Should I Expect My 6-Year-Old to Do Their Own Laundry?

Ashley Wagner, OTD, OTR/L, Director of Occupational Therapy at FamilyForward

As a parent of three school-aged children, I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I am teaching my kids the skills they will need to take care of themselves when they’re adults and asking myself questions like: Will my 4-year-old be a failure if I brush their teeth for them? Does making my 13-year-old’s school lunch every morning mean they won’t be able to feed themselves as adults? Should I expect my 6-year-old to do their own laundry?

As an occupational therapist (OT) whose job is helping children engage in the important activities of childhood, I have spent a lot of time teaching children to tie their shoes, get themselves dressed, and make simple meals. So, you might assume I have all the answers about when children should be expected to perform certain activities.

But the most important lesson that I’ve learned as an OT is this: There is no single answer for when a child should be performing specific tasks.

Instead, as an OT (and a parent), I ask myself these four things to determine if expecting a child to do something is reasonable.

  1. Does the child have the skills they need for success?

Before a child can tie their shoes, they need to be able to tie a simple knot.

Sometimes, as caregivers, we ask our children to do activities they’re not ready for and put ourselves and our children in stressful situations where they feel like they’re letting us down, and we question what we’re doing wrong. It’s important to remove judgment from ourselves and our children in those moments and figure out how to teach needed skills or break up the task so our children can use the skills they do have to be successful.

  1. Is the environment and situation supportive of the child’s success?

You probably wouldn’t ask a friend to draw you a map while they’re riding a bicycle or to solve long division in the middle of an emergency.

Often, supporting our children’s success means finding the right environment and situation in which they can succeed. So, instead of asking the teen who’s a zombie in the morning to pack their lunch before school, we may have them do it when they’re more alert at night. Or we may brush our toddler’s teeth for them on tough days where they could use some extra TLC and have a little less chance of failure.

  1. Why is this activity important?

Sometimes, we get stuck in the habit of expecting our children to perform tasks at certain times or in specific ways because that’s what we’ve ‘always seen done.’

Different families have different routines, rituals, and meanings surrounding the activities in which they participate. There is no one right way to do things. So, it’s valuable to evaluate where the importance of an activity comes from. Is it important for safety reasons? Is it important because it brings joy and a sense of connection to you and the child? You may find that you’re spending a lot of energy on an activity that’s not important to you or your child just because you assumed your child needed to do it in a certain way or by a certain age.

  1. Do I have the capacity to coach the child on this task right now?

For children who have experienced early adversity or trauma, this is an essential question to ask as their caregiver. Just like we can’t expect our children to perform at their best when they’re not in a situation that supports their success, we can’t expect to be the best coach for our children when we’re not in the right situation. This may not be the right time for you to teach the child this skill. And that’s okay, too. Remember: ‘not right now’ isn’t the same as ‘never.’