR: The number one tip is to do something and do it now. The worst thing you can do is say nothing. That means send a text, mail a card, or pick up the phone. You can simply state the facts: ‘This is awful. My heart hurts for you.’ It’s also important to note that it’s never too late. If you run into a friend who lost a grandparent over the summer, and you haven’t seen the friend in a while, you can still bring it up. You’re not going to be reminding them. They haven’t forgotten. It’s okay to say, “I heard about it, and I’m so sorry.” Nora McInerny has a wonderful podcast called, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking,” and that’s who I went to for this advice. What she said sticks with me: Know you can’t say anything that will fix it, so take the pressure off yourself. Your goal is not to find the most comforting words possible. It’s simply to acknowledge your friend’s pain.
AG: Let’s dive into self-care. You include guidance on everything from meditation and stretching to taking a nap and drinking tea. What are some of your favorite strategies for teens and young adults?
EZR: There’s a great quote in the book from Suze Yalof Schwartz who runs Unplug Meditation. She says, “If you want to make your body stronger you have to move it, but if you want to strengthen your brain you have to keep it still.” So, finding time in your day to just quiet all the noise is really important. That can be as simple as developing a calming breath. This helps us calm down before reacting. Another one is not picking up your phone first thing in the morning. If you wake up and immediately grab your phone, whatever’s on that phone has the potential to affect your mood for the rest of the day. If you can give yourself even 10 minutes, it’s a game changer. [To learn more helpful self-care techniques, read this. For guidance on building a more balanced relationship with technology, read Connecting in the Digital Age and Being a Digital Age Role Model.]
AG: I’d love to explore the many ways you guide teens to build better, stronger, and more rewarding relationships. Here, I’m referring to your advice on how best to support a friend who is dealing with bad news.
EZR: The number one tip is to listen and not give advice. You just need to hear how your friend feels. This means you need to show up. Text them, call them, get on the phone with them, go hang out with them, be there for them. You might be tempted to say, ‘Oh, something similar happened to me,” but try not to do that. What friends who are going through a tough time really need is someone to listen. A friend just needs to be heard. You can say something like, ‘What do you need from me? How can I help you?’ Another note to remember is to check on your friend tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. And that’s the point of being a supportive friend — it’s showing up day after day after day.
AG: Families have learned to keep in touch with friends and family in different ways during Covid — writing letters, baking together via Zoom. Would you say these strategies and those you write about in your book reflect the importance of teens being kind- hearted and compassionate?
EZR: Oh absolutely. And it’s about being all of those things to yourself, too. And, I mean, even when you want to be angry, even when you know you’re right or you’ve been wronged, if you can meet that moment with kindness and compassion, you feel better in how you interact with others and how you treat yourself.
AG: Is there one life skill you consider the most important and why?
EZR: I would say being considerate of your future self. I want my children to realize that what they do today matters. It can be as simple as laying out clothes the night before so their future self, the one they’ll see in the morning, isn’t frazzled. This book is all about making your future self, successful. You’re being kind to your future self by practicing and learning these life skills now. When it really matters, you’ll know you’ve got them in your back pocket.
AG: From reading your book, it seems to me you believe teens and young adults can learn the kinds of life skills that build confidence based on wisdom. Would you agree with that?
EZR: Yes! Anytime we’re good at something, we gain confidence. Everyone can think of something they’re good at, and that knowledge, that wisdom, feels good. This book is meant to build confidence in all these routine areas of life so teens and young adults can go through their day feeling so much better about themselves and their capabilities.
AG: What skills have you found teens and young adults already have that will make them successful readers (and students) of your book?
EZR: Teens and young adults are naturally hungry for information. This book takes advantage of their curiosity. I also think they’re able to quickly absorb things and they’re amazing learners. This book has easy life lessons they’ll be able to read and reread over time