How Much Should Children Do for Themselves -and When And How Should They Learn?
By Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D. 

Many parents wonder when their child will be old enough to dress himself or pick up his own toys, and to take care of other tasks for himself. With many tasks to teach, we want to know when and how to teach them. Self-care tasks are generally taught before children start learning family chores like setting the table.

What You Need to Know:

1. Here are the most common of the many, many tasks we need to teach our children, and the typical ages of “beginning” and “mastering”:.

  • self-feeding: 7 months to 2 years
  • hand- and face-washing: 1 to 3 years
  • tooth-brushing: 1 to 7 years
  • carrying their things in from the car: 18 months to 4 years
  • dressing and undressing: 2 to 4 years
  • toileting: 2 to 4 years
  • blowing their nose: 2 to 5 years
  • putting away toys: 2 to 5 years
  • putting other things where they go, like crayons and shoes: 3-5 years
  • putting dirty clothes in the laundry: 3-5 years
  • clearing their plate from the table: 3-5 years
  • making their bed: 3-6 years
  • tying their shoes: 4-6 years
  • washing themselves in the bath: 4-6 years
  • packing their backpack: 4-7 years
  • hair combing and brushing: 5-8 years

2. You may wonder whether kids will just pick these skills up on their own if you don’t teach them. Some do but other don't. Many children would be content if those things were done for them. But if we keep doing things for our kids that they’re capable of, we become resentful and almost continuously annoyed at our kids. In addition, children should be taught these skills at the appropriate age to help them feel competent. When your child sees that her peers are blowing their noses or tying their own shoes when she’s not, she'll feel less sure about herself. And she may not be ready to learn the next skill. (For example, not being able to dress herself means she can’t pull her pants up and down for toileting.)

3. It’s important to have a sense of when to teach specific self-care tasks, so that you don’t pressure your child when he’s not ready. Expecting a two-year-old to completely wash himself and shampoo his own hair is unrealistic and would create too much stress for him.

4. Make sure you set an example. You won’t make much progress with your children if you leave your plates on the table, your clothes on the floor, and your bed unmade. (Raising kids often helps us improve some of our own less-than-stellar habits so our kids have less to overcome in their lives.)

5. Self-care tasks should be taught with small steps. So if your child is starting to dress herself, you want to build on that – encouraging her to pull up her pants the way she did last time and helping with the next step of putting on her shirt.  You don’t want to be inconsistent, reverting to doing it all yourself when she has been making progress. This is upsetting and confusing to the child. If we take over the task the child is supposed to be learning, she may become more resistant to doing it herself. Encourage your children by asking a little more of them with time, praising them, having a race, or offering something fun to do afterward.

6. One frequent problem that delays kids’ progress is that we take over the tasks when we’re rushed. If you pay attention, you may realize that sometimes you could have left the task for the kids to do later. When it’s truly necessary to rush, make sure your child knows why: “I’m doing it this time very, very quickly so we can get to the airport on time.”   

7. With preschoolers, you can make the self-care task fun and/or interesting to get more cooperation. As children reach three years and older, you may find that knowing which task to work on at what age, using small steps, being consistent, and making it fun still aren’t enough. You may need to use consequences for the three-year-old who won’t get his teeth brushed, the four-year-old who won’t bring things to the car, or the five-year-old who won’t blow his own nose.  (Possible consequences may include time-outs, taking privileges away, or several practices in a row of better behavior.)

By teaching self-care tasks, we also help our kids internalize important life skills such as health and grooming, doing tasks on time, organization and responsibility – all important in our children’s development.

Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., author, has been a child/parent psychologist and a specialist in childrearing and child development for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Emerald Hills, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg was the founder/director of the Child Rearing parenting program in Palo Alto, California, and is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They?, Why Do I Have To?, I Like To Eat Treats,  I Don't Want to Go to the Toilet, I Want To Make Friends and I'm Getting Ready For Kindergarten. These are all-in-one books with a story for preschoolers and a manual for parents. Her new series is for elementary school childen and their parents. The first book is Why Can't I Be the Boss of Me? (2015). For more information about her books and to read her articles, visit To find out about her counseling practice and her speaker presentations, go to

Perfecting Parenting Press 2015