When your four-year-old brushes his teeth, it’s a small tornado of toothpaste, saliva and water. And you have no idea if he actually removed any tartar from his teeth. And flossing? Please. So you begin to wonder, "Am I giving him tooth-brushing responsibility too soon?" As you see your child maturing and gaining independence, questions like these may be constantly running through your head.

Fortunately, Kathleen Gouley, Ph. D. and Clinical Child Psychologist at the NYU Child Study Center, has some answers. There are two main precursors in order for children to develop certain skills, says Dr. Gouley: “First, children must have the neurodevelopmental capacity to complete the task. Second, children must be given opportunities (by parents and caregivers) to practice completing the task, and given the support to do so.”  Gouley explains that parents will see small changes over time until their children have acquired certain skills. Then those skills become everyday tools for them, as they master writing, reading, or daily living skills like brushing teeth or dressing.

Wondering just when the time is right for your child to be getting the hang of things? Here's a quick guide to what your child should be capable of doing, and when. Dr. Gouley points out that every child develops at a different pace and there is a very wide range of what constitutes "normal." So unless your child swings way below or high above that range, you shouldn’t be too concerned.  However, if things are happening much slower than normal or there is a loss of a previously mastered ability, parents should talk to their pediatrician.

Reading and Writing

  • Reading - by age 7

For most parents, this is the grand-daddy of all skills. Reading to your child often and pointing to the words as you read them helps tremendously to develop their own reading capacity. Most children already know their letters by age 4 and are starting to recognize sight words and letter sounds. By age 7, story-time will transform into something beautiful - you'll go from hearing your own voice, to listening to your child’s.

  • Holding a writing instrument correctly; writing recognizable letters – by age 4

Generally, doctors like to see kids holding a pencil or crayon and making scribbles by their second year. By year three, they can hold a thinner instrument in a "tripod" position (getting ready to actually write). Then comes copying shapes (circles, squares, triangles) and writing letters (usually those of their name) by age four. Sometimes this skill develops early if the child has a fascination with letters. Keep in mind, though, that they’ll be continuing to hone this skill through elementary school. To encourage them to experiment with writing skills without the pressure, leave crayons and paper out and available for whenever they might want to scribble.

Daily Life Skills

  • Brushing teeth effectively - between ages 6 and 7

Start early with this one. Because teeth are so important, it requires a lot of initial supervision to get right. Encourage your child to try rubbing a brush around at a young age (before age 2), so he gets used to the feeling. After all, as long as you’re showing them the proper technique, there's no reason they cannot learn how to do it effectively. Don't worry about staying vigilant while your child goes through the motions - for the sake of dental health, it’s okay to be involved with this one for a long time.

  • Cutting food - by age 5

Similar to writing, this skill takes a bit of coordination and dexterity. By the end of his fourth year, a child should be able to cut his own food. But again, just giving him a knife and a pizza at five years old and expecting to get a slice out of it likely won't do the trick. He needs plenty of opportunities to practice, and plenty of positive feedback, too.

  • Dressing herself (matching not required) - by age 5

Your child getting herself completely dressed is the end goal. But, like reading, this process will be gradual. Your child should begin to aid in dressing in her second year, when she doesn’t quite have the coordination to do the job, but is beginning to help with the process. Typically by five years old, she will be coordinated enough to fully dress, although small buttons and zippers may still require help.

  • Tying shoes - between ages 4 and 6.

Unfortunately, many kids have Velcro today and are not familiar with shoelaces. To teach them how to tie with laces, parents again need to demonstrate and provide opportunities for lots of practice. Parents can invest in toys or dolls that are designed to develop bow-tying skills, or simply ease their child into the process with his own two feet, one day at a time.

  • The issue of Nighttime Dryness.

Parents often expect their children to be able to learn how to sleep through the night without an accident. But it's not a matter of learning: it’s a physiological development, one that generally occurs between ages 5 and 7. In order to overcome bedwetting, a child’s body must be able to recognize the signs that he has to urinate and compell him awake and into the bathroom. Again, there is a wide range of what constitutes "normal" in this area, so don’t be alarmed if your 7-year-old still wears a nighttime diaper or has accidents. Also, keep in mind that boys usually develop this ability later than girls, and may experience bedwetting problems until a later age.

Although parents may see failure to reach certain developmental milestones "on time" as worrisome, there is no evidence that suggests a child who develops any of these skills later rather than earlier will experience any future learning deficits.  Rather, says Dr. Gouley, this process merely reflects the profound variability in every child's rate of development. So before you go wondering whether your child well ever learn to scrub and spit without swallowing, remember: it's not a race!