Teaching Responsibilities to Children

two children making food together

Discover ways to encourage independence in your child and age-appropriate chores that will help teach responsibility.

As parents, our goal is to give children the skills they need to be successful, happy, productive and responsible adults. But have you ever wondered how that unfolds? When can a child be expected to do chores, for example? When is it okay for a child to walk to a friend’s home alone? It’s hard to come by precise age guidelines because every child and situation is different, but in this article, you’ll find some general ideas for making decisions about your child’s independence.

Whether your child is heading off to kindergarten or heading off to college, you’ll likely feel a mix of anxiety, pride, and excitement through every new change and accomplishment. Thinking intentionally about helping your child through each stage can go a long way in reducing your anxiety.

Tips for Encouraging Independence in Children

  • Break skills down into small, incremental steps.
  • Make sure your child has mastered one thing before moving on to the next level.
  • Don’t expect perfection. Offer repeated instruction when needed.
  • Slowly allow more and more freedom and responsibility as your child is ready.
  • Consider your child’s temperament, maturity, strengths, and needs, as well as your family’s individual circumstances.

Teach skills in small steps. The best place to start is to think about the skills your child needs to gain and where your child is now. Your job as a parent is to break tasks down into small, sequential steps, allowing for slow, steady growth.

For example, with household chores, you wouldn’t ask your four-year-old to clean the kitchen by herself. Instead, she would probably learn to take her dish to the kitchen after a meal first. As she gets older, you show her how to rinse the dish and put it in the dishwasher. By the time most children are in early elementary school, they can unload one part of the dishwasher – usually the silverware bin. In another year or so, they’re ready to unload the top or bottom compartment and then the entire dishwasher. From there, they can learn to load the dishwasher, start it, and wipe the counters.

This technique can be used for a variety of situations. A 3-year-old can help sort laundry. A 5-year-old can put folded laundry away in drawers. By the age of 9 or 10, most children can learn to fold laundry. And by early adolescence, children can do their laundry by themselves.

Leaving your child home alone is another skill to teach in small steps. Here’s how: When you first decide to leave your child alone at home, do it by going for a short walk in the neighborhood after you’ve reviewed safety rules. Once you and your child feel comfortable with that, you might head to a nearby store for 30 minutes. Eventually, you can leave your adolescent home for longer stretches of time. Throughout this experience, you’ll continue to review safety rules and monitor how your child is doing.

Consider your personal circumstances. As parents, it’s natural to take note of what other people’s children are doing at any given age. These observations can give us perspective and offer a starting point for understanding norms and milestones. However, they don’t take the place of thoughtfully analyzing our own situation. For example, you might live in a rural area or a small, suburban neighborhood. Your rules around playing in the neighborhood or walking alone to friends’ homes would logically differ from a parent living in a busy urban area.

Some children mature more quickly than others, displaying attention, willingness to follow directions, and an ability to make sound decisions at an early age. Others need more time to mature and more support along the way. You may even find yourself allowing one of your children more independence than another simply because of a difference in readiness.

Age-Appropriate Chores to Teach Independence

The list below provides some general age guidelines for when most children are ready for certain tasks. Keep in mind that all children will need teaching and support initially. Some children might be ready for these tasks earlier or later than indicated.

2 to 5 Years Old

  • Put clothes in hamper
  • Put toys in toy box
  • Sort laundry, find pairs of socks
  • Dress self

5 to 9 Years Old

  • Begin to load/unload dishwasher
  • Put laundry away
  • Help care for pets
  • Personal hygiene
  • Make bed
  • Make a simple snack

9 to 12 Years Old

As parents, we tend to fall to one extreme or the other: giving too much freedom too soon, or restricting our child’s growth for too long. Letting the reins out gradually gives children the independence they need while allowing you to teach skills and assess your child’s readiness.

Webinar: Boosting Your Child's Resilience & Independence

Watch our webinar, Boosting Your Child’s Resilience & Independence, to learn how simple, everyday experiences—like letting your child teach you something or getting involved in your child’s play—can cultivate resilience, grit, independence, and perseverance. 

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Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

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