When Are Kids Old Enough?

Featured Picture Book

IF I CROSSED THE ROAD by Stephen Kroninger

(Available at your local public library or bookstores, including online stores.)

IF I CROSSED THE ROAD is a simple book that tickles a child’s imagination and reminds parents that even before a child is allowed to do this or that, he is thinking about what it would be like to do this or that – in this case to cross the road. One simple quote from the book tells the whole story. Even though the main character is not allowed to cross the road he announces to all readers, “But I’m not too little to THINK about it.” The next twenty pages are full of fun things the little boy thinks he will do when he is finally able to cross the road. His plans will delight listeners and invite parents to think about kids’ imaginations and the challenge of figuring out when children are old enough to cross the road or any other growing up task.

Parenting Thoughts 
Being Too Little

Dr. Mom:  A friend of mine who is quite short and petite once told me she hated hearing adults tell her she could do things when she “got bigger.” At a very young age she had already figured out that she would never be “big.” To her, waiting until she was bigger meant probably never.

That real life story has always reminded me of the following points about deciding when a child is old enough – or big enough.

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1.  If it is chores we are talking about, I highly recommend Elizabeth Crary’s book, PICKING UP YOUR SOCKS. It outlines the typical ages that kids are able to do household chores. It helps parents get a general idea of what to expect from their children. But in the end, you should make your own decision about when kids are ready based on what you see in your own child. No one knows your child better than you do.

Darling Daughter:  Sometimes it is hard for a parent to be ready for the child to be ready.  It is easy to miss the signs (or ignore the signs) and keep “babying” him and not expecting more of him. 

Dr. Mom:  You have said it in a nutshell. We need to watch for the signs, get out of their way, support their success, and provide a safety net. 

2.  Decisions about what your child can do or not do – whether it is chores or privileges (like crossing the road) – should be based on more than just age. Consider all of these things:

  • Age. Is my child around the age that many children do this?
  • How the child handles emotions. Can my child think and feel at the same time? Does he control his emotions pretty well? Is he over the top – out of control – when he is angry or frustrated? Is he totally distracted when he is excited?
  • What the child is like as a decision-maker. Does my child decide to do the right thing and the safe thing most of the time – even if his friends are pulling him in a different direction?

3.  Remember that every child is different, even those in the same family. What one 6-year-old is ready for another may not be. Treat every child as an individual case.

The Beauty of “What If”

IF I CROSSED THE ROAD is a full book of “What If” imagination. Sparking children’s imaginations helps their brains become sharp, prepares them for new experiences, and provides loads of just plain fun. Parents can play “What If” with their children about all sorts of things – upcoming fun events (a vacation), scary events (a trip to a new doctor), unknown but interesting situations (other cities, states or countries), or recent not-so-good experiences (a fight with a friend).

Another great thing about “What If” is that you can play it anywhere – in the car, on a bus, in a waiting room, at a restaurant. It takes no equipment other than brains and willingness to use them.

All you have to do is ask a “What If” question and let your child imagine himself in that situation. By listening to his answers you can learn how he feels about the situation, what he likes or doesn’t like about it, what to expect of him in the situation, and what preparation he may need to be comfortable or successful in the situation.

I have found that once Ezzy got into this game it was hard to pull her back out to reality.  She would keep going and going and going – like the Energizer bunny.  This is definitely a game that needs a time limit or an agreement that when one person wants to stop the game stops – no whining, fussing, or complaining.  The problem is it tires out my brain before it tires out her brain. 

Good advice.

Healthy Hassling

For children who are ready to be pushed to think different ways about things, healthy hassling can be added to “What If” games. Note the word, “healthy.” The hassling I am talking about has important rules that make it helpful and not hurtful. It is an idea I learned about from my friend and mentor, Jean Illsley Clarke.

Healthy hassling means that you are going to push your child’s thinking by taking different viewpoints, asking hard questions, and pointing out problems with how your child is thinking. Doesn’t really sound like such a fun thing does it?

It can be fun for a child, if you are careful not to use it as a way to force your opinion on the child. It can be a chance for the child to run wild with his imagination and his growing ability to think. Because it is all done as a thinking exercise, he can attempt to “one-up” an adult without being considered disrespectful. However, for healthy hassling to work and not turn into a lecture, argument, or put-down there has to be rules:

  1. “What If” can be played with any child who can describe what he is thinking, but the healthy hassling part is only for older children who can think about different opinions, values, and solutions – usually children will be ready sometime between six and twelve. The child must be mature enough to consider many different ways of thinking about things. The child needs to understand that each action a person takes leads to another action that might be a good result or a not-so-good result.
  2. Before you try healthy hassling, you should explain the process to the child and give her lots of examples of what it is like. Both the child and the adult have to understand how healthy hassling works. See the example below.
  3. Both the child and the adult have to agree to hassle. If you are going to play “What If” about a situation and you want to stretch your child’s thinking, ask your child if it’s OK to hassle him a little bit. Tell him you want him to show you how sharp his thinking is. You should have already explained what healthy hassling is and given him examples of it. If he gives the OK, you can proceed. If not, you can still play “What If” to give your child a chance to think through the situation at hand and prepare for it, but you should just be a listener. Avoid responding with “Yeah but ….” when you hear what he has to say unless you both have agreed to hassle.

 Basically, when you hassle, there are no wrong answers. It is about the process, and there are many ways to answer. So, I have to be careful not to “judge” the answers.

 If you are concerned that the topic (or the temperament of the child) will lead to  answers that should not go unchallenged (For example, Then I will beat him up.”), you can set some ground rules like “No answers can be about hurting people or putting people down.”

  1. Both the child and the adult need a signal that says you are done hassling. It can be “I’m done,” a wave of the hand or anything else the two of you have agreed upon. This signal is the safety valve. If either of you begins to feel angry or upset about what is being said, it is time to stop. The purpose of healthy hassling is to stretch the child’s thinking, not to set rules or convince the child how he should think about something.
  2. No name-calling or put-downs should be used by either person. Healthy hassling is all about “Yes but what about …” as a way to get the child to think differently about the situation. It’s not about arguing about who is right or wrong. Any discussion around permissions or rules should be separate from “What If” and healthy hassling. Healthy hassling should only be about things that kids actually have choices about – not about the house rules.

Thanks to Jean Illsley Clarke (SELF ESTEEM A FAMILY AFFAIR) for these ideas about healthy hassling.

Here’s a short example of what healthy hassling might sound like inside of a “What If’ game.

ADULT:            “What if you had a car of your own?“

CHILD:             “It would be great. I would never be home.”

ADULT:            “So I couldn’t count on you anymore to do your chores.”

CHILD:             “I think if you are old enough to have a car, you are too old to have chores.”

ADULT:            “I like that thought. I won’t need to fix dinner every night anymore.”

CHILD              “Wait a minute, I didn’t mean that. I’m not sure what I meant. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

ADULT             “OK, thanks for thinking about this with me.”

One Step at a Time

When you know there is a new experience coming up for your child, plan ahead.  If it is a privilege you are considering giving the OK for (like crossing the road), do it in stages. First let your child cross with you, but have her make the decision about when it is safe and give you the “go” signal. Once you see she makes the right decision every time, set a limit on how far on the other side of the road she is allowed to go. Gradually increase that limit as she proves she will follow the rules.

If it is a new experience your child he may not know how to handle, prepare him. Pretend. Act out what will be happening. Show him what he should do in the situation. If you expect him to act a certain way and do certain things, now is the time to explain and teach him how – before he is actually in the situation. For example, teach him how to shake hands. Practice looking people in the eyes. Give him examples of what to say when he meets someone new.

If it is an event your child is excited about, imagine all the wonderful things about it, but don’t overdo this part. Sometimes we create such perfect pictures in our minds about what the upcoming event (vacation, sports outing, carnival, etc.) will be like, and we talk about it for so long ahead of time that the event can’t possibly live up to the dream. What can happen is that the child ends up feeling disappointed at the actual event, and no one, including the child, really understands why. If experiences like this happen over and over again, a person can spend a lifetime searching for the “perfect” experience – which of course never happens. Many of us as adults are caught in this search. It probably started when we were children.

We spend quite a bit of time in our house talking over events or activities, and E does like to point out the things that weren’t perfect about them. I try to turn the focus on the good things. Sometimes I add, “Such and such happens sometimes, but it was OK because it led to … (something good). E usually then joins me in thinking of more ways that the not-so-perfect part turned out OK.

 Read All About It

GROWING UP AGAIN, Jean Illsley Clarke and Connie Dawson

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH? Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson, and David Bredehoft

PICK UP YOUR SOCKS, Elizabeth Crary


 Surf the Internet:
  • self-esteem
  • chores for kids
  • overindulgence
  • imagination in kids
  • healthy hassling
  • perfectionism

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