When trying to decide if your child is ready to perform a certain task or participate in a particular activity, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Every child is different, but parents can at least use some basic guidelines to help with their decisions.
Sometimes it’s difficult to avoid comparisons when it comes to our children. We want our 2-year-old to be on track with our neighbor’s 2-year-old or our 10-year-old to be on pace with her friends at school, but that’s not always the case. "Too often parents set expectations that children cannot or are not ready to meet and children learn that they are disappointments, failures, incapable," says Bonnie Harris, parenting specialist and director of Connective Parenting. "When a parent expects a child to be ready for an activity based on age alone or based on the parent's experience in childhood, the parent is projecting and missing the mark of emotional readiness."
As our kids travel through different stages of childhood, we want to protect them and allow their independence to flourish at the same time. Harris addresses some common questions parents ask as they watch their kids experience life. Keep these tips in mind the next time you wonder, "Is my child old enough to... "
... watch horror movies or read Twilight books?
Our evolving culture has a way of leaving parents in the dust, so it can be difficult to determine whether or not a child is ready to digest popular books and/or movies. This dilemma is particularly difficult when possibly frightening content is involved.
"Some children are never ready for scary movies," says Harris. "Parents need to observe the child when listening to fairy tales, fantasy stories or watching a step at a time — movies that may have a surprising twist. Scary movies can provoke nightmares and leave long lasting scars on a particularly sensitive child while a different child may not be adversely affected at all."
… empty the dishwasher by themselves?
Great news, Mom! Help is on the way. This is a perfect chore to introduce at a relatively early age. "Children should be ready for this as soon as they can safely reach the cabinets and hold on to dishes tightly," says Harris.
… do their own laundry?
Laundry can be a truly overwhelming (and endless) task for a mom so feel free to celebrate when your kids are old enough to help. "As soon as they can measure detergent and reach the machines, children can try to tackle this task," says Harris. "My son started at 12, my daughter at 9 or 10. The main criterion is, can the parent let go of wrinkled clothes?"
… use the stove to cook scrambled eggs?
Understandably, parents need to be particularly careful with tasks involving the oven, stove or any type of heat source. Even when a child is old enough to attempt cooking, supervision is a must. "Kids can try this as soon as he can stir the eggs with a long-handled spoon, with a parent holding him and supervising," says Harris. "Alone is quite a different story and depends on the capability of the child to focus and not be distracted. Certainly with supervision, a very responsible 7- or 8-year-old could do this."
… walk home from school with a friend?
Kids experience a certain sense of true independence when they are able to walk home from school without Mom or Dad. Parents, on the other hand, can experience a certain sense of dread. "This depends on how far away school is and how busy the streets are," says Harris. "Without needing to cross a street and walking about a mile or so, a very responsible child who is attentive to her surroundings might be able to at about 8 or so (but certainly not an ADHD child or one who is not aware of what is happening around him). If there is a busy street or highway involved without a street-crossing guard, not until preteen to teen years."
… stay home alone during the day?
Plenty of moms have spent a good chunk of time debating whether or not a child can safely stay home alone while they run to pick up a gallon of milk or get the dry-cleaning. While it’s tempting to scoot off for a bit, some kids are ready for the responsibility while others are not. "A child who can be counted on to remain level-headed, not feel scared to be alone, and follow specified directions — for example, knows not to answer the phone or knows what to do if someone comes to the door — could stay home for up to an hour around 9 or 10," says Harris.
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