An age-by-age guide to what your kid can (and should) do right now

From letting your toddler choose her own snack to getting your tween to do laundry, these tasks and responsibilities will help them grow into capable adults.

Photo: iStockphoto

“In order to grow up into capable adults, kids need stress in their lives,” says Michael Ungar, a Dalhousie University professor of social work and the author of several books, including Too Safe for Their Own Good. “Too little stress or too much stress, and our ability to cope goes down, but there’s a sweet spot. If you are able to deal with a little bit of conflict when you’re growing up, you’re more likely to be able to deal with conflict as an adult.”

The fact is, most kids are more competent than we give them credit for. My 11-year-old loves being able to go to a local café and buy herself dinner between dance lessons, and my five-year-old is positively thrilled when I ask him to take on some responsibility for his two-year-old brother. Kids love knowing we trust them, and the more useful they learn to be, the easier it is for everyone in the long term. The good news is we can start to foster that self-sufficiency and responsibility at a very young age.

Baby pouring his own cerealHow to help your toddler gain more independence Toddler
Resist the urge to baby your toddler. “Developmentally, independence can start early in terms of giving them choice, building self-regulation skills and exposing them to manageable amounts of risk,” says Ungar.

  • Instead of scooping kids up every time they interrupt what you’re doing, suggest they play with a toy—they’ll learn how to self-soothe.
  • Give them age-appropriate chores, such as putting dirty clothes in the hamper and bringing dishes to the sink.
  • Allow them to make decisions that push their abilities, like how high to climb on the monkey bars.
  • Let them decide what snack they’d like to take when you run errands.
  • Play games that require them to think independently, like hide-and-seek. (Even if they suck at it, pretend it takes ages to find them.)

Preschooler
“Preschoolers naturally gravitate toward risk, and this is the perfect age to create safe ways for them to push themselves,” says Ungar. “They also love responsibility, and caring for pets and siblings can help develop that sense of independence.”

  • Make them responsible for feeding their pet. You’ll need to supervise at first, but they’ll soon get the hang of it.
  • Ditch any preconceived notions about fashion faux pas, and let them choose their clothes and dress themselves.
  • Have them set the table for family meals.
  • Teach them how to make their own breakfast (we’re talking basics like cereal).

Kindergartner
Once they start kindergarten, you’ll notice a sharp uptick in their independence levels, as they take on responsibilities in the classroom.

  • Don’t stay when your kid has a playdate. They need to learn how to handle unfamiliar situations without you.
  • Let your kid pay the cashier at the grocery store and bring the change back to you.
  • Have them tidy up their toys, and help pick up after younger siblings.
  • Let them order their own meal when you eat out.
  • Add making their own bed to their daily chores.

Elementary Schooler
At this age, kids want to feel big, and they often jump at the chance to take on more responsibilities. “Judgment at this age can be iffy, however, so providing step-by-step instructions is key,” says Ungar.

  • Walking the dog (or your neighbour’s dog) around the block is a thrilling way for kids to experience a little freedom and responsibility.
  • Have your kids pack their own lunches for school and take responsibility for making healthy choices. (Make it easier by having a good selection of snacks and fruit on hand.)
  • Send kids off to fetch something in the grocery store. “What’s important is engaging them in grocery shopping instead of just having them being annoying,” says Ungar.
  • Involve kids in family decision making. Planning a vacation? Let them give suggestions on attractions to visit.
  • Don’t stay at every one of your child’s hockey games or soccer practices. That way, they’ll learn to deal with conflict with their coach, a skinned knee or the consequences of their actions without you.

Tween
Before the rebellion stage kicks in, tweens often love rules, and they like to take on responsibility, says Ungar, which makes this a perfect time to push them toward greater autonomy in their lives.

  • At the grocery store, give your tween a junk food budget for the house. That way, they’ll soon learn the difference between a $6 name-brand bag of chips and the store brand, and gain budgeting skills.
  • Add laundry to their list of chores.
  • Allow your tween to take a minor flight—unaccompanied—to see Grandma. On both Air Canada and WestJet, you pay an extra $100 to have your child supervised in transit.
  • Give them a budget and let them choose gifts when they’re invited to a birthday party.
  • Activities in which others suffer if you don’t do your part—such as choir or hockey—are great for teaching kids to be more responsible and encourage empathy.

Middle Schooler
At this age, you can push kids to do more and take bigger risks.

  • Encourage them to take a babysitting course, and get them to talk to parents in your ’hood. (Alternatively, they could start a dog-walking or snow-shovelling enterprise.)
  • Depending on how close it is and how much you trust your child, let them walk to the corner store and get milk. Don’t think they could handle it solo? Let them do it with a friend.
  • When you’re on vacation, be sure to go off-resort and have your kids experience other cultures and hear other languages. Encourage your child to learn a few words of that language (such as please, thank you and excuse me). This will increase their confidence at dealing with situations way outside their comfort zone.
  • Encourage them to make lists and agendas, so they can stay on track of what they need to take where. Don’t step in when they forget their homework, musical instrument or gym bag, so they’ll learn the consequences.
  • Have them cook a meal for the family one night per week, for which they choose what to cook, add ingredients to the shopping list and serve everyone. Bonus points for making them clean up, too.

This story is a part of Let Them Play, a project examining kids and independence by Today’s Parent and Maclean’s.

Read more:
Your kid’s first steps towards independence
Free-range parenting: Why it’s OK to rescue your kids

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