Kids’ Age of Independent Task Performance

Learning to perform tasks independently is crucial in child development: it’s how kids learn to be independent adults.  Parents often wonder what age their kids should be before they are allowed to perform certain tasks independently.  The truth is that there is no magic age for independent task performance as there are always variables to consider.  These variables include (but are not limited to) the kids’ maturity (which is different than their age), the likelihood of harm resulting from potentially premature independent performance of the task, the severity of the potential harm, permanence of any potential harm that may be done, and the necessity of the independent performance of the task.  What follows are five examples of tasks and some of the variables to consider regarding kids performing these tasks independently.

1. Crossing a street alone.  How eager or frightened are your kids at the prospect of crossing a street alone?  How well traveled is the street?  Is there a lot of traffic?  Are there objects that create obstacles such that seeing oncoming traffic may be difficult for someone as short as a child?  How safe is the neighborhood?  Is there a lot of crime?   How well do you know your neighbors?  Are your neighbors friendly and trustworthy?  Are your kids patient and reserved enough to wait for traffic or would they dart in front of cars in the hopes of “beating” them?  Are your kids diligent enough to look both ways every time they attempt to cross the street or are they easily distracted or forgetful?  At what time of day or night would your kids be crossing the street alone?

2. Walking to a friend’s house alone.  How eager or frightened are your kids at the prospect of walking to a friend’s house alone?  How far away does the friend live?   How many hazards (such as those listed in the paragraph above) exist along the path to the friend’s house?  How conservative are the friend’s parents: do they feel strongly that it is important that you drop your kids off at their house rather than have your kids come over unescorted?

3. Flying in a plane alone.  How eager or frightened are your kids at the prospect of flying alone?  How risky are the airports and locales into which your kids would be flying?  Are all involved airports in the United States and Canada?  Will your kids have to pass through customs on their journey?  After speaking with airline employees, do you believe that gate crews and flight attendants will keep watch over your kids to ensure their safety while in transit?  How many changes of airplane would your kids have on their journey?  How long would any of their lay-overs be?   Are your kids reserved enough to be mindful of stranger danger or are your kids gregarious enough that they tend to visit with anyone and everyone around them?  At what time of day or night would they be flying?  Would whoever they are flying to meet be able to meet them at their destination airport or would your kids have to maneuver picking up their luggage at baggage claim and finding a taxi or bus to transport them to their ultimate destination?

4. Going to the grocery store alone.  In addition to the questions asked in #1 above, how far away is the grocery store?  Would your kids be carrying much money as they walk to the grocery store?  Are the employees and customers at the grocery store friendly and safe?  Does the grocery store attract high-risk people who loiter in its vicinity?  Are your kids tempted to purchase sweets and point-of-purchase items or would they purchase only those items that they were sent to purchase?  Are your kids able to carry the size and weight of the groceries to be purchased?  If so, do the groceries obstruct their vision such that it would be more difficult for your kids to see and respond to hazards?

5. Clothes shopping without a parent.  In addition to the questions asked in #1 and #4 above, how prudent are your kids regarding clothes selection?  When they select the clothes that they will wear every morning, do they choose well or do you have to send them back to their rooms to change into something more appropriate (i.e., appropriate for the weather, appropriate for the destination or event, better matching outfits, etc.)?  Are your kids cost conservative or are they drawn to purchasing the most blingy or cool thing they see?  For example, if they can buy one pair of really cool jeans or three pairs of every-day jeans, what would they choose?  Do your kids like racy or age-inappropriate clothing?  Are your kids able to judge what clothing items fit them properly and flatteringly?

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