CSP Team Note: this article was originally featured on the Atrium Health blog. For more health and wellness content, visit AtriumHealth.org/DailyDose.
They grow up so fast. But at what age should your child take on activities of their own? We spoke with an Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician about the right age for new tasks for your child.
As children grow up, their desire to do certain things on their own develops as well. As a parent, you want to give your child the confidence to pursue activities on their own, while also making sure he or she is safe and prepared for these independent pursuits.
We spoke with Marcia Rubinos, MD, a pediatrician at Levine Children’s South Lake Pediatrics about various activities that children might want to try on their own and the acceptable age at which they can go about these ventures on their own.
1) Sleeping over at a friend’s house
Getting to spend the night at a friend’s house is an exciting change of scenery — though it’s worth keeping a few things in mind before letting your child spend the night away from home. For instance, does your child follow a strict bedtime routine? If so, will they be able to follow that routine at a friend’s house? Ask the host family to accommodate this routine if needed. Also, if a child uses diapers for overnight accidents, discuss this with the host family and ensure your child is comfortable with their friend knowing about this.
“I recommend that sleepovers can start at about 8 years old,” says Dr. Rubinos. “Sometimes, these can be started earlier if the child has slept over at a relative’s house, such as grandparents or cousins, without the parents.”
2) Staying home alone
“Overall, most 11-year old children will be comfortable staying home alone after school or for short periods of time,” says Dr. Rubinos. “Sometimes, children as young as 10 years old can stay alone if parents need to run quick errands locally in the neighborhood.” It’s recommended that parents start with an entry-level 30- to 60-minute trial run for kids at this age before trying longer time periods. Eleven to 12-year-olds can spend up to 3 hours alone — even after the sun goes down, as long as it is not late at night. Thirteen to 15-year-olds can be left alone at night but not overnight. In terms of overnight time constraints, alone is pretty much a no-no until your child is in his or her late teens.
If you live in one of these three states, the minimum age for staying home alone is spelled out in the law: Illinois, 14 years old; Maryland, 8 years old; and Oregon, 10 years old. Many states’ child protection laws consider it child neglect if parents or guardians “fail to provide adequate supervision of a child” — and this may include leaving them home alone, depending on their age.
Before leaving your child home alone, he or she should be prepared in case of an emergency. Leave your contact information, a neighbor’s contact information, and emergency first responder information on a sticky note in an easy-to-access place, like on the refrigerator door. That way they know whom to call in the event of an emergency.
3) Getting off the bus by themselves
“If the bus stop is close to the house, then a child as young as 7- to 8-years-old can walk home alone,” says Dr. Rubinos. She encourages parents to walk through the route with their child a few times before letting him or her do it alone for the first time. And of course, remind your child never to talk to strangers on their walk home. Do some role play so your child is ready with a firm reaction.
Walking home from school — assuming that’s farther away — takes a bit more maturity. “Walking to and from school alone can start at about 10 years old depending on the distance,” says Dr. Rubinos. “The parent should do a few trial runs with the child in order to teach the safest route and pick some safe points in the neighborhood in case of emergency.”
4) Helping in the kitchen
“As long as a parent is patient and does not mind the child in the kitchen, a toddler of about 3 years old can help in the kitchen,” says Dr. Rubinos. They can start off with basic tasks like pouring, mixing, and stirring ingredients. As they grow older, these tasks can become more advanced — but be sure to review safety tips whenever you introduce a new cooking task.
Children can probably start using a knife by around 8 years old. As always, the parent should be aware of the child’s maturity level before permitting this activity and should always be present to supervise as the child uses the knife.
5) Getting a cell phone
“The purchase of a cell phone for most families is an individual choice,” says Dr. Rubinos. “Every family has different situations and needs.
Generally having a phone by 11 years old is acceptable, and may even be useful. If for instance, your child is walking home alone from school, a cell phone is good to have. That said, make sure your child knows how to safely use the cell phone, and make sure they don’t walk and talk while on the phone, as this could be unsafe. Ditto for playing games, accessing social media, watching YouTube or Netflix — generally anything that could reduce your child’s overall awareness of what is going on in the immediate surroundings.
“I believe that every family should decide and set ground rules for the use of electronics, surfing the internet and social media,” says Dr. Rubinos. Different allowances can be made at different ages. In general, decrease screen time for younger children and be sure to set parent controls to prevent children from accessing inappropriate sites.
As children grow older, they can use the computer more for school work and socializing. Try to have an open dialogue with children about their internet use and the importance of leaving a positive digital footprint. Be non-judgemental and set a good example by refraining from using your phone at inappropriate times, such as at the dinner table.
6) Getting a part-time job
Many states have laws about underage employment — but in most states children as young as 15 years old can work up to 10 hours per week. To figure out whether your teenager is ready for employment, assess their level of organization, responsibility, and punctuality. Be sure to discuss with them the importance of balancing work with school work and other responsibilities.
And if your child isn’t quite ready for the workforce, you can teach your child a basic work ethic by establishing chores they are responsible for around the house. You may consider an allowance or another kind of reward system to encourage their participation.
“This is a good time to teach children about saving a portion of their earnings for ‘rainy days’ or ‘special wants,’” says Dr. Rubinos. “Subsequently, this is a good time to set up a bank account and to help your young child manage his or her money.”
If your child is mature, responsible, caring and safety conscious, they can start babysitting around 12 years old. They should start off by babysitting only one child for just a few hours. Ensure the child knows all contact information for the family they’re working for and make sure all information and instructions are posted on the refrigerator or whiteboard.
“Never allow your child to babysit overnight until late in high school,” says Dr. Rubinos. “Overnight care requires more maturity and responsibility that a young adolescent may not have and places both children in danger.”
Patience is key
Dr. Rubinos notes that every child is different. If your child has ADHD, a learning disability, or any other disorder that might delay your child’s rate of development you can still teach independence, just at a different pace.
“Each child can master a sense of self-esteem and confidence with teaching tailored to meet their needs and understanding,” says Dr. Rubinos. “As with any child development, independence comes in stages and each child will get to these stages at different times.”
For parents, teaching independence can be a daily activity that you undertake with your children. Every simple household task — whether it’s washing hands before dinner or helping clean up after dinner — reinforces skills that are vital to proper development.
“Parents must be patient, provide positive reinforcement and make the activities short and simple for positive outcomes,” says Dr. Rubinos. “That will encourage the child to try something new on his or her own and build confidence along the way.”