The “Age Appropriate” Measuring Stick For Expectations is Broken

Many parent-child struggles are manifested by requests and expectations that are not “age appropriate.” It’s one of the first recommendations parenting “gurus” and “experts” recommend assessing when you’re sailing in troubled waters. While it’s a good concept (better than the normal alternative of expecting too much, too soon), it leaves A LOT to be desired. In fact, it has the potential to be destructive to the relationship.

I’m going to use two examples to help make this case, one smaller one, and one larger one…

Example #1: My almost 4-year-old daughter wanting me to get up and get ketchup out of the fridge for her sausage (and why I did it).

Example #2: A parent wants their 4-year-old to clean up their playroom when they’re done.

Let’s take a look at both of these examples from an “age appropriate” measuring stick and then from the approach that I recommend…

Example #1: My almost 4-year-old daughter wanting me to get up and get ketchup out of the fridge for her sausage (and why I did it).

Is it an “age appropriate” expectation for my daughter to get her own ketchup out of the fridge when I’m in the other room working (I work from home and need few distractions to stay on task)?

For some kids this age, this might not be an age appropriate expectation. In my specific situation, however, we’re talking about a 3-4 year old who gets her own oatmeal out of the pantry, opens the canister, puts the appropriate amount of water in it, pushes a chair over to the microwave, puts it in for 2 minutes, gets the cinnamon out of the cupboard over the stove, and then mixes it and eats it without any assistance.

Can she get ketchup out of the fridge? She gets everything else out of the fridge, so why not? She’s gotten ketchup out of the fridge herself in the past. By all accounts and the historical record, a ketchup deficit is a problem she’s equipped to solve on her own.

So let’s assume I say, “I’m working, you know how to get your own ketchup out of the fridge.” And then she melts down. Or we get into a power struggle where she’s making demands and I’m “holding a limit” because “I know what she’s capable of.” And then she has a meltdown.

Remember, this was an age-appropriate request. And I’m being a “peaceful parent.” I’m not yelling or raging or punishing or shaming or anything else. I’m very matter of fact. But is it the right move? 

Example #2: A parent wants their 4-year-old to clean up their playroom when they’re done.

Is it age appropriate? Many parents will say, “My 4-year-old has cleaned up their playroom before so I know it’s an age appropriate request.” That’s the measuring stick for which many things are determined to be age appropriate or not.

So the parent says, “You know how to clean up your room. I can’t let you play with any more toys until the ones you’ve used are picked up.” And then a meltdown happens. Or a power struggle ensues, followed by a meltdown. Maybe even a parental meltdown.

And once again, this is “peaceful parenting.” The parent is setting limits. The parent is very matter of fact and calm and not punishing or shaming or threatening.

The parents may fear that if they don’t hold this limit, their child will learn that they don’t really have to clean their room. Or the parents fear that if they help clean the room, they’ll always be expected to help and the power struggle will go on indefinitely.

There is legitimacy to those fears. And their request is “age appropriate.” But is it the right move?

The “age appropriate” measuring stick is often too black and white and rationalizes a less productive and less empathetic course of action.

For some reason, the default is to treat children differently than we treat adults. Even for those who have tried to detach from the idea of “training” children and “bringing them up” in the world, there are leftover ideas and feelings that continue to manipulate our choices and tactics.

When my wife or a friend asks me to get up and get the ketchup for her, I’m very unlikely to respond with, “You now how to get your own ketchup out of the fridge.” But she does. She knows. And I know she knows. So it leads me to think, “there must be a reason why she’s asking when she knows she can get it herself.”

Guess what? We can think the same about children. When I stop to ask myself, “why is my daughter asking for this when she’s capable of doing it herself and knows she’s capable of doing it herself?” a lot of insightful doors open.

But we don’t ask that question about kids. Instead, we get consumed with the fear that if we don’t train teach them to get their own ketchup, we’ll be failing as parents. So we stand our ground.

What if my daughter is asking me to get the ketchup for the same reason my wife or friend is asking me to get the ketchup? What if my daughter is asking me to help clean her room for the same reason my wife asks me to get up in the middle of the night with the teething baby when it’s her turn to do so?

Usually, my daughter gets her own ketchup without asking for (or demanding—kids!) my help. Usually, my wife gets up in the night when it’s her turn. So if they’re asking me (or otherwise freaking out), there must be a reason. What is it?

Pro Tip: Sometimes kids ask by melting down or whining. It’s not necessarily a logical, measured attempt at communication.

Instead of assessing whether an expectation is “age appropriate,” let’s start assessing the current PME resources of the human in question.

To be clear, this is a lesson I’ve learned the hard way and one that I’m still learning to this day. I’m a type-A, highly independent only-child. If I wanted something done in the past, I did it myself and I expected the same from others. This usually manifested as not being thoughtful or helpful. I’m not going to go into too much detail, but needless to say that the approach I’m about to outline wasn’t my default. But I’m glad to have figured it out…

The reason my wife may ask me to get the ketchup or get up with the teething baby when in the past she’s gotten her own ketchup and gotten up with the teething baby is because right now, in this moment in time, she’s lacking resources. She might be lacking physical resources—her body is physically too tired, her knees hurt, she has a headache, whatever. She might be lacking mental resources (probably not in this specific situation). Or she might be lacking emotional resources—she has no patience left, she’s drained, she’s starving, she’s stressed to the max, whatever.

My daughter might ask me to get the ketchup for different specific reasons, but all related to the same concept. In other words, she’s capable of getting her own ketchup, but at this particular moment her resources are too exhausted to close the gap and make it happen.

The ketchup seems trivial to me, but to my daughter, it’s the straw that might break her. Getting up in the night when it’s not my turn seems unfair to me, but it might be the straw that breaks my wife at this particular time.

Where my wife might begrudgingly drum up the energy to get her own ketchup if need-be or take the teething child downstairs, children don’t typically have this capacity. When their physical, mental, or emotional (PME) resources are low, it’s a nuclear meltdown. This is why children flip their shit over what seems like the smallest stuff (adults sometimes do this too, btw!).

When PME resources are high, kids are able to meet age-appropriate expectations. When PME resources are low, they’re unable to. So using the measuring stick of “age appropriateness” is a total failure since PME resources are dependent on circumstances that have nothing to do with the expectation.

If you’re in a situation where there’s a struggle or you foresee one, it’s helpful to do a quick PME assessment.

  • Does my child currently have the physical resources to meet my expectations (are there any physical barriers?)?
  • Does my child currently have the mental resources to meet my expectations (are there any intelligence/logic/reason barriers?)?
  • Does my child currently have the emotional resources to meet my expectations (are there are any mood-based barriers)?

This assessment has nothing to do with what your child has previously done. If they’ve cleaned their room 150 times in the past but they want your help right now and you hold the attitude that they need to do it themselves because they’re capable and this is “age appropriate,” then you’re totally missing the human angle. You’re being as detached and unempathetic as if you told your wife, “you’re capable of getting the ketchup yourself.”

So if you do the PME assessment and can put an X in ANY of the boxes, the situation doesn’t have to be about limits and expectations anymore. There doesn’t need to be a power struggle. You’re allowed to be a human who steps in to help another human, even if the task seems menial.

And you know what? You’re still teaching your child a lesson. You’re teaching them to tune in to what’s going on in someone else and to provide a helping hand if you realize that they’re exhausted or otherwise ill-equipped at the present time to tackle a certain task.

My daughter was starving. She was quickly running out of PME resources. I could tell that she just didn’t have it what it would take to push a chair over to the fridge and get the ketchup herself. So I got it for her even though it meant stopping the work I was doing and going to a different part of the house to help her out.

Maybe one day she might do something helpful for me when she realizes my PME resources are low instead of “pushing my buttons” the way so many parents describe…

  • Amber Ridgdill

    I hope more people come to think like this. I get told so often, “Children are not just little adults!”, While true in the sense that they may not reason things out in the same manner as adults with more life experience… this doesn’t mean that we can’t treat them exactly like we would treat any other human being, with compassion and understanding. I don’t have any kids of my own, but I’ve been raising other people’s children my whole life (nanny/babysitter), and one thing I always strive for is respect. Many adults feel as though children should just naturally respect their elders, but the way I see it we have to show that we respect them by treating them with respect, if we want them to respect us in return. Unironically, this is the same thing we do with adults. So no, children are not just little adults… but they are humans and deserve to be treated as humans, not as house pets to be trained to do things on command.

  • Patrick

    This is so true. Kevin, you have a way of clarifying my half thought out ideas. My parenting has improved significantly because of this podcast and your articles, can’t thank you enough.

  • Mairead

    Maybe it depends on how you define ‘age appropriate’. Getting her own ketchup when she’s feeling fine is age appropriate for your 4-year-old; but doing something like that for herself when she’s tired/hungry is not age appropriate. Whereas most adults, or much older children, would be well able (and willing) to get up and get their own ketchup even if they were exhausted (though getting up with the teething child could be a different story – that’s harder than going to the fridge for ketchup!). The problem, as I see it, is not the idea of ‘age appropriate’ but an inflexible attitude and not being tuned in to what’s going on for one’s child at the moment.

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The “Age Appropriate” Measuring Stick For Expect…

by Kevin Geary time to read: 7 min