When Mary Jo Ludwig's son Jones was 6, he put his foot down. They were at the market one day and he had to use the restroom. So the Baltimore mom pulled him inside the women's room along with his younger brother, Paxton, like she always did. However, Jones insisted that he didn't want to use the ladies' room anymore and he was going into the boys' room instead, she recalls. "And from that day on, that's what he did."
Parenting can be tricky, especially figuring out when your child should hit certain milestones that aren't covered in the book. When can you put away the high chair? At what age can kids play alone in a childproofed room?
Of course, every kid is different. "Children will follow their own developmental timeline, and parents need to individualize their decisions based on their own child," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. However, these general guidelines for what your child can do at what age should help.
Try it at 1 year The risk of suffocation is greatest for the 0-to-1 age group. And while babies 6 to 12 months old might be able to change position if a toy became lodged next to their mouth, they can't always, so it's better to play it safe and wait: Once a baby reaches his first birthday, he should be strong and agile enough to push a stuffed animal out of his way to prevent it from interfering with his breathing.
Try it at 18 months to 2 years "Giving toddlers the opportunity to play by themselves fosters a sense of confidence and independence," says Kenneth Wible, M.D., a pediatrician at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Missouri. Some kids will find a way to get into trouble even in a childproofed room, but in general most kids this age should be safe for short periods of time as long as you stay within earshot, says Dr. Wible. While your young toddler may still suffer from separation anxiety, she no longer needs you constantly by her side. Kids at this age may have the attention span to play for ten to 20 minutes on their own, as well as the manual dexterity to enjoy their toys more. If your toddler is super clingy, she may not be ready for this step; the only way to find out is to let her try.
Smooth the transition Reassure her that you'll be close by, and don't go any farther away than the next room. Never leave her alone with food because she could choke without your knowing. Leave the door open (secured by a safety gate if the room you're in is not childproofed) and make sure your child can always find you easily and quickly, advises Dr. Wible. Likewise, you should always be in a position to look at what is going on with your toddler every few minutes, especially if there's silence. If you need to leave the area for a minute or two, to answer the door or phone, your child will most likely be safe. But it's best to pick up your toddler and take her with you so it won't seem like you're sneaking away, which can undermine her trust.
Try it at 2 to 3 years To make this move, your child has to be tall enough to sit on a chair at a table, strong enough to sit without support, and agile enough to not fall off the chair, says Dr. Brown. Kids this age also begin to protest about being isolated because they want to be able to join their family at the dinner table.
Smooth the transition If you can adjust the high chair to table height, just remove the tray and pull the chair right up to the family table. Your 2-year-old may balk at being strapped into the high chair, but he may not be physically ready to sit in a grown-up chair. In that case, you can set up a small picnic or kids' table in your kitchen that allows him the freedom to sit big-kid-style without the risk of falling from a real chair, recommends Dr. Brown. Another option: Have him sit on a booster chair, which will give him extra height and the security of safety straps while still letting him join the rest of the family at the table.
Try it at 2 to 3 years Dr. Brown recommends keeping little ones in a crib for as long as possible because it's a secure environment. Most kids can safely remain in their crib until 2 or 3 years of age, she says. You'll know that your child is ready to graduate when she starts trying to climb out of her crib or use it as gymnastics equipment.
Smooth the transition If you're ready to move your child to a bed, you'll want to make sure her room is totally kid-proof. "The key here is totally. That means if you have a cute bookshelf in the room, it needs to be fastened to the wall so she can't pull it onto herself," says Dr. Brown. "Also make sure all power cords and drapery cords are inaccessible." If the rest of the house is not completely child-safe, either lock the bedroom door or install a security gate in the doorway to make sure your toddler stays put until you come and get her.
Try it at 4 years Hot dogs and grapes are two of the biggest choking hazards because their round shape allows them to easily get wedged in a child's airway. Young children are at greatest risk of choking on food, because their molars don't come in until at least age 2 or 3. "Until then, children can bite big chunks with their incisors, but they don't have the teeth to grind up their food," says Dr. Brown. However, even after your child's molars come in, it will take a while for him to learn how to chew effectively.
Smooth the transition Before age 4, avoid the dangerous circular shape of hot dogs by cutting them lengthwise into sticks; cut grapes into quarters or halves. Insist that your child always sit down at the table while eating instead of jumping or running around, which increases the risk of choking. While younger kids may have trouble sitting through meals, children 4 and older should be able to beat the squirmies long enough to finish a hot dog or a bunch of grapes. Also, remind your child to chew his food thoroughly before swallowing.
Try it at 4 to 5 years Most 4-year-olds have the fine motor skills to scrub grimy elbows and lather shampoo on their head, according to Dr. Wible. They're also going through that "I want to do it myself" stage in which they're trying to assert their independence from Mom and Dad. When your kid starts insisting on picking out her own clothes, getting dressed without you, or finishing the Olaf puzzle without your help, she's probably ready to handle bathing herself. However, you still need to be there: Young children should never be left alone in the tub because they could drown or scald themselves with hot water. You may be able to leave a healthy, mature 4- or 5-year-old alone for a brief period, but only you can make that judgment call.
Smooth the transition Review the basic steps to a bath, fill the tub for her, then hand over the soap and washcloth. The first few times you may have to guide her hands and shield her eyes as she washes up or dumps the bucket of water over her head to rinse off the shampoo. When she's finished, resist pointing out that she missed a spot, even if her feet aren't as clean as they would be if you were doing the scrubbing. "It's important to relax your standards," says Dr. Wible. "Give your child positive feedback so she'll feel like a success and be motivated to act independently again."
Try it at 5 to 7 years "Most kids know whether they're a boy or a girl by the age of 3, but by 5 to 7 they start to feel out of place in the wrong restroom," says pediatrician Alan Greene, M.D., founder of DrGreene.com. In addition, if your child is using a restroom to change in (for example, to get into his bathing suit before a swim lesson), this is the age when modesty kicks in and he won't want the opposite sex to see him nude or partially naked. (School-age kids also start to feel uncomfortable seeing members of the opposite sex undressed.) Of course, when kids request to use a gender-appropriate public bathroom they will have to go by themselves if there is no same-sex adult to bring them.
Smooth the transition Before sending your child into the restroom alone, go over the duties he'll have to perform -- such as pushing open the bathroom-stall door and using the soap dispenser -- to make sure he can do them on his own. This is also a good time to review some basic safety rules about strangers. Stress to your child that using the bathroom is a private activity and no one should talk to him or touch him. "Tell him to just go in, do his business, and get out," advises Dr. Greene. While he's in the bathroom wait right outside the door just to reassure him (and yourself) that he'll be fine.
Try it at 10 to 11 years This depends on many factors, such as your child's maturity, how busy or dangerous the street is, and how well-marked the intersection is. In general, however, the older elementary-school set should possess the focus and reasoning skills to safely cross the street without an adult walking them. "Children younger than this get distracted too easily to pay enough attention to their surroundings, especially if they're talking to a friend or are on a cell phone, so they may make a bad judgment call and dart into traffic," says Dr. Greene. Even if you're in the habit of driving your child wherever he needs to be, crossing a street alone is a good skill for kids to learn before they head to middle school or junior high, which don't always provide crossing guards.
Smooth the transition Choose a small street for your child's first solo crossing. Remind her of all the basic traffic-safety rules -- looking to her right, left, then right again; making eye contact with the driver stopped at the intersection before crossing; watching for cars turning or backing up -- cross it once together, then let her walk alone. Continue to let her practice on quiet streets and slowly build up to busier intersections.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Parents magazine.