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A teacher in the three-year-old class told me last week that she’s exasperated by a mother who comes in at lunch time to feed her child herself… by holding the sandwich up to his mouth so he can take a bite. This for a perfectly capable child who could very well hold the sandwich without any help.

Which begs the question, “At what age should children be encouraged – nay, expected – to manage key life skills on their own?” And why do we persist in doing things for our children that they could very well learn to do themselves?

The answer to the second question is “it depends.” The mother who insists on holding her child’s sandwich for him might be afraid that he will choke. Maybe the child nearly died once, choking on a bite of food, and Mom is terrified to let him eat alone. So this is a reasonable reaction, even as it’s also unreasonable to keep hand-feeding a preschooler. Sooner or later he will need to master this skill himself.

Another reason is that we just don’t take the time to teach. It’s much quicker to do things for our children than to wait while they work towards mastery. Practice may make perfect but practice takes time.

Along with this is the fact that children, even when they’ve mastered a skill, might be less effective at it than we’d like them to be. Children may know how to brush their teeth but they may not brush very well. So instead of patiently re-teaching or teaching the finer points once the basics are down, we take the brush back and clean our kids’ teeth ourselves.

Part of being a parent is teaching children what they need to know to get by in the world. Here are some skills every child needs to know, along with some typical ages at which children might master them.

2 years old ………Feeding himself
3 years old …….. Washing his hands effectively
3 to 4 years ……. Brushing his teeth effectively
3 to 4 years ……. Key personal information: parents’ names, his address, parents’ phone number
4 years old……… Wiping his bottom
3 to 4 years ……..Dressing himself: zippers, buttons and snaps
4 to 5 years ……..Putting on winter clothes
5 years old ………How to use a telephone to make a call
5 to 6 years ……..Bathing himself, including shampooing his hair
5 to 6 years ……..Tying his shoes
6 to 7 years ……..Telling time, including understanding duration of time
8 years old ………Ordering from a menu
9 years old ………Understanding sales tax
9 years old …….. Reading a map
9 years old …….. Reading a bus schedule
10 years old …… Doing his own laundry
10 years old …… Cooking a meal
11 years old …… Ironing a shirt or skirt
12 years old …… Balancing a checkbook
12 years old …… Understanding compound interest

Obviously, these ages are approximate and will vary from child to child.

If you’ve been thinking so hard about school skills that you’ve forgotten all about teaching your child life skills, you might want to insert these into your daily activities. Kids learn best by doing, so include your child in on shopping, cooking, and so on. Talk about how you make decisions and how you know what you know.

You may find that your child is reluctant to step up. It’s much easier to call Mom or Dad in to wipe a poopy behind than it is to do the job oneself. No one really likes to iron or even to wash his hair. So you may need to be encouraging and also less available.

But the child who can make his own sandwich – and can eat it! – knows something important. Be sure to give him the opportunity to learn.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.