The Best Age for Your Child to Get a Smartphone and Experience 11 Other Milestones

When it comes to our kids, we struggle with so many decisions on their safety and security. We've reached out to the experts to find out the best ages for kids to experience common childhood milestones.

Go on a sleepover

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The right age for a sleepover depends on your child and his maturity level, though generally it's in the range of 7 to 12 years old, shares Edward Kulich, MD, who provides house calls in the New York area with his practice KidsHousecalls. A kid who has had frequent sleepovers at grandparents' homes or has traveled frequently may like sleeping at a friend's home. On the flip side, your child may be a creature of habit and need a lot of mental prep to change up her routine and be away from you overnight. (That's why some elementary schoolers may be too young for sleepovers.) And if he's going through a tough situation like a divorce, death or moving, it may not be good timing for a sleepover. The best candidate? A kid who is begging for permission for a sleepover rather than one who is intimated by it. "Consider doing a trial run of sleeping over the house of a relative or close friend to help you assess whether your child will benefit from a sleepover or is too young to handle the experience," says Elizabeth Berger, MD, a child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. Then, do another trial run, having her invite a friend to your house for an overnight. That way she can see what a sleepover is like before having one at someone else's home. "Get to know the family who is hosting the sleepover and make sure that solid communications are in place," says Dr. Berger. And be forewarned about letting high schoolers have sleepovers; they may use them as an opportunity to drink. Here's how to talk to your teen about alcohol.

Get a smartphone/tablet

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These days, it seems like kids can use a smartphone or tablet as soon as they're out of the womb. Seriously—some kids can even use these devices better than adults and can navigate them before they can speak. Regardless, the topic is up for debate. "No one agrees on this," says Dr. Kulich. "Some people give iPads to their one year olds and some don't let their kids touch a screen until age 14." In his opinion, most kids are mature enough for a phone around 10 to 11 years old. Before giving him his own, consider your child's level of maturity and ability to deal with these devices that give them instant access to the world. Go over the rules and expectations of using this technology. "Young teens who aren't as mature may need firm limits on these devices," says Dr. Berger. Warn them about what makes texts and pictures inappropriate. Be sure they fork over the phone or tablet to you before bed so they get a proper night's rest. Remember that the phone is your property—you have the right to take it away at any point. And once you do get them a cell phone, you'll want to read these strategies for getting them off of it.

Stay in the car while you pop into a store

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Dr. Kulich says this answer depends on your state's laws for leaving a child home alone. "Some say 10, some say 14 and some don't have a specific number," he says. "Most pediatricians go by state laws and round up for maturity level and common sense." Dr. Berger adds to also keep your behavioral habits in mind. "Some children might panic in such a situation, and others might recklessly leave the car, embarking on their own adventures," says Dr. Berger. If you do leave the car with the kids inside, take the keys with you and turn the car off. Windows should be open on a warm day or closed on a cold or rainy day. And be sensible about where and when you do it. Leaving them in a car in the middle of the day in the parking lot of your younger child's school where there are plenty of responsible adults around is likely safe for an older child, but think twice before leaving the same child in the car in the dark in a strange neighborhood.

 

Stay home alone (day/night)

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Staying home alone is a childhood rite of passage. Still, each state has different legal rules about kids being alone. "The characteristics of the neighborhood and child are variables which might change the answer here, as well as how long you'll be gone," says Dr. Berger. To be home alone a few hours, he should be 13 or 14 and mature and comfortable enough to be left alone and able to follow rules. Just because their friends can be home alone doesn't mean your kids are ready. Some kids may be fine if you're at a school function for an hour in the afternoon but not up to being alone while you're dining out an hour away. "A brief time alone at home during the day might be appropriate for a younger child than a long period of time at night," Dr. Berger says. Not sure if they're ready to be left alone? Do a trial run. You can wander the local mall while they're home by themselves. Give them emergency contact numbers and review first aid skills and meal instructions. Show them how to lock the door and tell them not to answer the doorbell if they don't know who it is. Call him to check in. When you get home, ask how he felt while you were away. For overnights alone, beware of older kids who may feel pressure to host a party. If you feel your kid won't cave to peer pressure, go for it, and ask a neighbor or friend check in. Check out how else to know your kids are ready to stay home alone.

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Walk to school alone

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When deciding when kids can walk to school alone, consider their reasoning skills and ability to follow directions. Assess how far away the school is, your community, traffic, sidewalk and crossing guard presence, and the weather. "Children under nine can't accurately judge the speed of oncoming cars, so they shouldn't cross streets alone," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey, and coauthor of Growing Friendships: A Kids' Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. Once he turns 10, Fran Walfish, PsyD, (Dr. Fran) a child, couple, and family psychotherapist in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child says you can let him walk to school in a small group. Before he does that, choose a safe route together. Remind him to stick to well-traveled streets, cross at crosswalks, look both ways, avoid shortcuts, and walk (not run) across intersections. "Bad guys know how to stake out good neighborhoods," says Dr. Fran. "Sit down with your child and teach him how to protect himself." She says he should know not to get into a stranger's car and to run in the opposite direction if a car approaches him.

Use a public restroom alone

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The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children feels that kids of any age shouldn't be allowed to use public restrooms alone. What if she protests going in with you? Dr. Kulich says the age you let him go in alone depends on where you are and your child's maturity level. He says in uncrowded spots, kids should be at least six to seven years old and you should be waiting outside the restroom, but in a more crowded situation, like a baseball game, the child should be at least 13 to 14 years old. Dr. Berger adds that you should consider if your child can reach the soap and paper towel dispensers without help and know not to touch everything. With a child of the opposite sex? Find a unisex or family restroom, says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Look for ones with only one entrance. Ask a security guard or employee of the restaurant, mall or wherever you are to help you. Don't let her be escorted in with a stranger; you shouldn't trust anyone. "Tell kids to run out or scream if they don't feel safe," says Andrea Corn, PsyD. a child and family psychologist in private practice in Boca Raton, Florida. Stand in the doorway and speak to her during his time in there. Say something like, "Are you washing your hands now?" Don't be afraid you're embarrassing her; at least you'll know her hands are clean. "Being overprotective here isn't a bad thing," says Dr. Corn. Find out more about public restroom etiquette.

Shower by themselves

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As soon as your kid asks to have some privacy and you feel that he's actually getting clean, consider letting him shower alone (or with you sitting on the toilet nearby). That's age seven to eight, depending on maturity level, says Dr. Kulich. Dr. Corn agrees, saying kids may be self-conscious and want to be alone, especially if they're bathing or showering with a sibling of the opposite sex. "They want their privacy respected," she says. "Listen to your child." You also want him to be safe so you're not worrying that he'll slip or hurt himself. Once he's ready, buy a nonslip mat. And remind him that he can get hurt if he's playing games or acting silly in the shower. Find out if you're bathing your kids too much.

Read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or other popular YA books

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See what age the book is geared for. Harry Potter, for example, is aimed at 9 to 12 year olds. Also, look at the main character's age; kids usually like to read about others who are around their age or a little older. Harry is 11 in the first book and 17 by the final one. "These fantastic titles are meant to be read one per year, as they were released and as children grow," says Melissa Walker, author of eight young adult novels and the new Middle Grade, Let's Pretend We Never Met. "Each one gets progressively darker and ages up. The first one is perfectly fine for age eight, but the last one? You might want to wait until age 11 or 12, depending on your child and his response to darker material." Since The Hunger Games series is violent, Walker recommends it for 11 year olds and up. "This trilogy speaks to many issues that kids may see at play within our current political system—a reflection of reality lies here," says Walker. "That said, the story is about a spectacle where 24 teens must kill one another until only one survives." Ask kids questions about what they're reading. "When in doubt, read it aloud together," says Walker, who raves about the benefits of bonding over reading. Don't miss which college uses Harry Potter to teach psychology.

 

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Get a Facebook page/use social media

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At younger and younger ages, kids are asking to participate in social media. Consider following the terms of use for Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook—age 13. Yes, kids may be begging to start social media under the legal age of 13, but there's a reason for that minimum age. Ask yourself if she can use it healthfully and respectfully. "It depends on her maturity, ability to understand the risks of an Internet presence, and if she can take responsibility for what she's seeing and posting," says Janie Feldman, PsyD., a New Jersey licensed psychologist. Once she's active on social media, join the sites she's on yourself so you can get familiar with them. "Require your child to provide passwords and full access to her account," says Dr. Feldman. "She should also 'friend' you so that you can follow all her posts." She should know all her followers in real life. And should tell you if anything strange or bad (like cyberbullying) happens. Check out the nine lessons all parents should teach their kids about social media.

Go on an overseas trip

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Yes, some babies hop on a plane to meet their grandmother practically the day after birth. "I know this sounds bad, but as soon as your child is old enough to watch an iPad, then the flight itself is probably fine," says Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry blog Crankyflier.com. "Before that point, not so much. But every child is different." He says you should also consider what country you're visiting. "If you're an American, then you can probably go to the United Kingdom without much trouble finding food your child will eat. But going to Japan, that's going to be tougher. Still, it's at the parents' discretion." Dr. Corn feels that kids will remember and appreciate being in another country around age nine. It will stimulate their curiosity and imagination. "When they're younger, they're more in the moment," she says. "They're complaining their feet hurt or that they're tired. It's a richer experience for older kids." Once you're there, don't cram too much sightseeing into one day. Otherwise, they'll be overstimulated and exhausted. Check out how to make travel with kids easier.

Carry a credit card

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More than one in three 18 to 29 year olds have never had a credit card, according to a report by CreditCards.com. The survey also asked Americans when they think someone should get their first credit card in their own name. The average response? Age 22. Getting a credit card early can help your child build a credit history and credit score before he really needs it to buy a house and do other things in life. Plus, if you get him one while he's living at home under your wing, you can watch how your child handles credit and debt. Consider your child's maturity and how much he knows about money management and paying bills. "A teenager who is regularly employed and who already handles money matters may be ready for a credit card," says Dr. Berger. If you don't think your child is ready, wait until he's 22 or 23 (and out of college).

 

Go to Disney

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"So many people have different views on the best age to go to Disney and get heated when they're challenged on the topic," says Michelle Giampaglia, CTA, and owner of Magical Memories by Michelle. She says there's no right or wrong answer on the best age to visit Walt Disney World. "A lot depends on how many children you have and the temperament of the child/children." Children under three are free in the parks and at character meals, says Giampaglia. "So that's a big pro for many!" she says. "It also happens to be one of the most child-friendly places in the world, if not the most." Another factor to consider is if parents plan this to be their one and only visit to Disney. "Then they'll often wait a little longer so they'll remember it more." Be forewarned that many rides have height requirements. Once there, limit how much time you spend at the parks in a day. That way everyone doesn't get overstimulated and exhausted. Here are differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland you never knew existed.

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