What is the Right Age to….

by Besty Brown Braun

Knowing when is the “right age” to give permissions and allow age related activities challenges all parents, especially with that first born child. After all, it is often the parent’s first experience not only with a child of that age, but certainly with YOUR child of that age. In addition, it may not be something with which the parent hasn’t had any experience, and she is traveling blindly.

As is the case with most of parenting, there is not one clear cut answer to any question; there is not one definitive way to do anything. Each child is a completely separate set of moving parts—experiences, abilities, maturity, genes, temperament, and characteristics. Therefore, a permission can be granted only with each individual child considered.

I can tell you for sure, that peer pressure should not be the overriding reason for any decision that you make. Your decisions need to be based on your child, his readiness and maturity, and not what his friends are doing, and on you.

Another truth is that it is that first born child is your “practice child.” You are a completely different parent with your second born. With experience comes not only less fear and more confidence, but usually a more relaxed attitude all around. You know your child won’t break, life will go on, fixes and do-overs are just fine. On top of that, often parents have a difficult time saying no to the second born, when the first born has been granted permission. Hence, the right age can be different, earlier for number two than it was for number one.

Therefore, you will notice that each answer begins with “It depends…” I wrote this phrase to remind you that your answers are not cut and dry. Answers will be different for different children, even different children in the same family, as decisions are dependent upon so many variables, including each individual child.

What is the right age for a child to be left home alone?

It depends…

First of all, know that some states have explicit laws about children being left home alone. These are different in different states. So, be sure to check your local laws. Some children will be ready to stay home alone at age 10 years and others won’t be ready when they are 13. And there is a difference in staying home alone at night and during the day time. There is much to be considered when deciding if your child is READY to be left at home alone. There are two major things to consider: 1) Does the child want to stay home alone? And 2) Is the child mature enough to stay home alone, to handle emergencies that could occur in your absence? The following is a link to a piece that offers come good questions to ask yourself as well as ways to prepare. Regardless of what age you decide to give it try, the ability to stay home alone is a process. It should be built over time, starting with a short period of time when you are very close by. Gradually extend the time and the distance, allowing the child to grow her confidence in being home alone.

What is the right age for a child to walk to school without an adult?

It depends…

While there are no legal guidelines or laws about this one, common sense tells us that children under the age of 8 years should not walk to school without an adult. And in this particular case, readiness to walk to school alone is a gradual process. Among the things to be considered are the walk itself—the distance, the length of time it takes, the traffic on the route, the area through he will pass. Of course, you must consider your child himself and his maturity. Is he streetwise (How aware is he when he rides his bike? Does he stop and look both ways when you don’t demand it? Is he easily distracted? Is he cautious enough?) In my book, You’re Not the Boss of Me, in the chapter on cultivating independence, I address this question at length on pages 45-47.

What is the right age for a sleepover?

It depends…

There is no set age for when a child is ready for a sleepover. Some children are ready and raring to go at age 5; others still can’t sleep without mommy or daddy in the home or in their bed.  Some children sleep at their grandparents’ or cousin’s home, but they would not be ready for spending the night at a peer’s home. Sometimes the child is ready, but it is the parent who is not. Readiness is an important component if you, the parent, love your sleep. If your child isn’t ready, you are likely to be making a middle-of-the-night pick-up run! I have clients who firmly say they will never allow a sleepover, as they are worried about the influence of the older siblings who may be there, they are worried about the parents’ ability to care of their child, or they simply do not trust anyone but family members. I want to go on record for believing that sleepovers are great for kids who are ready. Not only do they encourage their independence, self-reliance, and self-care, but they help them to see how different people and families can be. One of the ways that parents encourage their children’s independence is by showing your faith in their self-reliance. If you don’t trust in your child’s ability to make good choices for himself in your absence (at sleepovers), why should he trust himself? Parents who worry breed children who are worriers. Your comfort level will be an outgrowth of your having information. Knowing things like Who will be in the house? Where will the kids sleep? What are your rules for bedtime? How able is your child to ask for what he needs? will certainly help. And if your child is hesitant to do a sleepover but really wishes he were able, you might start with a sleepunder. A sleepunder is when your child stays at his friend’s home through dinner, bath, pj’s and story time, after which you pick him up. It’s a great way to start.

What is the right age to tell kids about Santa? (the Tooth Fairy? the Easter Bunny?)

It depends…

Some children figure out the answer to these questions long before we want them to. Others have older siblings who spill the beans. But by the age of 7 years, most children know or have an inkling that Santa isn’t real. (It often comes with the realization that Santa was at each of the stores you visited for your holiday shopping that day.) While parents may love the innocence that accompanies believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy, they fear they will be outed as a liar of sorts if they fess up. Rest assured, it is likely that you will not be the one to have to tell your child. He will, however, come to you for verification. That is where you will need the discussion on the topic in my book, You’re Not the Boss of Me in the chapter on honesty, pages 132 to 135.

What is the right age to get a cell phone?

It depends….

This is a decision that many parents do not research well enough and about which they often fall victim to peer pressure. When your child claims that EVERYONE has a cell phone, make a few calls and ask those parents how it’s going for them.

Just ask the parent of the third grader who begged and pleaded for a cell phone, professing his mature trustworthiness and responsible nature, and promptly lost his phone. Or ask the fourth grade parent who sees that his child uses the phone only for online games.

Before making the cell phone decision, a parent needs to ask herself if there is a need for the phone. (To a child most wants become needs!) Then look at the child’s track record for being responsible, for taking care of his possessions, for following through on family rules, to name just a few examples of his readiness for a cell phone.

Many of us long for the character building that happened before cell phones were available. Children used to be told to be at the park entry at 5 pm. If they weren’t there, the park privileges were gone. Today we simply call them to come out. No responsibility needed. So be sure to give some thought to what your child will not learn by having a cell phone.

A cell phone is a computer. Having one gives the child access to many of the things for which you have carefully put parental controls on your home computer. Is your child ready for the easy access to the great World Wide Web when you are not there to supervise?

If it is a matter of you needing to be in touch with your child, consider getting him a phone, just a phone. Procure for him one that has room for three contacts: home, Mom’s work, and Dad’s work.

Many experts agree that a good age for a child to have a cell phone is middle school. Sometimes that is 6th grade and sometimes it is 7th. That seems to be an age and context when children are given and respond to more responsibility more successfully.

Regardless of when you grant that urgent wish, be sure to have a cell phone contract that delineates the responsibilities an consequences that accompany having a phone. And if you really want him to be invested in his phone, make sure he is responsible for some, if not all of the monthly cost, too. (What?! Your child doesn’t have an allowance yet? Uh oh. Better go to You’re Not the Boss of Me again.)

What is the right age to shave her legs?

It depends…

For some young girls, shaving their legs or arm pits is merely a show of being grown up. In that case, it is a good idea to set an age at which you believe it will be okay. That is typically around 12 or 13 years old.

For others, shaving is a genuine need. With the onset of puberty coming at such varying ages, for some as early as 8 or 9 years old, the quality of the body hair changes, becoming darker and coarser. Their need to shave feels urgent to the growing young woman. There are some girls who are just plain hairy. I have heard stories from clients about their daughters who refuse to wear skirts or short sleeves, lest their hairy legs or pits show. This reality goes beyond peer pressure. To be teased for something over which you have no control and which seems socially unacceptable (unless you live outside the U.S.) is quite painful. Young girls may not realize that shaving and using a razor can be tricky business. They may not realize that once you begin shaving, it is something that has to be done on a regular basis. Girls who are older, in the 12 to 14 year range, are likely to have the maturity to handle a razor in such a way not to cut themselves.

In the event that your young daughter is one of those who needs to remove the hair because she is particularly hirsute, perhaps a depilatory cream is a good idea. Sometimes Mom helping to use a scissor to cut the few arm pit hairs will do the trick, too.

What is the right age to have email, to have a Facebook account, to be on Instagram?

It depends…kind of.

When a child should have an email account generates a wide variety of opinions. This answer truly does “depend.” It depends upon your child and the context in which your child lives, as well as on your feelings about his entering the lightning speed of the World Wide Web. Email is certainly a sure fire way to practice keyboarding, writing, spelling, grammar, reading…all of are necessary. We also know that 80% of the world’s email is spam, and many young children do not have the maturity to recognize spam and filter it out immediately.

There are schools who give their students email accounts within the school community only. Doing so can quench a child’s thirst or fuel it. There are families who share a family email account which is another way to enter the world of cyber communication. Each family will have to decide for themselves.

A few points to consider are: What is the reason he wants an email account and will he use it? How responsible is your child? Is he a reasonable rule follower? How mature are your child’s communication skills, especially when he is an emotionally elevated state?

Email providers have different minimum age requirements which will help you to make your decision. And you can always try your child out with the internet by observing his usage of your family email address. Without question, email use can only happen when the child is old enough to understand your very clear, firm, and pointed usage rules and why you need to have them. Without question, a contract between you and your email using child is necessary.

While there are parents who choose to allow their children to have Facebook or Instagram accounts, they are in fact breaking usage rules. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter Pinterest, Kik and Snapchat social media vehicles, say that children must be THIRTEEN YEARS OLD in order to register for service. Therefore, the answer to when is the right age for any of these is 13, according to the law. However, when that right age arrives, there will still be some children who will not be ready to follow your rules for usage. For them even older might be the right age.

With this in mind, it is imperative that you have some form of a contract for usage with which your child must comply.

What is the right age to get your ears pierced?

It depends…

Ear piercing is one of those practices about which parents have different opinions. It is something that is socially acceptable. But body piercing is a whole different story. While ear piercing has been around forever in our culture, piercing other parts (tongues, lips, belly buttons, nipples, genitals, facial areas) is just starting to be more common among certain groups of people. However, with young, preteen children piercing anything beyond ears (a single hole and only on the lobe) is what most parents agree is acceptable.

There is a cultural component to ear piercing. Some cultures will pierce a baby’s ears as soon as she is born. Others frown upon it, believing that our bodies are on loan, not to be desecrated in any way. Medical doctors suggest that a family wait at least 6 months until the infant’s immune system has time to develop, as infection are not uncommon.

Experts in the field agree that the right age for ear piercing depends upon the child’s ability to take responsibility for the care of her ears (to guard against infection) as well as the parent’s strong feelings about it.

When a parent has strong feelings, as hard as it often is for the child to accept, she just might have to do so. Life is very much about compromise. It is a good idea, however, to let the child know at what age it will be okay for her to pierce her ears. A child can handle a disappointment much better knowing that there is a light at the tunnel, regardless of how dim it may seem right then.

What is the right age for body art?

It depends….

Body Art (body pierces, and tattoos, otherwise known “ink,” and unusual hair dyes) has certainly grown in popularity. As with all fads of this kind, it usually starts with college age and older and dribbles on down. Look at fashions for kids today. Abercrombie’s styles which were initially aimed at the 18 to 25 year old sector, are now popular with teens and even tweens. Tween clothing mimics the styles worn by older kids and adults. It is not a surprise that children enjoy wearing faux tattoos and piercing. Just last night in a restaurant I met a client whose 9 year old daughter had pink hair. Her mother assured me it was semi-permanent!

Almost every state has laws addressing some aspect of body art, and at least 45 states have laws prohibiting minors from getting tattoos. Thirty eight states have laws that prohibit both body piercing and tattooing on minors without parental permission.

Thank goodness a parent can fall back on the law in some cases. But whether you allow your child to change his/her hair color or have a different haircut is a more difficult decision. No laws about that! And we know that this is one of the ways that kids distinguish themselves and stand apart from his parents’ fuddy duddy world. Thankfully, hair grows and color washes out. However, the answer to these has everything to do with your personal opinions and your ability to calmly and rationally communicate with your child. A flat out NO without hearing the child’s point of view, will surely backfire, perhaps leading to sneaky behavior. For these, I suggest a conversation wherein your child feels s/he has been heard. Giving the child an idea about when it might be possible (when you are in high school; when you are old enough to pay for it, etc…) will make your decision more palatable. Or you may decide that for your teenage child it is a good way for her to express her individuality harmlessly. Hopefully, you will have had a calm discussion about all of the possible repercussions of being so noticeable before the shower water runs purple.

What is the right age to wear make-up?

It depends…on you!

Many little girls 2, 3, or 4 years, and some little boys, upon observing their mommies putting on make-up, are eager to give it try. Parents don’t have trouble with this, knowing that it is just a part of typical development, playing grown-up and trying on different roles. But when the 10 or 11 year old starts to ask for make-up, parents blanch because she is so young, too young. Make-up, clothing, hairstyles fall into a nebulous area in parenting, as there are no rules. Most parents feel that wearing make-up at an elementary school age sends the wrong message, and it feels wrong. Wearing makeup for dress up or for costumes is a whole different story. And your child can experiment with wild outfits, crazy hairstyles, and fancy make-up when he or she is at home.

Regardless of your rules, it is a good idea to emphasize how beautiful your daughter is without make-up. Explain that she doesn’t really look like herself when she is made-up. And, of course, you will add that beauty grows from the inside out; how one makes up her face does not make her pretty or attractive. You are attractive because of the kind of person you are. Likely, it’s the same lecture your parents gave you!

To this end, when the time comes for wearing make up outside the house, and that could be middle school – 13 or 14 years old – start with a very light touch. Lip gloss followed by mascara will feel special to the child who has worn nothing.

Parents will exert their influence on their children when it comes to their health, safety, and family values, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Your child will rebel, but your influence, opinions, and advice do make a difference in the big picture.


Betsy Brown Braun, best selling author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents (HarperCollins) and You’re Not The Boss Of Me: Brat proofing Your Four To Twelve Year Old (HarperCollins), is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant, and founder of Parenting Pathways®, Inc. Her parenting expertise has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Real Simple, American Baby, Cookie, Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, In Style, Parenting, Parents, Pregnancy and Newborn, Twins, Woman’s Day, and, Working Mother, Colorado Parent Magazine, Ohio Valley Parent Magazine among other publications. She has shared her expertise on the Today Show multiple times. Other television appearances have included Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray, The Early Show, Good Morning America, Entertainment Tonight, Fox & Friends, Hallmark’s Home and Family, KCBS, KNBC, and Fox News LA. She contributes to KNX news radio on child development, and has been a guest on countless radio programs nationwide, including NPR. www.betsybrownbraun.com