Each child develops at his own pace. Letting yours take on new responsibilities or try challenging tasks is a matter of knowing his individual abilities and personality. To help you identify when your child is prepared for another step toward independence, review these tips:
Is your child ready to . . .
Walk to school by himself? Where you live is as much a factor as your child's age and maturity. Learn the facts about safety in your neighborhood. Have there been traffic accidents or crimes you should worry about? Walk the route with your child at the times of day he would use it. Feel out the distance. If you decide he may be ready, do several practice runs together. Eventually let him walk ahead while you follow at a short distance. Then allow him to go the whole way solo.
Pack her own lunch? Some children are ready to take on this task at 7 or 8 years old. Before she's ready, your child must be able to make appropriate food choices, so that she won't be eating four cupcakes and a dry bagel for lunch. Rather than asking what she wants for lunch, ask her to choose tuna, turkey, or peanut butter for a sandwich. Let her pick snacks from categories such as fruit and sugary or salty treats. After giving her the options, let her prepare her lunch box on her own. Check over her choices for a couple of weeks until you know she can do it completely on her own.
Use the stove? Do not allow your child to use the stove unsupervised until adolescence. Even then, he should only use it after you're sure he understands operating and safety instructions, and you know you can rely on him to be vigilant.
Do his homework without help? Ideally, your child will be able to do his homework on his own from the start of his schooling. You should be available to answer occasional questions, express pride, and offer encouragement. At every grade level, you may need to start the year by checking your child’s work. After that, use your judgment about how diligent, organized, and conscientious your child is before giving up the routine checks.
Dress herself? Usually it's a good idea to get clothes ready the night before (with alternatives subject to the weather). Starting from when she is in preschool or kindergarten, let your child help choose the next day's outfit: “What do you think would be a good color to wear tomorrow? Do you think sandals or sneakers are better?” Presenting options helps her learn to make appropriate decisions. It lets your child exercise independence while still ensuring that she's not wearing a tutu and furry bear slippers to school.
Choose his own extracurricular activities? Deciding to practice karate, take up the piano, or join the drama club is a choice you and your child should make together. At the start of the year, discuss which organized after-school activities your child wants to join and which ones you think he should try. From the earliest years in school, listen to him. Give him a strong vote in which activities he commits to. And let him have veto power if he decides to quit an activity (unless it is required tutoring or another treatment recommended by his school or an outside expert).
Go to a sleepover? Your child's individual temperament is key to deciding whether she's ready for a sleepover. You can probably let her give it a try at age 7 or 8, but don't be discouraged if it doesn't go perfectly the first time. Ideally, the first sleepover will be at the home of a family member or friend who is geographically as well as personally close to you. The spot should be a short walk or drive away since you may need to make a 2:00 a.m. pickup if your child decides the sleepover is not for her.
Supervise her younger siblings? The rule "know your child" is critical here. Some (not all) early teens can be counted on to responsibly watch siblings. However, even if your preteen baby-sits for other families, she may not be ready to watch her "annoying baby brother and sister" who scratch her CDs, embarrass her at the mall, and compete for your attention.
- Learn how to ride a bike? Start your child off on a two-wheeler with training wheels. Between the ages of 5 and 7, you may get the feeling that he is ready to take off the training wheels. If your child agrees, give it a try. Don't force him to take the next step, but try to make him feel secure by picking a spot where there will be no traffic or obstacles and where you'll be able to catch him if he falls.
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