9 Childhood Milestones and the Right Time to Reach Them

When are they ready for a sleepover? To have their ears pierced? Ride a bike? We'll help you find the sweet spots so you can make sure your kids' milestones are unforgettable—in a good way.

Right Time Milestone Do Chores Boy and Girl Holding Cleaning Supplies
Photo: Thayer Allyson Gowdy

It’s not easy to figure out the ideal age to introduce a new activity, skill, or privilege. But there is a right age for your child to do it, however: when she’s ready, says Robin Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Parenting Bible. And you can suss that out by looking for a few foolproof signs that she’s poised to master the next childhood rite of passage.

Answer the Phone

Your child is ready to pick up your phone while you’re next to him as soon as he can carry on a sustained conversation, at age 5 or 6. “Kids need to learn phone etiquette and to feel comfortable talking to grown-ups,” says Sally Tannen, director of the 92nd Street Y Goldman Center for Youth and Family, in New York City. Have him practice with you first, speaking clearly and rehearsing a greeting (“Who’s calling, please?”). By age 7, he should be able to answer any call, even when you’re out of earshot. He may not yet be a reliable message taker, though, so tell him to ask callers to redial and leave a voicemail.

Do Chores

Toddlers just love to help. By the time a child is 2, if he’s ready to play, he’s ready to pull up his covers, feed the cats, or scrub some dishes—as long as you realize that getting him to pitch in at this age is a matter of encouraging a habit, not having a tidy house. “If you make it fun and celebrate the job your child does, he’ll begin to learn that chores are a part of being a family,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D., author of Getting to Calm: The Early Years. Once he reaches 7 or 8, he’ll be ready to take on some substantial tasks—like cleaning the bathroom mirror and loading the dishwasher—if you are.

When it comes to chores, it’s more about your readiness than the kids’. Children this age enjoy taking on some responsibility if you have the time and energy to create a consistent routine, show lots of patience—even when they balk!—and understand that you’ll be doing most of the work as they learn,” says Dr. Kastner. Remember to stress teamwork, and with time, your child will increasingly take over the job, though it may be a year or two before he does it just right.

Brush Teeth Solo

If your kid wants to take control of her brush, challenge her to a spitting contest! “When she can take a mouthful and spit it back into the sink rather than swallow, by age 4 or 5, it’s okay to give her some autonomy,” says Ruby Gelman, D.M.D., a pediatric dentist in New York City. But just once a day. “If she brushes by herself in the morning, help her do an extra-thorough job at night,” says Dr. Gelman. Once your child has the dexterity to tie her shoes (around age 6), she’ll be ready to go it alone. Teach her to do the job right by practicing with your hand over hers; then set a timer for two minutes and tell her to keep going until it beeps.

Ride a Bike

Balance. Confidence. Excitement. When your child displays all three, between ages 4 and 9, he’s ready to lose the training wheels, says Ken Podziba, president of Bike New York, a nonprofit safety organization. Being able to balance on a scooter is a sure sign, but any kid itching for a two-wheeler can try. Do the “balance first” method: Remove the bike’s pedals and lower the seat so his feet rest flat on the ground. Have him push off and coast for ten seconds at a time. Once he can balance that way (it may take minutes or months), put the pedals back on and have him practice riding as you hold on in preparation for the moment you let go.

Drink From a Cup

Ready or not, by the time your child turns 1, she should ditch the sippy for everything but water. This isn’t a dexterity issue, but rather because she can carry the sippy with her. “Sipping drinks like juice and milk throughout the day bathes teeth in sugar and increases the risk of cavities,” says Marc Lewin, M.D., a family physician in Charlotte, North Carolina. Start with child-size cups of milk at meals, or have more fun and practice at bathtime! Fill a small, unbreakable cup halfway with a favorite beverage (at first) as an incentive, and let the drops fall where they may. It’ll probably be a great photo op.

Go On a Sleepover

If your kid is hounding you to let her stay over with her friend, consider it a great clue. “That’s the first sign that your child is ready, but she should also be a calm sleeper, not afraid of the dark, and comfortable telling other adults what she needs,” says Dr. Goldstein. Some kids might be ready at 6; others not until 7 or 8. Also remember to consider your own feelings: Are you willing to respond to a late-night “come get me” call? Once you can check off all these boxes, send her armed with a book to read until she nods off, a flashlight, and a strategy, such as self-soothing talk, for overcoming anxious alone in-the-dark feelings. “You might teach her to say to herself, ‘If I close my eyes and think fun and brave thoughts, this is something I can get through,’ ” says Dr. Goldstein.

Play an Instrument

Will she practice regularly with a little nudge? Can she focus on other tasks, like an art project or homework, for a half hour or so? These are important indicators, says Michael Blakeslee, executive director and chief executive officer of The National Association for Music Education. It also helps if your child can read, at least a little. “There’s a strong connection between reading words and music,” says Blakeslee. Age 6 is a typical age for a kid to start playing the piano, as long as her fingers are long enough to rest comfortably across five white keys. This is also a prime time to let a child start playing a kid-size violin or guitar. By fifth grade, your child will be ready for heavier instruments like the cello or the trumpet, and her mouth muscles and breath control will have developed sufficiently for her to take up a wind instrument such as a flute, an oboe, or a clarinet.

Get an Allowance

The question here is, does your child grasp money basics, like whether four quarters equal one dollar? “This understanding kicks in around age 6 or 7,” says Janet Bodnar, author of Raising Money Smart Kids—making it the right time to start doling out a little pocket money. Bodnar recommends this weekly allowance formula: 50 cents x your child’s age (i.e., $3 for a 6-year-old). Then give your kid the green light to pay for small expenses, like Matchbox cars or stickers. Soon, he’ll start learning to make financial decisions, such as whether to buy now or save for a bigger goal, and may want to earn cash by doing extra tasks. Let him!

Have Ears Pierced

When your child will wear her first earrings is a highly personal (and often cultural) decision. If you want her to have them right away, ask your pediatrician and don’t wait too long. “Toddlers tend to fuss with new piercings, so between 2 and 10 months is good timing for little ones,” says Rachel Smith, a registered nurse who owns an ear-piercing clinic in New York City. Otherwise, Smith suggests you wait until your child is ready to care for her own hygiene, taking responsibility for showering and washing her hair. At either stage, ask your doctor if she can do the procedure or recommend a professional she trusts, and be sure the first earrings are nickel-free (to help prevent your child from developing a metal allergy).

At What Age Can They...?

Readiness may vary from one child to the next, but here are some general guidelines for when your kids might be able to start tackling certain tasks on their own.

  • Wiping tush: 3 years, but parents should continue with spot checks and ensure proper hand-washing
  • Getting dressed:4 years
  • Clipping nails: 4 years, depending on non-dominant-hand coordination
  • Pouring liquids:4 years and up, depending on container size and weight
  • Clearing dishes:4 years
  • Showering: 5 years, with an adult within earshot
  • Tying shoelaces: 5 years and up, depending on dexterity
  • Using grown-up scissors:5 years, as long as an adult is in the room
  • Brushing teeth: 6 to 7 years (or earlier, as long as an adult is checking for thoroughness)
  • Making lunch: 9 years, with an adult monitoring for nutritional value

Source: Deborah Gilboa, M.D.

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