Children's Hospital Colorado

Expert Tips from Just Ask Children's

Keep your kids healthy with valuable tips and information from the experts at Children's Hospital Colorado. Every month we answer parents’ top questions on a new topic. Sign up for our free newsletter to stay in the know.

This month's topic: What is the right age for my child to…?

Some parents might buy a 10-year-old their first cell phone, others not until the middle or high school years. One of your children may be itching to go to a sleepover at age 7, while the other shows absolutely no interest, even at 13.

Every child is different, yes. But are there some general guidelines parents can follow as their children get older and become more independent?

We asked Dr. Mindy Solomon, associate professor of psychiatry and clinical program director of the eating disorder program, and Dr. Christopher Stille, professor of pediatrics and section head of general pediatrics, to answer questions such as the right age for pets, cell phones, chores and staying home alone.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 22% of children reported using cell phones, compared with 60% of tweens and 84% of teens. There is no “right” answer for this question. Most children are interested in smartphones and devices even as babies. Usually, children between 10 and 13 start asking to have one of their own.

To make sure you don’t let your child go mobile too soon, evaluate your child’s maturity level and their ability to communicate questions, thoughts and feelings. Next, evaluate your comfort level in answering any of their questions.

If saying “yes” to a cell phone is going to bring up questions or situations that will be too much for you, you are not ready. If saying “yes” to a cell phone is going to force you to constantly monitor your child’s activities, they are not ready.

Giving a child access to a cell phone widens their world considerably. You need to set parameters, but you can’t expect these rules to stop an immature child from getting into mobile mischief. If your child isn’t ready to have their own phone, setting parameters is just not enough to stop them from being irresponsible.

The takeaway: You and your child need to establish trust with each other before navigating this new step together.

Read more about how cell phone usage, internet access, apps and social media can affect your child.

It’s easy to see why films like Star Wars and Batman video games appeal to children. They’re fun and exciting, they come with their own toys and kids overhear even the adults in their lives buzzing about them.

The age at which you let your child consume media that contains violence, sexual situations and/or drug and alcohol abuse depends on your child’s maturity level, temperament and personality. There are no hard and fast rules, other than children under 2 shouldn’t watch any TV.

Similar to getting your child a cell phone, exposing them to media is about opening them up to more of the world. Your relationship with your child should guide when and what you let them consume. And it’s never a bad idea to start by giving them limited access. Most cable companies and streaming services offer parental controls. Other resources to help you decide what to let your child watch include Common Sense Media and the Parents Guide in IMDB.

Learn more about children and their relationship with technology and find out tips for media exposure.

No studies to date have pinpointed any exact right age to start music lessons or get a pet, but both of these activities are great for your child’s brain development. If your child is interested in animals or music at a young age, you might want to consider encouraging it.

For a pet, it’s best if your child is capable of handling basic caregiving tasks (usually around ages 6 to 8), such as setting out water or food. Taking care of a living animal will foster discipline and relationship building.

For music lessons, if your child is interested before age 6, go for it! Just realize that their interests might change, and that participation at any level is more important than mastery.

Involving your child in household chores can help them establish responsibility, self-efficacy, discipline and a sense of community and teamwork — all positive things. Plus, your child will learn a valuable life lesson: Once we accomplish our have-to-dos there is more time for our want-to-dos.

Chores vary in appropriateness by age:

  • At 2 to 4, your child can rake leaves with a child-sized rake, wipe a kitchen table, clean up their own messes, bring dishes to the sink and match socks from the laundry. At this age, they will still need your side-by-side help.
  • At 4 to 8, your child can run a vacuum, sweep, help wash a car, shovel snow, load the dishwasher, help in the kitchen (be sure to have a non-sharp knife available for little ones), dust and load a washer or dryer.
  • After 8 your child can mop floors, clean toilets or showers, load the dishwasher, boil a pot of water on the stove, fold laundry, iron clothing and weed in the garden.
  • At 16 your child may be ready to operate outdoor machines, such as a riding lawn mower.

Until they are teens, do not expect that your child will be able to make regular housekeeping tasks easier. Involving children in chores at a young age is more about helping them in their development and promoting physical activity.

All children develop fine motor skills at different rates, but some general guidelines are:

  • Kids can brush their teeth by themselves starting around age 6.
  • Kids can shower or bathe alone as soon as they can wash themselves and make safe choices (like staying seated in the tub) consistently without supervision — usually around 7 or 8.
  • Kids can wear contact lenses when they can manipulate contacts and keep their hands very clean — usually around 12 or 13.
  • Kids can wear deodorant and shave their face and legs when they feel like they should — usually once puberty is in full swing, between 11 and 15.

Your baby must be older than 1 to eat honey. Honey may contain botulism spores that affect their immature digestive system and cause infant botulism, a rare but potentially fatal illness.

Popcorn is more of a choking hazard. Don’t let your child eat popcorn unsupervised if they are younger than 3.

If you have more questions about food safety, talk with your child’s pediatrician or primary caregiver. You can also talk to a pediatric nurse any time day or night by calling Children’s Hospital Colorado’s ParentSmart Healthline at 720-777-0123.

Children under 12 shouldn’t have caffeinated beverages of any kind, and teens should avoid them. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant, and it can affect your child or teen in numerous ways:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Raised heart rate
  • Nausea or stomach ache
  • Increased nervousness
  • Problems concentrating
  • Problems sleeping

In some cultures children are given weak tea or coffee in small amounts, and this is generally okay. The most important thing to remember is that if your child or teen feels like they want caffeine, that’s a sign that they need more and better sleep.

Read more about the hidden caffeine in energy drinks and sports drinks.

Because their brains aren’t as developed, babies don’t throw “want” tantrums in the same sense toddlers do. A baby younger than about 12 to 15 months is nearly always crying for a good reason, and so it’s best to figure out what that reason is and attend to it if possible. The same, it’s worth noting, might be true for toddlers. When a child is crying (or screaming, as they sometimes do), it’s best to figure out the reason first: is your child hungry or tired?

For toddlers, the reason may also be because they want something they’re not getting, like a toy. In these cases, ignoring is a great way to go — provided the ignoring option is safe and feasible. Attention, negative or positive, reinforces any behavior. On the flip side, ignoring a behavior is the tried-and-true way to curb it.

Of course, parents sometimes just need to take a break. If you’re feeling like you’re reaching the end of your rope, it’s okay at any age to put your child in a safe place like a crib or car seat, leave the room, shut the door and just take a break. A phone call to a friend or just a few deep breaths can go a long way toward soothing fraying nerves.

And if you’re worried about the length or intensity of your child’s crying:

  • Talk with your child’s pediatrician or primary caregiver
  • Speak to a caring pediatric nurse any time day or night by calling Children’s Hospital Colorado’s ParentSmart Healthline at 720-777-0123
  • Call the Fussy Baby Network® Colorado “Warmline” at 877-6-CRYCARE (877-627-9227)
  • Visit calmacryingbaby.org for information and resources

This answer depends on a couple of things, the first being your child’s relationship with the person who passed away. Did this person have an emotional impact or daily presence in your child’s life? Does your child miss them? Is your child sad that they died? Will keeping your child away from the funeral deny them an opportunity to process the death and join with family for a spiritual experience?

The second thing to consider is what type of funeral it is. If the funeral is somber or ceremonial, it could be distressing for your child. If the funeral is focused on closure or connecting with family and friends, and your child doesn’t attend, they might feel left out.

Additional guidelines include never forcing a child to have a reaction to death or attend a funeral. Also, as a parent, you must understand that if your child is under five, you cannot expect them to behave properly at a funeral or memorial service without supervision. They are simply not capable of understanding what it means at this young age. Be prepared to manage their behavior during the entire service.

The Colors of Healing program at Children’s Colorado has more information about family-centered bereavement.

First, keep in mind that all children are different. Some children are pretty responsible at a young age; others need frequent supervision until they are a teen.

In Colorado, the generally accepted guideline for leaving a child alone for short periods of time is age 12. Depending on your comfort level and your child’s level of responsibility, you can leave them for things like running a quick errand or during a 20-minute overlap between schedules.

Once a 12- or 13-year-old child has a history of being responsible and making good decisions during these “trial” alone times, they might be ready to babysit younger children on their own (as long, of course, as the parents are comfortable with a young babysitter).

Start out with shorter lengths of time (5, 10 or 30 minutes) when leaving your child in charge of another, then gradually work your way up to a few hours. Also, communicate to your child how you expect them to behave while you’re gone, and make sure they know how to call 911 and contact you and/or a neighbor during an emergency.