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11 Big-Kid Milestones

  • by Deborah Skolnik

    When you hear the word "milestones," chances are you think of all the cute little triumphs you jotted down in your child's baby book: his first smile, his first wave, his first...everything. That journal may have been misplaced long ago (have you checked under the Wii?), but these accomplishments are more than just a memory. In fact, your kid's still making major strides. Some of these quantum leaps will make your life as a parent a lot easier -- others will only create a whole new set of challenges. But no matter what, your job's about to get more interesting. We're giving you a heads-up so you'll be ready!

    5 TO 6 YEARS OLD

    Playing group sports

    Your child's not just getting stronger and more coordinated, he's also becoming more skillful at interacting within a group. "He's at a point where he can communicate well and follow directions most of the time," says Michael Wasserman, M.D., a pediatrician at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. Plus, he's got a smidgen of patience and can take turns (usually). In other words, bring on the little soccer cleats!

    As long as the parents on the sidelines don't behave like first-graders themselves and pressure the kids to win, group games are a great way to learn good sportsmanship, cooperation, and perseverance while getting some exercise. Just don't expect to see too much teamwork at first: "My five-year-old daughter, Eva, started T-ball this year, but I don't think the kids actually understood that they should work together to get more runs," says Erika Hanson of Fargo, ND. "Still, it's wonderful to watch a new, more organized level of playing together."

  • At first, the only way your child tore up the pavement was in a stroller powered by Mom's or Dad's elbow grease. Even when she moved up to a tricycle, it still seemed tame -- where was she gonna go on three clunky wheels? But all that changes once she's ready for a bike. Most kids can handle one (with training wheels for a while) by kindergarten or so. "That's when they have the necessary strength, balance, and muscle control," says child psychologist Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., coauthor of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy! Why You Shouldn't Say It...

    Your child will be thrilled with her newfound speed. You, on the other hand, get the unique experience of being simultaneously overjoyed and freaked. Let's face it: It's unsettling to see your child zip away faster than you can follow. But do your best to put only Proud Mom on display. "Give the message that she's powerful, and it's great," Cooper says. And try to make peace with the fact that even when she follows safety rules, your kid may take a spill. "Walk over calmly. Don't come running, hysterical, because it will just frighten her," he advises. "Show her that accidents happen, you take care of them, and move on."

  • "I spent years helping my kids into and out of their car seats," says Wanda Celgin of Villa Rica, GA, mom of Clay, 5, and Alicia, 6. "I smashed my fingers almost every day." But about a year ago, something wonderful happened: Both kids learned how to work the fasteners.

    If you're still battling to strap in a squirmy kid, your day of liberation, like Celgin's, is nigh. But be warned as well -- your child will also be able to free himself. In fact, for many kids, that skill comes first, since pulling a buckle out of a slot is easier than pushing it in. Now's a good time to explain why it's important to stay strapped until an adult gives the all-clear. Buy some car organizers, too, to keep your child's travel toys close to him; that way, he won't be tempted to retrieve his Transformer from the floor while Dad (never you) is doing 15 above the speed limit on the highway.

  • 7 TO 8 YEARS OLD

    Losing teeth

    Some children start dropping choppers as early as 5. "There's tremendous variation from family to family," says Dr. Wasserman. But by this age, it's the rare kid who isn't visited semi-regularly by the tooth fairy. The order varies, too, but the top front ones generally go first, then the bottom fronts. (No matter what, they're all bound to be simultaneously absent on class-photo day.)

    Your child will probably be happy to lose his first tooth, especially if friends already have (and then dazzled him with tales of dollars or Kooky pens under their pillows). Some kids, though, may be a little upset to see a part of their body go away like that, Cooper says. Others may be a bit nervous: "My eight-year-old son has lost several teeth and is concerned about how slowly the new ones are coming in," says Charity Hand of Hickory, NC.

    Reassure your child that new teeth will eventually show up, and don't be surprised if he lisps for a while: "Tooth loss can temporarily affect tongue placement and pronunciation," says Dr. Wasserman. If any teeth are coming in visibly crooked, ask your dentist if it's time for an early consultation with an orthodontist. Also, some baby teeth don't fall out on their own and need to be pulled. (But don't worry; it sounds a whole lot worse than it actually is.)

  • Sure, your kid's given you plenty of "help" around the house up till now. He's helped you stir pancake batter (though more ended up on the table than in the bowl), "make" his bed, and "sweep" the crumbs off the floor.

    Which is just one reason 7 and 8 are such great ages: Finally, kids can really do some chores. Not only are they big enough to reach more shelves and drawers, but they've also got the ability to categorize by fairly fine distinctions, says Dr. Wasserman. "My daughter Kaitlyn is seven, and she's designated one shoebox for her Nintendo DS games, one for her Littlest Pet Shop toys, and one for Polly Pocket stuff," says Lora Van Zandt Killeen of Odessa, FL. Kaitlyn also vacuums, makes her own bed, and takes care of her guinea pig and turtle.

    If your child hasn't stepped up to the plate -- and put it in the dishwasher -- give him a nudge, but lay the groundwork so he can succeed. Let him fix his breakfast, but create a fridge and pantry shelf where he can find good choices. Give him two hampers so he can sort lights and darks easily. Add on chores gradually, giving him time to master each new one. With persistence, you may yet be able to shed some of your double identity as mom/maid.

  • 9 TO 10 YEARS OLD

    Comforting herself after a bad dream

    Okay, let's state this up front: There are exceptions to every rule. "Amber's nine, and she still hasn't stopped coming to her father or me when she has a nightmare," says Sherri Schafrath of Ashland, OH. But sometime soon, a month will pass, and Schafrath (and you, too!) will realize it's been a while since her kid came into the bedroom at 2 a.m., still sobbing at the mental image of Dracula driving the family Prius.

    Congratulations! You've done your job right. All that comfort you've provided your child over the past decade -- from the cradling you gave her as a colicky infant to the boo-boo kisses on the playground -- has taught her how to soothe herself, Cooper explains. "The nightmare may still stay with your child, but she's able to tell herself it wasn't real," he says. "She may still tell you about it, but she'll save it for breakfast, or even for next week."

  • Quinn Daily, 9, loves to invite his friend Matthew over for pizza. The only problem is that his mom, Lisa, has no clue (and, consequently, no pizza). "A couple of times, the doorbell's rung and Matthew and his mom are standing there, and I had no idea they were coming. She and I look at each other and laugh, 'They've done it again!'?" says Daily, who lives in Sarasota, FL.

    What gives? "Nine- and ten-year-olds have better planning abilities now and want to be more independent," explains Cooper. Unfortunately, those planning powers may not extend to keeping you in the loop or getting the all-clear beforehand. Don't squelch your kid's desire to have more say in his schedule, but do sit down together with a calendar, show him the times that are free, and ask him to let you know if he plans anything for then. You'll have veto power, of course, if something important comes up, but he'll appreciate the freedom to decide whom to have over (or whom to finagle an invitation from) and you'll be glad for the heads-up.

  • Remember all those times your kid whined, "Mom, I'm booored," and you wished she'd get a hobby? You're in luck. She's reached that magic age where something can capture her imagination. Her interest may seem to come out of the blue, "but it's a sign that she now has key developmental tools in place -- good language skills, strength, intellectual abilities, and a good attention span, all of which you need to get drawn into an activity," says Dr. Wasserman.

    Go on and help develop that budding interest. If she likes soccer, for instance, take her to a local match and introduce her to a star player; if she loves to act, she might love front-row seats at a community-theater production. What's important is that you validate whatever turns her on: "Even if your child isn't a great artist, if she loves to paint, by all means encourage her -- it'll build her self-worth and self-knowledge," says Dr. Wasserman.

  • 11 TO 12 YEARS OLD

    Wanting to buy his own stuff

    Only last year, Andrew Nason, then 11, was happy to let his mom pick out his clothes. "But now that he's in seventh grade, he wants to choose," says Anne Nason of Acton, MA. She took him to a local store, where they had to compromise: "He wanted the skateboard look. I said okay, but no skulls," she explains.

    The desire to shop independently, or to have more say in purchases, usually pops up in the tween years, says Cooper. "Part of it is a desire to stretch their wings. It's also about forming an identity apart from Mom and Dad. They feel that who they are shows up in what they buy, as well as in their music and clothes." It's smart, within reason, to follow Nason's lead, giving your child a chance to express his preferences while setting general rules about what's acceptable, tastewise.

  • You're out of milk (again). But before you tear your tween from her Guitar Hero session and schlep her to the Might-T-Mart with you, think twice: Maybe your gal's ready to hold down the fort. "Many kids are mature enough by this time to know an emergency when they see one and to be able to handle it by getting help and leaving the house if necessary," says Dr. Wasserman. That doesn't mean she can babysit for you; you'll have to take the younger ones with you until you can trust her to watch them.

    Keep your kids' first home-alone experiences short and sweet. Tory Johnson began by leaving her 11-year-old twins, Jake and Emma, by themselves for only 15 minutes. "I'd be heading home from work and call their babysitter when I was halfway there to say she could go home," the New York City mom says. In a few months, the sitter was able to leave just as Johnson was wrapping things up at her office, and the kids would spend an hour on their own. Post a list of emergency numbers if you haven't already, and go over safety rules, of course -- then take the plunge. You may feel nervous, "but try not to call your child more than once to check in," Dr. Wasserman advises. "There's a fine line between checking in and hovering, and you need to give her the feeling that you trust her."

  • As anyone who's ever watched a Hannah Montana episode knows, tween girls are fashion-conscious creatures who love to primp. But they're not the only ones. "You know how you put a carrot in front of a horse to motivate it? You put a mirror in front of my son," jokes Lori Mackey of Agoura Hills, CA, mom of 12-year-old Devin. For him -- and many tweens -- it's more than just a matter of vanity. "In less than a year, Devin's grown four inches and gone from having baby fat to having muscles and a six-pack," Mackey says. "I think he looks at himself because he's happy about his new body, but also because he can't get over it."

    Devin cares a lot more about how others see him, too, she adds. "I used to look at his outfit and say, 'I need to iron those clothes,' and he'd shrug. Now he gets up an hour before school starts to make sure his hair is perfect and to decide what to wear, then pesters me to iron the wrinkles," she says. "It seems to come from a combination of things -- he wants to fit in and to be attractive."

    Respect your child's new need to look good, and spare him -- or her -- the long-winded lectures about spending too much time focusing on appearance (he'll do it no matter what -- didn't you when you were his age?). Instead, boost his self-esteem by telling him he looks great. And more important, adds Cooper, emphasize the other things that make him awesome, like the way he focuses on his karate or his trumpet lessons. Let him know how happy you are that he's growing up to be such a cool kid -- inside and out.

    Deborah Skolnik, the mom of a big kid and a little one, is a senior editor at Parenting.

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