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Guide: age-appropriate responsibilities for toddlers to teens

Kids need opportunities to contribute to the common good. They need this for their self-esteem, and for their lives to have meaning. Children don't want just to be doted on. They need, like the rest of us, to feel like they matter to the world like their lives make a positive contribution.

All children contribute to the rest of us in some way, regularly. Find those ways in your child and comment on them, even if it is just noticing when she is kind to her little brother or that you enjoy how she’s always singing. Whatever behaviors you acknowledge will grow.

As your children get older, their contributions should increase appropriately, both within and outside the household.

Kids need to grow into two kinds of responsibilities: their own self-care, and contributing to the family welfare.

Research indicates that kids who help around the house are also more likely to offer help in other situations than kids who simply participate in their own self-care.

But you can't expect your child to develop a helpful attitude overnight. It helps to steadily increase responsibility in age appropriate ways.

Invite toddlers to put napkins on the table, three-year-olds to set places. Four-year-olds can match socks, and five-year-olds can help you groom the dog. Six-year-olds are ready to clear the table, seven-year-olds to water plants, and eight-year-olds to fold laundry.

Studies show that people who take responsibility in any given situation are people who see themselves as willing to be different and stand out. That's the kind of kid you want to raise.

Age-appropriate responsibilities

So, what's age-appropriate? The list below will give you a frame of reference, but you'll need to adapt this chart to your own child and your family circumstances.

Remember to slowly build the degree of freedom and responsibility you offer your child, giving them as much help as they need to handle each level until they master it comfortably.

Note: Each section covers a number of years; children of the lowest ages of that range are just beginning to handle the listed items.

Responsibilities of toddlers

The foundation upon which to build:

• Their own bodies, within the limits of safety and decency

• Cleaning up their own messes,“That’s ok. Get the paper towels off the counter and let’s clean up that milk. We always clean up our own messes”

• What to wear, within the limits of appropriate season, safety, and decency

• Amount of food to eat—you provide the selection, they decide how much

• Getting the food into their mouths, unless they ask for your help

What book to read, even if you're reading to them

• What toys to play with

What toys to share, with the others getting put away before friends arrive

• When to use the potty—you can ask, “Do you need to use the potty before we leave the house?” but they need to check in with their own body and get to know its signals, unless you want to be in charge of their toileting for years to come

Responsibilities of preschoolers (ages 3 to 5)

All of the above, plus:

• Their own clothes—they choose them, within your parameters, and maintain them by keeping them in reasonably neat piles by category

• Their own rooms, within reasonable neatness parameters—they decide what they want on the walls, within reasonable limits (Parents will need to help them organize their stuff and work with them to clean up.)

• How much to eat

• What to eat, within appropriate nutritional guidelines—this only works if you limit accessibility of junk food (It does mean you have to decide what to do when they don't like what you've fixed for dinner. In our house, they can get a yogurt if they want.)

• Who to play with and when

• Whether to attend social events to which she is invited, excluding mandatory family events

• Who is allowed in their room

Responsibilities of school-aged children (ages 6 to 9)

All of the above, plus:

• How to wear their hair, within appropriate grooming standards

• Clearing their place from the table

• Simple chores around the house

• How to spend their allowance

• Completing their homework

• Getting their school backpack ready the night before

• How to spend their time, after basic responsibilities like homework are accomplished

• Whether to play an instrument or take a class

• What sport or physical activity to engage in (Given the research on this, physical activity in our house is non-negotiable, but they get to choose the type.)

• Fixing simple food for themselves for snacks and lunch

• Help make the family contributions for the class bake sale and other events

Responsibilities of preteens + ‘tweens (ages 10 to 12)

All of the above, plus:

• Packing their school lunch

• Self-grooming: nails, hair, etc.

• Walk with a friend from one point to another within the neighborhood as long as a parent always knows where they are (This is the first reason that a child needs a cell phone.)

• Stay alone in the house, with certain rules about who can be with them

Responsibilities of early adolescents (ages 13 to 15)

All of the above, plus:

• Get themselves up in the morning, though you may need to be the backup plan

• Do their own laundry, eliminating you from feeling like the maid when they suddenly need a certain item

• Temporary changes in appearance— permanent tattoos are out in my family till they’re eighteen, but temporary ones are their choice (Piercings are discussed on an as-requested basis, and are discouraged because of the risk of infection and permanent scarring.)

• Ride the bus and subway

• Go to movies with friends

• Earn spending money by babysitting or other jobs

• Budget their own spending

These lists focus on your child's span of control, rather than on tasks you want them to do.

There's a reason for that.

When you focus on a list of tasks your child "should" do, you end up creating power struggles. "By now you should be able to clean up your own toys!"

If instead, you focus on helping your child take charge of his life, and support him as necessary to learn each new skill, your child wants to step into each new responsibility. Instead of "holding him responsible," he becomes motivated to take responsibility for himself. It's a subtle shift, but it makes all the difference in the world.

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