It's up to us parents to pass on the basic skills our kids will need to be successful adults, like being able to swim, do their own laundry or cook a healthy meal. The real question is when should you teach them? Here are age-by-age guidelines for skills kids should learn before they move out on their own. Illustration by Nick Criscuolo.
All kids develop at different paces, so it's important to go with how interested they are and their maturity level as well as their age. But the age ranges below can help you get a sense for when your children will be developmentally ready to acquire the new skill. After all, you don't want to suddenly find yourself with a university-aged kid who doesn't know proper hygiene. It happens, but if you want your kid to be more independent and confident when they step out into the real world, teach them these skills.
Follow a Sleep Routine: Ages 1 to 6
Yes, good sleep hygiene is a life skill, one many of us struggle with well past our childhood years. When your child is a toddler, you can start teaching them to follow a consistent bedtime routine (something we as adults need as well).
Try the four B's — bathing, brushing, books and bed — and follow the routine as consistently as possible each night of the week. Once your kids are around six or seven years old, they can follow their own routine and put themselves to bed. However, you might have to keep reminding them to follow the routine, so they get the nine to 11 hours of sleep they need each night. You'll probably also have to keep nagging them when they're teens and they turn into night owls.
Start Swimming: Ages 1 to 6
Kids can learn to get comfortable in and enjoy the water at any age, but The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends parents wait until kids are at least one year old before taking formal swimming lessons. Not all kids ages one to fou need to take swimming lessons, the AAP says, but consider lessons based on factors like how often your kid is around water. In Australia, where the majority of the population lives along the coast, swimming is an essential skill.
The American Red Cross' swimming and water safety skills chart (PDF) says that from six months to about three years, young children can pick up basic skills (Red Cross Levels One and Two) such as submerging under water, floating and gliding.
Preschoolers (ages four and five) who have learned the level one and two skills can pick up more advanced level three skills that require coordinating their arms and legs and treading water.
The Red Cross recommends three more skill levels for children ages 6 and up: stroke development, stroke improvement and stroke refinement. Basically, more coordination and skill using their arms and legs to move through the water, to the point where they become proficient and confident swimmers.
Basic Cooking: Ages 2 and up
Your kids may not be the next MasterChef Junior, but acquiring basic cooking skills will be a huge help later in life. Get them involved in the kitchen no matter what age they are and they're likely to eat healthier and try more new foods (and less likely to be picky eaters). Preschoolers can measure ingredients, stir batter and help assemble pizzas. Kids ages six to eight can use appliances and tools like the microwave, toaster oven and can opener, once you teach them how to use them safely. (Kid-friendly kitchen tools like those from Curious Chef also help.) Preteens can start to learn basic knife skills and cook under your supervision on the stove or using the oven, and teens can make meals for the family. Check out the graphic at the link below for more suggestions.
Ride a Bike Without Training Wheels: Ages 3 to 8
Most kids learn to ride a bike around the age of five, but children can learn as early as three or as late as eight (or older). Paediatrician Dr Vincent Iannelli explains at About.com that in addition to developmental skills, having a safe space to ride and knowing others who ride bikes are things that will influence when kids will learn.
HealthyChildren.org says that most children are physically able to handle riding a tricycle at around age three. Training wheels on a regular bike can help kids get used to using their legs to pedal, but they might not be necessary — and, as one bike shop owner told me, they become crutches for older kids. REI reveals how to teach your child to ride a bike in one afternoon.
Brush Their Teeth Unsupervised: Ages 6 to 8
The strongest skills and habits we have are usually formed early in life, and that includes good dental care. The American Dental Association recommends parents brush their children's teeth when the kids are younger than three, and to supervise children's brushing from ages three to six. After the age of six, your child can brush his own teeth. Your paediatric dentist might have a different recommendation, though, and Colgate says most kids won't be able to brush their teeth well on their own until they are about 8 years old. It's a matter of motor skills and coordination, not to mention motivation to do a thorough job. (Oral Answers reports that 11 year-olds only brush 50 per cent of the surface of their teeth, and young adults ages 18 to 22 aren't much better: brushing 67 per cent of the surfaces of their teeth.)
You could use plaque disclosing tablets to motivate your kids to brush better. Chewed before or after brushing, these tablets colourize all the plaque still left on teeth in bright, eye-catching colours (gross!). Kids will be able to better target spots where plaque could be hiding.
Tie Their Own Shoes (or Bows): Ages 6 to 8
Don't laugh — tying a bow is a lost art these days, with more kids' shoes sporting velcro than regular laces. It's one of those skills you might've completely forgotten about if you haven't thought about laces in forever. As with tooth brushing, kids tend to have the motor skills and coordination to be able to tie their own shoes around the six to eight age range. As Parenting says, if the child has the dexterity to handle small buttons or draw simple stick figures, he's probably ready to tie his own shoes.
Try using a skipping rope to teach your kid how to tie shoelaces. And perhaps when they're older and more adept, they can have fun learning to tie useful knots and more efficient and stronger knots for shoes, like the Reef Knot or super-fast Ian Knot.
Manage Money: Ages 6 and up
As soon as your kid is old enough to get an allowance and understand how money works, they're old enough to start picking up financial skills. It's a good time to teach them to wait before they buy something and to distinguish between wants and needs. Kids ages six to 10 can learn about comparison shopping when you're at the shopping centre or online shopping together, and they can log onto a savings account you open with them to track their money. And tweens should learn about compound interest and how a credit card works. Check out more guidelines for each age group.
Do Their Own Laundry: Ages 8 to 12
Young kids probably aren't able to run the washing machine without supervision, but they certainly can help out with the laundry. They can fold towels, put their own clothes away and learn not to litter their bedroom floors with dirty clothes. That's a start, until they're old enough to comfortably do their own laundry, or better yet, help with the household laundry.
Mama's Laundry Talk — a site dedicated just to the joy of laundry! — has an age-by-age guide for laundry tasks and says that kids ages 11 to 12 are old enough to be responsible for a large portion of household laundry. Again, this depends on your kid. Life as a Mum blogger Jessica Fisher says everyone age eight and older in her household are able to operate the machines and do a great job of doing their own laundry. She suggests labelling the washing machine and dryer so the kids always know what settings are the "right ones" and setting up a laundry room so everyone's clear on when the laundry needs to be done.
Use a Map and Take Public Transportation Alone: 6 to 13
Japanese students as young as six or seven take mass transit on their own. Here in the West, we're divided between groups that say kids shouldn't wait at a bus stop alone if they're under 13 and parents who let their nine-year-olds ride the NYC subway alone. Of course, Japan is a very different place than the Australia, but the US National Center for Safe Routes to School says that, in general, children aren't ready to cross the street alone until age 10. But, barring local laws against it, this one is up to you. How independent is your child and how aware is he or she of basic safety rules? How confident are they not just in how to deal with strangers but in how to safely cross the street? How easy and safe is it for young kids to get around in your area (suburban streets with walking guards are different than busier urban environments)? I started taking the bus myself to high school and think that for many kids 12 isn't too young to start, depending on the kid and the area, of course.
Whether or not you let your kids walk to school alone or ride the bus or train there, start teaching them how to read maps and find their way around when they're in primary school. Driving my daughter home from different events, I used to play a game with her in which she would have to choose where to turn or whether to go forward. We got lost a few times, but now she knows the important landmarks and — after I asked her "what if that store closed down, though?" — the important street names. You could also plan subway or car trip routes together on a map.
Taking Care of Another Living Thing: 6 and up
Pets can be great companions for children, but they might not always treat each other gently, which is why the ASPCA, veterinarian Dr Butch Schroyer and the Lexington Human Society recommend to Lexington Family that parents should wait until a child is six before getting a pet. You might start with a goldfish for young kids before moving up to a dog or cat, but even preteens will probably need some supervision before being completely responsible for the pet.
And then there are siblings and babysitting other kids. Like all of the other skills above, this will depend on your kid's maturity. The laws regarding when kids are legally allowed to stay home alone vary, so check your state laws first. If they can't, they obviously shouldn't be babysitting anyone else. That aside, many people start babysitting when they're teens or tweens. Keep in mind that parents can be held legally responsible for anything that happens to a child if the babysitter is under 16.
Age shouldn't be the defining factor for learning this or any other skill, so keep your individual child's development in mind when you choose when to teach them. You might be pleasantly surprised that your kids are ready to do much more at an earlier age than you thought if you give them a chance.